By BILL ONASCH
Last month, AP ran a story about union officials expressing their displeasure with Democrats by organizing what was described as a “shadow convention” in Philadelphia prior to the boss parties’ nominating rituals. But those organizing the Workers Stand for America rally on Aug. 11 reject that term. I suppose they don’t like the implication of being a helpless, lockstep background of an illuminated leader. Or maybe they are touchy about today’s union influence being a shadow of its former gravitas.
Unions have seldom had much of a presence at Republican conventions but until the recent past they were welcome and highly visible at the conclaves of their Democrat “friends.” They didn’t come empty handed either; union-hosted “hospitality” events on the convention fringes were often only marginally less lavish than those of their corporate “partners.”
But this is not your father’s Democratic gathering. Team Obama not only passed up the invitation for the president to address the recent NAACP convention—America’s oldest and biggest civil rights group. They also keep union friends at arm’s length. The vice president, who knows his place in Constitutional shadows, is assigned to glad-hand and commiserate once feted union and civil rights officials.
The Obama DNC even seemed to go out of their way this time to not just ignore their loyal labor helpers but to insult them. They picked a convention city in a right-to-work bastion of union avoidance and busting. The local boosters brag that the very convention center they will gather in was one hundred percent built—and is staffed—with non-union labor.
Union officials are fit to be tied—which, of course, they are. So they are going to spend most of what they would have dropped at the Democrat shindig in the City of Brotherly Love instead.
Referring to the Philadelphia rally in an e-mail, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told those of us paying dues to the House of Labor, “Our goal is to refocus the national discussion on the imbalance in our country’s national priorities. … It’s not about party, it’s not about politics. It’s about people.” They plan to reaffirm a lofty but empty Second Bill of Rights—proposed by FDR in 1944. Whether Lunch Box Joe Biden will attend remains to be seen.
“Imbalance” seems a rather delicate euphemism for the class war being waged by bosses, bankers, and politicians against American workers. Discussion of this war that could lead to action to defend ourselves is certainly appropriate and long overdue. A real Bill of Rights for the working-class majority is a fine idea as well. But these goals clearly require attention to politics—and the party we don’t yet have.
Trumka didn’t like the AP story’s imagery but he is happy someone takes seriously his oft-repeated claims that occasional tantrums signify labor’s political independence. The overall record of their actions shows otherwise. While Trumka sometimes issues largely ignored press releases critical of administration policies, the Federation’s agitational campaigns are designed to supplement the message de jour of Obama’s re-election campaign strategists.
Take, for example, their current approach to massive, long-term unemployment—the Bring the Jobs Home campaign. More sentiment than substance, this meshes with Team Obama’s current relentless attack on what they see as Romney’s main vulnerability—vulture capital tactics of off-shoring and out-sourcing. The White House can also claim some success as companies such as GE and the Big Three automakers restore some previously off-shored jobs to this country—now that wages and benefits have been slashed by as much as 50 percent on Obama’s watch.
Of course, we should expose Romney as the job-killer that he is. But little is said about the devastating and ongoing job cuts being carried out by Democratic “friends” in the public sector—above all, the destruction of the U.S. Postal Service as we know it. There’s hardly a peep even from the teacher unions about the privatization of education being championed by Obama. And they make little fuss about the White House promotion of globalization—such as the recent trade deal with Colombia and crucial support of new sweatshops in Haiti that will supply WalMart and Gap.
But our illustrious leaders don’t just talk it up for their Democrat pals—they put our money where their mouth is. Newscorp’s Wall Street Journal last month released a far-ranging analysis of union resources pumped in to election campaigns over the past few cycles. The motivation for this Murdoch muckraking is to paint organized labor as just another big money “interest group,” on the same footing as corporate PACs and SuperPACs.
In fact, union spending remains modest compared to billionaire bankrollers. But it’s not chopped liver either. The unchallenged WSJ-reported statistics show unions spent $4.4 billion in various ways on electoral politics from 2006-2010. They will undoubtedly spend more than ever on their “friends” in this year’s contests—what Steelworkers president Leo Gerard calls the most important election since FDR ran against Herbert Hoover.
If the labor movement invested this money—and the disciplined army of volunteers at its disposal—in to creating a party of labor’s own, it would be a whole new ball game. The Democrats would be left lurking in the shadows. Our side would have an effective political champion in the class war raging in America today.
If we do that, anything is possible. As long as we fail to do that, nothing good is possible.