Labor Movement’s Role in Elections

It’s almost September, and campaigns (and fundraising) for the next election cycle are well on their way. One thing that we’ve learned in the past eight months is that a lot can change in a short period of time. For me, two phenomena come to mind: the Arab Spring and One Wisconsin.

Contrary to the success of the Arab Spring, the movement from Wisconsin did not result in the changes that the labor movement had hoped. This has caused many to question the Labor Movement’s role in the electoral system. Even more disconcerting is the AFL-CIO is looking into creating a Super PAC, which further implies there will be more money spent on the next general election.

One of the most important lessons we can take from Wisconsin is that what we’re dealing with is a battle between money messaging and organizing, neither of which the labor movement is succeeding at a tremendous rate.

What’s the game?

The electoral game is a battle to “get out the vote.” Those of us who can vote often end up choosing between the best of the worst within the two party system. Unfortunately, the growing majority of organized union members, the poor and oppressed, can’t vote, because they are either undocumented or here on visas.

In the Massachusetts 2010 gubernatorial race, for example. Unions across the state endorsed Deval Patrick, because they felt he was a friend to labor unions. I was a member of the United Auto Workers, which was among those to endorse Patrick in 2006, even to the dismay of much of our membership. Even with the so-called pro-labor Governor the bargaining lasted longer and resulted in less than even under former Republican Mitt Romney was Governor. (This is in no way an endorsement of Romney, as he actually took longer to fund the contracts.)

In the end, other unions made campaign donations and back room deals were cut that, in some cases, were bad for some unions and good for others, and in most cases failed to represent the growing number of international, non-voting workers.

When elections are labor’s foremost strategy for affecting social policies, there have been plenty of tough lessons to learn. Perhaps the toughest of all — and one we continue to struggle with — is that elections shouldn’t be labor’s primary strategy. David Polinkoski sums it up best: “American history has demonstrated that once a movement is channeled into the Democratic Party, it dies.”

Play on Our Turf

What options are we left with? Well, we can look to our neighbors in the south for some creative ideas. With “The Other Campaign” in Mexico, the poor and oppressed choose not to take part in the political system, as they have concluded it will not bring about the appropriate changes. They instead choose to focus their energies on direct action and building democracy in their own communities.

The idea I am suggesting is exactly that. The U.S. political system has come to represent the moneyed elite over ordinary people, let alone the poor and working class. We know that the game is rigged against us. And, we know that the referees — who are supposed to protect the people’s interests — often act at the behest of those with wealth and power. If owners choose not to play fairly, we should “revive the strike” and take the game onto our own field. We in the labor movement know what democracy is we need to build our own political system not just connecting union members to communities but rebuilding democracy at the local level focusing our attention on the fights that lead to build a workers party.

 

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