Editorial: What Will Make Unions a Power in Politics?

The re-election of George W. Bush is cause for concern on many levels. Anti-worker appointments to the NLRB and the Supreme Court can be predicted for the near future. Card-check organizing may be eliminated by the NLRB in the next year, and OSHA will likely be under further attack.

None of this will come as a surprise to union members who read their mail. Over the past few months, union leaders launched a massive campaign to inform their members about Bush’s anti-worker agenda.

According to the AFL-CIO, “an impressive 92 percent of union members heard from their unions during this election cycle, and 81 percent heard from unions at least three times.” Unions also spent unprecedented financial and staff resources. Thousands of members went to “battleground” states to get out the vote for Kerry, and labor spent more than $150 million.

Yet the AFL-CIO reports that 33 percent of union members voted for Bush, highlighting a striking political disconnect between union leaders, who were vocal and passionate in support of John Kerry, and the millions of workers who chose to support Bush. It’s clear that a significant number of members don’t listen to their union’s guidance on political questions and don’t share their leaders’ strong support for the Democrats.

While the Democrats still enjoy the support of the majority of union members, they often fail to represent workers’ interests on such crucial issues as health care reform and free trade.

More often than not, labor’s marriage with the Democratic Party has been a “give and get nothing in return” relationship, where unions squander resources supporting Democratic candidates who, if elected, fail to fight for workers and their unions. While most Democratic politicians are less aggressively anti-worker than their Republican counterparts, few actively push a pro-worker agenda.

The energy union members poured into these last elections was remarkable, and it’s likely that the experience transformed many members into activists, both in their unions and in their communities. This campaign work created the potential for further activism on the shop floor, and for coalition-building among unions and community groups.



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But as the labor movement continues to dwindle, pouring millions of dollars into the campaigns of anti-worker politicians doesn’t make sense. Given the current balance of forces and pro-business direction of the Democratic Party, we would get more return if most of our resources were used for organizing, member education, contract enforcement, and strike support.

Because only 13 percent of U.S. workers are union members, the vast majority have grown used to having no one to speak for them, either in the workplace or in society. The need for a political force in the U.S. that fights for working people has never been greater. Writing for Labor Notes this July, United Electrical Workers Political Action Director Chris Townsend noted that “much of our crisis is tied to the inadequate size of our movement.”


Over the past few years, debates over how to organize the 87 percent have grown more prominent. Led by the Service Employees (SEIU), these debates have focused largely on restructuring the AFL-CIO and its unions. With the presidential campaign over and the 2005 AFL-CIO convention approaching, these debates have become more heated.

The presidents of the unions making up the New Unity Partnership (SEIU, UNITE HERE, the Laborers, and the Carpenters) have proposed consolidating the AFL-CIO’s 65 unions along sectoral lines, creating 15 industrial unions. SEIU President Andy Stern has threatened to pull his union out of the federation if the NUP’s proposals are not enacted.

Other union leaders, such as Machinists President Thomas Buffenbarger, have chafed at what they describe as the NUP leaders’ arrogance, and the Machinists have threatened to leave the AFL-CIO rather than be forced to follow the NUP’s lead.

Whatever comes of the NUP’s proposals, top-down restructuring schemes will not help bridge the political gap between union leaders and many rank and filers that was highlighted by this year’s election. When members see union leaders as their employer’s partners or counterparts, they’re unlikely to follow those same leaders in a fight against the bosses.

If a union doesn’t fight for its members on the shop floor, it won’t be able to mobilize them for political battles. Democratic, member-led unions, whose members fight against the bosses at every level, prepare workers to take on a more aggressive fight in the social and political arenas. There, they can hold politicians’ feet to the fire, no matter which party they represent.

Strong unions whose members are organized on the shop floor and in the union hall are critical to the future of our movement and our society.