Labor’s Political Game Falls Short Without Pressure From Below

An RSDWU member supported Hilary Clinton at an AFL-CIO town hall meeting last year. Photo: Jim West.

The noise, exhilaration, and sheer drama of horse races don’t lend themselves to sober reflection. As the political fortunes of the Bush administration have waned, many labor activists have been on their feet with excitement, watching the wide-open presidential primary contest unfold.

But serious questions remain.

Although unions have marshaled unprecedented resources in recent elections—and 2008 promises to set new records—labor’s political game plan appears stubbornly ineffective. A yawning gap exists on one hand between the resources (money, staff organizers, volunteers, and organization), media hype, and self-image of labor as a powerful political force, and the results on the other, with little to show on issues that matter most to working people.

The loss of union jobs, coupled with declining strength and bargaining clout in the unions’ primary arena, the workplace, only underscore this disconnect.


To be sure, U.S. unions have beefed up their capacity for political mobilization over the last decade, a key goal of John Sweeney and his “New Voice” slate, which took over the AFL-CIO in 1995. The numbers are staggering, with each election outpacing the last.

AFSCME members urged Barack Obama to run for president at their 2006 convention. Photo: Jim West.

Union electoral spending totals skyrocketed from historic highs of $381 million over the 2000 and 2002 elections to a combined total of $561 million in 2004 and 2006, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Spending pledges made for the 2008 elections promise to top these sums.

Though business still outspends labor hands down, individual unions remain a key one-stop source of campaign contributions given directly to candidates. Indeed, unions account for six of the top 10 such contributors since 1989, with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) topping the list with a combined total of $38 million spent.

Beyond direct or “in kind” contributions, such as using staff organizers in political campaigns, unions are some of the biggest contributors of money to political advocacy organizations, known as 527 groups, which take their name from a section of tax code. The Service Employees (SEIU) for example was the largest 527 spender in 2006, giving out $28 million. Unions made up five of the top 20 contributors to 527s in 2006.

This year the AFL-CIO has stated that it alone will pony up $53 million behind an effort to put 200,000 union volunteers to work campaigning, sending them to door-to-door house visits, phone banking, worksite visits, and other “get out the vote” or “issue-oriented” activity. The federation said its 55 affiliated unions will put in an additional $200 million in political spending.


Readers Speak Out on
the 2008 Elections

The election is being treated as if it were the college football bowl championship series. The state primary system contributes to this media circus atmosphere by forcing candidates to raise enormous amounts of money to buy and maintain viability. Unions are forced to pay to play. The rank-and-file member is disengaged as union leaders are forced to commit financial resources early to maximize influence and visibility.

-Doug Baier
Firefighters Local 437
Poulsbo, Washington

I am a member of the Sheetmetal Workers. The International as well as local leadership are sold on Hillary Clinton. I am skeptical, period. Since George McGovern was unceremoniously routed in the first presidential election I could vote in, on through the travesty of the 1980s and the political hangover that’s left behind, politicians have conspired to convince me that all this campaigning is just posturing. Real decision-making and power lie outside electoral politics. Will Obama get the streets plowed or the trash collected?

-Fred McColly
Sheetmetal Workers Local 20
Lake Station, Indiana

I am a former UAW local president who retired two years ago. I have been a Green Party member because I see the corporations controlling both major parties with their enormous resources. As local president, I disagreed with the UAW’s support of the Democratic Party even when they pushed for NAFTA. I agreed with their support for universal health care, but felt more needed to be done to get the membership active around this issue.

-Wendy Thompson
United Auto Workers Local 235
Detroit, Michigan



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As an outside observer of your election process only one presidential candidate speaks for the working person. That is John Edwards. The United States needs a reformer who knows what the working class is and needs. Although he frames it as “the middle class” he is speaking for workers.

-Rick Lee
Canadian Auto Workers
London, Ontario

Electability and responsibility seem to leave most people cold and apathetic. However these and vague promises of change seem to be all that is on offer. None of the candidates really seem to be particularly pro-union or more importantly, pro-worker. With few exceptions they are millionaires. John Edwards and Mike Huckabee talk populist but their rhetoric seems pretty disingenuous.

-Genevieve Butler
Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Not all this money and energy is spent in a unified political effort. The battle over the Democratic nomination has furthered tensions both inside and between unions.

In the Iowa caucus, for example, AFSCME reportedly spent up to $1 million on ads supporting Hillary Clinton and attacking Barack Obama. Angered by the ads, seven mid-level AFSCME leaders (and supporters of Obama) published an open letter attacking AFSCME’s top leadership, calling the decision to attack undemocratic.

In Nevada, the Nevada State Education Association (whose leadership is backing Clinton) filed a lawsuit in mid-January to block nine “at-large” Democratic caucuses slated to convene in casinos on the Las Vegas Strip. Holding the caucuses in casinos makes it easier for shift workers to participate in the time-intensive process of caucusing. UNITE HERE Local 226 (Culinary Workers), the 60,000 member casino worker local in the area and a key backer of Obama, launched a counter-offensive, claiming the lawsuit would prevent the participation of thousands of workers, largely women and people of color.

The lawsuit was dismissed in federal court, but left lasting animosity about the backroom moves.


With all the focus on candidates and money, the labor movement is missing a lesson from its own history, namely that meaningful political change starts with determined pressure from below.

In the heady days of the 1930s and 1940s, militant mass actions by workers and their unions helped create the political openings required to secure a range of labor law protections. Massive, city-wide strikes in Toledo, Ohio, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and San Francisco, along with thousands of smaller strikes and organizing drives in the early 1930s, paved the way for legislative advances like the National Labor Relations Act.

The limited legal protections that this legislation provided against anti-strike injunctions, company unions, and employers’ refusal to recognize unions opened up space for more fights, such as the auto sit-downs of the late 1930s and the nation’s biggest strike wave in 1946.

Over the next four decades unions settled into closer, more stable arrangements with employers and with the Democratic Party. Over time, the grassroots pressure slacked off, and so did the ability to win labor-friendly laws even when windows of opportunity opened.

In 1978 moves by unions to get labor law reforms—such as a rollback of the many disastrous provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act—floundered despite Democratic control of the White House and both houses of Congress. In fact, that same year Jimmy Carter became one of the few presidents to use the emergency powers of the Taft-Hartley Act when he slapped the Mineworkers with an anti-strike injunction during the 1978 national coal strike.

Another opportunity Democratic politicians had to move labor’s agenda followed on the heels of Bill Clinton’s election. From 1992 until the Republican landslide of 1994, labor-friendly legislative efforts stalled, most notably around national health care reform. Worse, Clinton mobilized all the power of his early presidency to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement, despite opposition from virtually every union that had supported him.


Many Labor Notes readers undoubtedly will agree on how much easier it would be to build labor’s strength if we had new member organizing protections such as the Employee Free Choice Act, an end to permanent replacement by scabs in strikes, a stronger Social Security system, a rollback of the tide of unfavorable NLRB rulings, re-regulation of critical industries, a single-payer health care system, or any number of other worker-friendly political initiatives kicking around the grassroots in recent years.

We need all these reforms, but we won’t get them without a political mobilization that goes beyond this election—and beyond probable Democratic victories in Congress and the White House. Neither Clinton nor Obama nor John Edwards backs a single-payer health plan, for example. And by themselves the labor law reforms we seek won’t change the balance of power between working people and employers. The right to card check won’t automatically translate into an explosion of new, vibrant unions, nor will banning permanent replacements ensure the ability to win more strikes.

Unions have shown themselves able to mobilize tens of thousands of members for short-term political goals. That same effort needs to be turned to mobilizing members at the union hall, at the many thousands of unorganized workplaces, and, most neglected of all, on the job.