An Exchange of Views: Will Endorsing Republicans Teach Turncoat Dems the Right Lesson?

Labor Opens the Door to Republicans

by Steve Early, Labor Notes Policy Committee Member

"Independent political action” is a phrase long used in labor circles. It describes union efforts to reduce their dependence on the employer-dominated political parties and experiment instead with worker-based alternatives.

Lately, the phrase has taken on a different meaning. Activist unions with past ties to the Democrats are now demonstrating their “independence” by embracing Republicans -- such as New York Governor George Pataki-whose overall labor records can be equally or more disappointing.

Among the unions involved are SEIU and HERE-perhaps soon to be joined by UNITE as well.


Although hailed as a new strategy, this is actually an old and conservative one. Many building trades unions, the Teamsters, and some state teachers organizations have long supported incumbent Republican mayors, governors, and state legislators in return for special interest favors. In recent years, AFL-CIO central labor bodies in Los Angeles and New York City either endorsed Republicans Richard Riordan and Rudy Giuliani, respectively, or stayed neutral-instead of backing challengers with strong pro-labor records.

Until reformer Ron Carey was elected president of the Teamsters Union in 1991, the Teamsters backed GOP presidential candidates-from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Sr.-on a regular basis.

In 2004, the IBT may well endorse the Republican candidate again. President James Hoffa allied with Bush, Jr. on drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge-an environmentally disastrous scheme blocked by the U.S. Senate in April. Hoffa threatened Senate Democrats from Michigan and New Jersey with loss of Teamster support if they opposed this Bush initiative.


The Teamsters’ Michigan body endorsed right-wing Republican Congressman Peter Hoekstra, who has a near-zero pro-labor voting record. But Hoekstra is working on a deal between the White House and the IBT that would end judicial oversight of the union. If this goes through, Hoekstra confidently predicts that his friend “Jim will support those who have supported getting the federal government out of their union.”

What’s new about the current, much broader labor flirtation with the GOP is the involvement of people assumed to have more liberal politics than Hoffa. AFL-CIO Political Director Steve Rosenthal, once a top staffer on the Democratic National Committee, now wants to endorse as many as 75 Republicans in Congressional races this fall, as part of the “much more pragmatic approach we’re developing.”

Hailed for his own pragmatism in a Wall Street Journal profile, SEIU President Andy Stern predicted that SEIU would endorse Pataki for re-election-and embrace acting Massachusetts governor Jane Swift, a lame-duck Republican so lame that even her own party has since dumped her. To “open doors” to other Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the Bush Administration, Stern has hired former Republican National Committee chairman Richard Bond to serve as an SEIU consultant.

Meanwhile, over at HERE, President John Wilhelm says he’s now basing the union’s political giving “on what supports organizing.” Wilhelm apparently thinks that some Republicans do-because 20 percent of HERE’s federal political action money has gone to GOP candidates in the last two election cycles.

In Massachusetts, HERE Local 26-the union’s largest New England affiliate-has used a nonpartisan approach for more than a decade. In return for patronage appointments and “access” to the governor’s office, Local 26 has consistently broken ranks with most of organized labor to back Jane Swift’s two Republican predecessors. One of them, William Weld, was a notorious privatizer and enemy of state employees. Allied with Local 26, he campaigned for tax cuts that would have devastated unionized public works projects, as well as state services to lower-income, immigrant workers like those who belong to HERE.

Some recent endorsements of Pataki in New York are based on more substantial quid pro quos. In January, 1199-SEIU President Dennis Rivera worked closely with the administration to secure legislative approval of a $1.8 billion health care financing plan that provides $700 million for pay increases for many of the union’s 210,000 members. This deal will be funded via a cigarette tax increase, more federal Medicaid money-yet to be allocated by Congress-and the $1.1 billion proceeds of New York Blue Cross-Blue Shield’s conversion into a for-profit entity.

HERE favors Pataki because he recently signed legislation that would make it easier for the union to organize at casinos on Native American land. (The state will not approve casino development plans unless tribes allow union recognition by a simple “card check” procedure.) However, whether the tribes wage a legal fight to defend their sovereign right to ignore state and federal labor laws-as has happened elsewhere-remains to be seen.


In Manhattan, voters recently rejected a Republican candidate endorsed by many of the union officials now in the Pataki camp. After a longtime incumbent stepped down, a special election was held that offered a rare opportunity to reduce the Republican majority in the State Senate. The Democrats put up a veteran community activist and well-known progressive named Liz Krueger.

The Teamsters, building trades, central labor council, and 1199 all backed the hand-picked candidate of State Senate President Joe Bruno, a key Albany power-broker. Bruno’s man lost 59 to 41 percent-thanks, in part, to grassroots campaigning for Krueger by members of CWA and other unions allied with the state’s new Working Families Party.

To examine these divergent approaches to political action, Labor Notes asked four unionists-from New York, New Jersey, California, and Vermont-for their comments about the value of “teaching the Democrats a lesson” by embracing the GOP. (Dennis Rivera of 1199-SEIU and Greg Tarpinian of the Labor Research Association, who has served as a consultant to Rivera, Hoffa, and Pataki, were invited to participate in this exchange but declined.)

For more information, go to (Vermont) and Both parties’ activities are described in Spoiling for a Fight: Third Party Politics in America (Verso, 2002) by Micah Sifry.

Unions Should Fight for All Working People --
Not Members Only

by Bob Master, Co-chair, New York Working Families Party

The recent flurry of labor endorsements for New York’s Republican Governor, George Pataki, highlights a paradox:

On the one hand, Pataki’s lavish courtship of unions reflects a recognition of labor’s real power in New York State. That power is rooted in its well-established capacity to deliver hundreds of thousands of votes and thousands of volunteers on Election Day. Exit polling reveals that the workplace-based, grassroots communication program implemented nationally by AFL-CIO Political Director Steve Rosenthal routinely persuades well over 65 percent of union households to vote for labor-backed candidates.

In a state where the labor movement represents over a quarter of the workforce, that power is nothing to be sneezed at. Pataki also undoubtedly remembers the spring of 1995, when 1199’s multi-million-dollar advertising and grassroots mobilization against proposed budget cuts drove the Governor’s poll numbers through the floor.

On the other hand, the overall situation of working people in New York does not reflect any such power. New York has the largest gap between rich and poor of any state. One key reason is the refusal of Pataki and the Republican-controlled State Senate to increase the minimum wage over the last several years. Another is tens of billions of dollars in income tax cuts, primarily benefiting the wealthy-Pataki’s central political achievement of the last eight years.

In addition, New York’s maximum workers comp benefit ranks 50th in the nation as a percentage of the state’s average weekly wage. Three million residents have no health insurance. The 1995 tax cuts led to major tuition hikes at the state and city university systems, and the public education system is in crisis. In 1997, Pataki was an accessory to the State Senate’s attempt to roll back New York City’s historic rent control program, which was beaten back by a grassroots mobilization.

In short, Governor Pataki has faithfully carried out the wishes of employers and real estate interests, and during his tenure, New York’s social wage-those parts of our standard of living that we win politically rather than as part of the paycheck-has withered. The union endorsements of Pataki are a capitulation to this anti-worker corporate agenda.


In some ways, it feels like the 1950s are here again. Back then, with 35 percent of the workforce organized and pattern bargaining still strong, unions felt they didn’t need to worry about anyone but their own members. Organizing efforts faltered, the union movement stopped growing-and labor eventually lost both members and public support.

At least in politics, unions have historically used their power in the general interest of working people, fighting for minimum wages, social security, and fair tax and trade policies. But today, it seems, some unions have decided it’s more important to focus their political action only on the particular interests of their own members-even if that requires abandoning progress on issues of concern to all workers.

Such an approach will be devastating in the long run. Unions cannot survive if working people as a whole are being driven down.


Fortunately, a new force is trying to unite labor and community around a broader social agenda-the New York State Working Families Party. Founded in 1998 by a coalition that includes the CWA, the UAW, the Mason Tenders District Council (Laborers), SEIU, ACORN, and Citizen Action, WFP seeks to take advantage of New York’s unique fusion voting system, whereby candidates may appear on the ballot under the name of more than one party.

This system enables the minor parties to extract promises-whether of patronage or policy commitments-in return for their endorsement. In turn it enables citizens to vote for a party they believe in without wasting their vote on a candidate who is sure to lose and “spoiling” the chances of the least bad major party candidate.

WFP has creatively and aggressively pushed New York politicians on a broad agenda to expand the social wage. The party led the battle for a living wage law in Suffolk County, where a combination of grassroots organizing and carefully targeted endorsements, including four Republican county legislators, led to passage of the first living wage law in the nation by a Republican-controlled legislative body. WFP living wage campaigns are moving forward in New York City, Syracuse, and Westchester as well.

The WFP has also induced the State Assembly to pass a bill-three times-that would raise the state minimum wage to $6.75 and index it to inflation, and on May 14, the Senate Labor Committee unanimously voted for the WFP’s minimum wage bill.


And finally, the WFP has advocated that budget crises in state and local government should be solved by higher taxes on the better-off, rather than cutting the public services that poor and working people depend on. The WFP has organized a core of New York City Council members to call for modest bracket increases on wealthy city residents and the restoration of a small sales tax on stock sales. The new City Council Speaker, elected in part with WFP assistance, is now calling for a $400 million tax increase to finance increased school construction.

The WFP experiment is still in its infancy. But already the Party has demonstrated that a pro-worker, practical alternative to narrow, self-interested power politics can flourish in New York’s unique political situation.

"Relationship Unionism" Can Work,
But It's a Stopgap

by Hetty Rosenstein Executive Vice President, CWA Local 1037

At a union conference recently, someone was discussing a strike and said that they hadn’t yet found the right “button” to push. Sometimes in a struggle, if you can just find the right weak spot, or the person with just the right “relationship” to your adversary, you can get something done that otherwise seemed impossible.

In a strike situation, every tactic that can successfully end a strike should be used, and in other struggles there is no denying that when that “button” gets pushed, it seems so much easier than engaging in a protracted, difficult, painful, and risky battle that involves membership mobilization.



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It is the ease of pushing buttons, however, that has seduced some in the labor movement to focus more on building power-broker relationships than on building power among and with workers.

For a few years now, more progressive union leaders have called it “business unionism” when the top union guy met with the top boss guy and, based on their long-term “relationship,” they made a deal. We scorned the checkbook approach to politics that involved having the union politician just give a big check to the government politician.

There is a new form of top-down unionism on the rise, however, coming from the progressive side of the labor movement, and it must be looked at carefully and critically. It is “relationship” or “smart unionism.” This is where labor leaders build strong relationships with politicians, based in part upon giving very large contributions and working only in “swing” or very tight political races. It’s extremely calculated and extremely effective in the short term.


SEIU-1199 has developed a close relationship in New York with Governor Pataki. A similar relationship exists in New Jersey between the Republican leadership in the State Senate and a large CWA local. Three New Jersey unions decided to demonstrate their equivalent strength by providing equally obscene contributions to Governor James McGreevy and the Democrats in that state. To the horror of everyone else, the Teamsters are doing it with Bush.

What is wrong with this? Pataki will use new cigarette revenue to maintain hospital services and raise hospital workers’ wages. New Jersey is facing a Grand Canyon-sized hole in its budget; maybe now the Republicans and the Democrats won’t want to balance it on the backs of state workers. Bush will repay the Teamsters by getting the government out of the union and out of the Teamster treasury (although the Alaskan wilderness and the tiny issue of union democracy will suffer.)

The difference between relationship unionism and the old business and checkbook unionism is that, in most cases, the union is acting in the interest of its members-it isn’t just cutting deals and leaving the members screwed. That makes it better than the old style. Most of the leaders who engage in these relationships are very smart and committed people. They are progressive and they are building the labor movement through organizing and effective wielding of power.


The problem is that unionism built on personal relationships and personal political debt does not challenge the power relationship and does not take power away from the boss, or the politician, and redistribute it to union members. It essentially persuades the boss or politician that it is in his/her self-interest to act in a way that the union wants. The boss chooses to do it, and retains the power to choose otherwise at another time.

Let’s face it: this may not be a terrible strategy when the labor movement is weakened, because we are too small and under attack. But it is a dangerous strategy if it isn’t recognized for what it is. This approach can only be a stop-gap while we build our ranks and our capacity to mobilize members at the workplace and at the polls, or we will not change the relations of power, which must be our ultimate goal.

There is a limited amount of power to go around. We only get some if we take some away from the increasingly smaller and smaller group that holds it now. A small number of labor leaders persuading a few members of that powerful group not to hurt us or, on rare occasions, to help a small group of us, is not going to change things in the long term.

We must maintain our commitment to worksite-based mobilization and direct action organizing, which relies on the power of people to take collective action on their own behalf. It is this activity that alters the relations of power between workers, their bosses, and the government.

Progressive Party Gives Vermont Voters
a Better Alternative

by Ellen David Friedman Co-chair, New York Working Families Party

In 1981 the police union in Burlington, Vermont shocked the city by endorsing neither a Democrat nor a Republican for mayor. The impact rippled, and independent and socialist Bernie Sanders won his first victory on a ten-vote margin. Now, twenty years and twelve elections later, Sanders is Vermont’s Congressman, so popular with the voters that the two major parties don’t usually bother to put up a serious challenger.

Vermont unions have no trouble going outside the two major parties to endorse Sanders. His unabated devotion to labor’s cause cements a relationship of mutually high expectations: unions expect him to champion their issues, and he expects them to support him at the polls. But it’s not just that; Bernie also leads by calling on unionists to stand up and fight.

He is an organizing-style congressman, pushing the envelope of activism with business-style unionists, and encouraging them to see common cause with other groups. He is proof that, when labor goes independent and stands up for its own cause-and allied causes-it can win.


The Vermont Progressive Party came about partly through twenty years of organizing Sanders’ campaigns. Although Sanders himself runs as an Independent, most Vermonters make no distinction. The party supports workers’ right to organize, universal health care, sustainable economic development that benefits workers and communities, progressive taxes (the more you make, the more you pay), affordable higher education, and defense of our public education system.

The party has a modest but effective influence in the state: Four Progressives sit in the legislature (one of whom convened the first-ever Labor Caucus there); Progressives have run the city of Burlington for two decades; and the party now has more than 100 town committees and 13 county committees (of a possible 14).

The party’s candidate for lieutenant governor, Anthony Pollina, seems rather likely to win in November. Labor unions endorse Progressive candidates, while some leaders-though cautiously-are warming to the party itself.

The environment for labor has improved. Politicians have:

* signed right-to-organize pledges and publicly advocated neutrality commitments from employers during organizing campaigns
* passed a law to ban permanent replacement of strikers for school and municipal workers
* established one of the highest state minimum wages in the US
* adopted a state policy which establishes a livable wage every two years-thus providing a superb lever for mobilizing militant contract campaigns among low-wage workers.

The small pressure from an independent progressive party exerts a steady influence on both the unions and the Democrats. Vermont unions don’t need to flirt with Republicans to avoid being taken for granted by the Democrats; they have a better place to go.


Nationally, it’s a different picture: Hoffa Jr. embraces Bush Jr. for oil jobs in Alaska; Rivera sells his endorsement to Pataki for hospital subsidies; Sweeney joins hands with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce around immigration issues.

No doubt these leaders would argue that they are seeking gains for workers. But what is lost, what is utterly missing, is a sense of alliance over shared values, shared vision, and shared power. It is narrow pragmatism at its most cynical. Ironically, labor’s traditional strategy-to give Democrats all their money and votes, while asking no accountability in return-was also narrowly pragmatic, and also largely failed.

The problem is not Democrats or Republicans. It is, rather, a problem of labor failing to mobilize independently. Business unionism, in its political expression, fails because it excludes the members and trades their power for mere patronage. And in so doing, it sidelines workers from meaningful fights on social or economic issues. Whether an expedient alliance is struck with Democrats or Republicans ultimately doesn’t matter; they are both pro-business parties and they both require passivity from organized labor.

Independent, progressive political activity is not sufficient to change the prospects for working Americans, but it is necessary. When it happens, it will be a sure sign of the re-emergence of a mobilized labor movement, seeking power.

Ellen David Friedman has been an organizer for the Vermont-NEA for 15 years, and is currently Vice Chair of the Vermont Progressive Party.

Unions Should Place Public Well-Being
Above Self-Interest

by Chuck Idelson California Nurses Association

On a September day in 1999, some 2,000 registered nurses, joined by patients and senior advocates, jammed the steps of the state Capitol in Sacramento to push for enactment of the nation’s first law to set minimum nurse-to-patient ratios.

As the crowd grew, legislators began streaming out of the building to meet the nurses, and then passed the bill overwhelmingly. The successful campaign-a challenge to a decade of hospital layoffs and restructuring-had included the delivery of 14,000 letters from nurses and patients and thousands of calls, deluging the governor and legislature for weeks.

The campaign was carried out by the California Nurses Association, and it is Exhibit 1 in how CNA describes the way legislation is made. When the ground moves, the politicians perched on the ground tend to move with it.


If direct action is the fulcrum of CNA’s political action program, the touchstone is patient advocacy.

RNs have a legal and ethical obligation to protect their patients, even when it conflicts with the economic interest of their employer. In the early 1990s CNA’s leaders decided to similarly place the public well-being above any limited self-interest. The foundation of that approach is the strategic conclusion that an unshakeable coalition of caregivers and patients is the only effective counterweight to the enormous economic and political weight of the $1.4 trillion health care industry.

Together these twin principles guide CNA’s political program. They are the basis for principled independent political action, from our role as a founding member of the Labor Party and our endorsement of Ralph Nader for his commitment to universal, single-payer health care and many other reasons, to work on behalf of Democratic Party officials who have a proven record on behalf of nurses and patients. In the primary election this March, for example, CNA helped lead a coalition that backed progressive, pro-labor Democrats against business-oriented Democrats.


Regrettably, many other groups, including a number of unions, have adopted a different course, placing narrow goals ahead of the public interest. A classic example in the non-electoral sphere is the Kaiser Permanente Labor-Management Partnership, in which the company accepts unions and the unions actively market Kaiser, while agreeing to a gag clause on Kaiser’s decisions that harm patients, from hospital closures to worker deskilling to notorious HMO gatekeeping practices.

Such behavior puts self-interest before public health and reinforces perceptions of labor as a special interest.

Similarly, some unions will endorse conservative politicians in exchange for a single decision, such as approving a wage increase for some public employees-even if many other actions by that official are injurious to the public and even to their own members.

It is well known that progressive political change in the U.S. has occurred only as a result of mass action and broad-based coalitions and movements, from the abolition of slavery to public education to the legal rights of unions to modern civil rights. Women did not win the right to vote by voting on it.

Not every candidate CNA endorses wins, and some campaigns are a marathon-it took ten years to pass the staffing ratio law. But by adhering to our program, CNA has doubled its membership in the past five years, and has a record of collective bargaining agreements and legislative and regulatory reforms second to none.

Temporary alliances with conservative politicians made for tactical reasons can yield short-term gain, but at a tremendous cost to the labor movement’s reputation.