By Dave Lindorff
It is refreshing to hear the new head of the AFL-CIO, former mineworker and Mineworkers President Richard Trumka, get mad at sell-out Democrats and make a threat not to "support" them next year.
As Trumka pointed out in a talk to the Center for American Progress this week, for years, Democratic politicians, and the Democrats as a Party, have counted on the labor movement to get out the vote of its membership on Election Day, only to turn on workers after getting to Washington, on the issues that really matter, like jobs-killing free trade agreements, the gutting of bankruptcy law and credit law protections, and, most recently, the undermining of needed labor law reform.
Trumka, quoting from a famous Florence Reece mineworkers song popularized by Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger, said that going forward, Democrats will have to make it clear to labor "Which side are you on?"
But really, that's only half the question. Reece, in her song, was asking that question of workers themselves. And indeed, the reason Democrats have become such traitors to working class interests in recent decades is that the labor movement itself has not answered Reece's musical question resolutely or honestly.
The hard reality is that, despite years of betrayal by Democratic politicians and by the Democratic Party, labor unions have continued year after year to answer the call to rally their ever diminishing members during campaign seasons to go door to door doing the hard work of rallying voters for ever more treacherous candidates, and to do massive "get-out-the-vote" campaigns on Election Day, as they did this past November to assure the election of solid Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and the election of President Barack Obama. Labor has also donated princely sums collected from members to Democratic candidates and to the Democratic National Committee.
And just as predictably, Congressional Democrats, and the new president, have been betraying their labor base. After vowing to pass the Employee Free Choice Act this year, which as written would have ended years of weakening of labor's right to organize unions by ending the cumbersome requirement for "secret ballot" elections to establish union representation, in favor of just obtaining signed cards supporting a union from a majority of workers, Obama and the Democrats in Congress caved in to pressure from the business lobby, and trashed the bill. If it passes at all in its present form (which is pretty iffy), it will leave secret ballot elections in place--a process which managements have long ago figured out how to delay endlessly, and to subvert, to the point that it is now next to impossible to unionize new workplaces.
It's fine to say, as Trumka is doing, that labor will no longer support politicians who sell-out labor on its issues, but what good is that really, if those politicians simply replace labor with more money from business interests? It doesn't help things that once the sell-outs get elected, instead of attacking their betrayals, labor gets sucked into compromises. Just look at health care "reform." For decades, the labor movement has advocated a single-payer approach, yet when President Obama and the Democrats began putting together a health "reform" package this spring, most of organized labor started backing the pathetic "public option" plan, buying into Obama's pre-emptive compromise approach. Now health care reform appears to be pretty much a dead letter. The same thing is happening to labor law reform, with labor caving in and backing a weakened version of the EFCA.
The only way to really make Democrats stop these kinds of betrayals is for labor to decide "which side it is on" and to actively oppose those who sell labor out.
Trumka, as head of the AFL-CIO, is in a position to make a fundamental change in labor's relationship with the Democratic Party. He should announce plans to encourage the formation of a new labor party, which would run its own candidates for office in key districts. Labor, uniquely, is in a position to do this. It has the money and the numbers to be able to easily get on the ballot in every state even by as early as next year.
In some states, like New York, parties are able to cross list candidates, so instead of just endorsing a Democratic candidate who seemed to be supportive, a labor party could nominate that person as its own candidate. Votes for the candidate could be made either on the Democratic line, or the labor party line. But to get on the labor party line, a candidate would have to be a genuine labor party candidate. Failure to back labor once in office would mean no more labor party line.
And in states where there is not such cross listing allowed, running candidates on a labor party ticket would be a much bigger threat to sell-out Democrats than just running candidates in the Democratic Primary. And with good candidates, some labor party candidates would certainly win their races, becoming a third force in Congress.
The time is ripe for a labor party. Polls report that more and more people are quitting the Republican and Democratic Parties in disgust. They have no home at this point, and labor party would offer them that home, which would accelerate the decline of the two major parties--basically hollowed out husks that only manage to stand up because they are stuffed with corporate swag.
So what's the answer President Trumka? Which side are you on?
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and long-time labor writer and activist. A founder of the National Writers Union, he also organized a labor union of food service workers at Sarah Lawrence College and worked on the United Farmworkers Union grape boycott in New York City. He is author of "The Case for Impeachment" (St. Martin's Press, 2006) and his work can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net