Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, well, Richard Trumka is no fool. The president of the largest labor federation in the country—the AFL-CIO boasts of 11 million members—had scathing words for Democrats and President Obama at a speech last week at the National Press Club.
“If leaders aren’t blocking the wrecking ball and advancing working families’ interests, working people will not support them. This is where our focus will be—now, in 2012, and beyond,” Trumka said.
The speech built upon a theme Trumka has been developing for months: Don’t count on labor to blindly support Democrats who aren’t supporting labor. “It’s actually going to be fun,” he told Salon’s Joan Walsh a few weeks ago, speaking of the union’s plan to give “less to party structure, and more to our own structure.” He repeated the point last week. “Our role is not to build the power of a political party or a candidate,” he said. Ouch.
AFL-CIO isn’t the first union to publicly distance itself from Democrats’ electoral fate; the firefighters union declared in April that it would freeze its federal political spending in 2012 and direct money to local campaigns instead. But the support of AFL-CIO is of another scale, both financially and politically. Trumka’s much discussed speech on white union members and race remains one of the most significant political moments of the 2008 campaign.
An AFL-CIO affiliate, AFSCME (which represents 1.6 million local, state, and county employees), outspent the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Republican groups in campaign contributions to the 2010 elections, throwing in $87.5 million. Meanwhile, SEIU spent $85 million to get Obama into office in 2008.
Labor is now justifiably wondering what all of its support for national Democrats has yielded. Yes, there is a more sympathetic cabinet secretary, Hilda Solis, at the helm of the Department of Labor. And the National Labor Review Board has ruled favorably in the Boeing case, forcing the corporation to move airplane production from a nonunion plant in South Carolina, a right-to-work state, to a unionized facility in Washington State.
But national Democrats have left labor hanging thus far on its core concerns. The most glaring congressional omission: The Employee Free Choice Act, also known as EFCA. The passage of this bill would allow workers to organize easily into a union, if a majority signed cards in favor. Since the bill was introduced in March 2009, EFCA has been stalled in the Senate.
Moreover, despite the outrageous outlay of campaign contributions by AFSCME last year, public sector workers have not reaped the benefit in terms of good political will. From Wisconsin to Maine, Ohio to Indiana, the rights of public sector workers to collectively organize have been cut back or curtailed altogether. University of California, Berkeley, Labor Center researcher Steven Pitts, among others, has established that public sector jobs are particularly crucial to the already struggling Black workforce.
And what will happen if unions indeed follow through on threats to build their own political structures, rather than those of the Democratic Party? Maybe, they’ll return to their social movement origins. The left has historically seen workers as the catalyst for cataclysmic, revolutionary change for all of society, not just union members. Recent events play out this theory: Trumka announced a historic partnership two weeks ago with the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the National Guestworkers’ Alliance.
Both domestic and guest workers fall under the rubric of what’s known as excluded workers, called such because they are excluded from basic labor law protection, such as the minimum wage or the right to organize into a union. Excluded workers include farmworkers, domestic workers, tipped workers in restaurants, the formerly incarcerated and those in welfare-to-work programs. The work done in the fields or in the home has historically been borne by people of color, whether they were enslaved or undocumented workers from Latin America. Back in the 1930s, when these labor laws were being negotiated, lawmakers found it politically expedient to exclude farmworkers and domestic workers from inclusion, in order to curry favor with white Southern plantation owners.
The embrace of these racialized workers back into the fold of organized labor is quite a mea culpa for the unions. It’s also a recognition, according to organizers with the domestic and guest workers, that all workers are in the same boat in the global economy. “[The] informal sector and many industries that were once thought of as marginal, like domestic work, are coming to represent more and more of the economy,” explained Jill Shenker, field director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
“At a time when American workers are locked out of jobs and immigrant workers are locked into exploitative workplaces, this partnership agreement [with the AFL-CIO] unites workers who are pitted against each other,” Saket Soni, executive director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, added. “There’s a rising tide coming—it’s called solidarity. And, it’s going to engulf small Southern towns and major labor markets; local workers and global workers are going to speak a common language—dignity—and inspire transformation in the U.S.”
SEIU’s purple army has also played a leading role in the Wisconsin uprising and the mobilizations it inspired, to organize union and nonunion members to push elected officials to embrace a more progressive agenda. John Nichols for The Nation quoted an internal SEIU memo, sent to the union’s executive board in January, which said, “We can’t spark an organizing surge without changing the environment, so that workers see unions not as self-interested institutions but vehicles through which they can collectively stand up for a more fair economy.”
This kind of organizing turns around a trend that I’ve written about previously—the plague of business unionism that once contaminated major unions. Organized labor since the 1980s, when Reagan cracked down on striking air traffic controllers, has responded to the hostile environment by becoming more like its arch-enemies: the bosses. Unions in the past 30 years have morphed into calcified bureaucracies, run by skilled technocrats—far removed from workers on the shop floor—who staff the campaigns and call the shots at the bargaining table. Worse, in the past decade, labor has been riddled with internecine battles—SEIU versus CNA, UNITE versus HERE, and UHW versus NUHW—totally impenetrable to all except insiders and those two degrees removed. Not quite the movement of the masses.
What does all this mean at a time when Black unemployment is at 16.1 percent, Latino at 11.8 percent, and 51.7 percent of unemployed Asians have been without a job for more than six months, 39 percent unemployed for more than a year? At a time when Washington, D.C., has largely moved on from thinking about job creation and into fighting over the deficit? Is it all, as Mike Elk wrote for In These Times, just a bunch of union hot air?
Pitts, who authors the Labor Center’s monthly Black Worker Report, puts labor’s new turn towards social movement unionism into perspective. “What’s happened is the unions’ frustration with Congress and Obama and the incredible attacks from the right has caused an acceleration of activity itself, of unions aligning with grassroots elements. In the short term, I’m not sure what it means. But the issue is always going to be what happens on the ground. What understanding the top holds isn’t always communicated to the bottom. It doesn’t matter what proclamations happen from the top, but how it’s rolled out on the bottom.”
Come 2012, let’s see what all this translates into. Hopefully, it’ll be real power for workers of color and their families.