Et Tu, Democrats: Pondering a Post-Labor Party

Last week I commented on the larger economic significance of the Wisconsin recall for the average American, but it is also worth noting what it may very well mean for American politics and the soul of the Democratic Party.  One thing is quite clear: Obama threw labor under the bus in Wisconsin.  As a candidate in 2007, the President famously said, “If American workers are being denied their right to organize, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself.  I’ll walk that picket line with you as President of the United States.”

But when the rubber hit the road in Wisconsin, he sent a twitter message, had Bill Clinton sub for him, and walked the other way.  Indeed, back at the height of the drama in the Badger state, all the President could muster was a feeble statement about how union workers were “friends and neighbors.”

Why was the President’s support so tepid?  The conventional wisdom is that Obama’s re-election team saw the writing on the wall and didn’t want to risk the President’s prestige on a losing cause or alienate the Walker voters who were still Obama supporters (the President is leading Romney in the polls with the same electorate that Walker just won).  If that is the case, then Obama’s actions are a shameless display of political cowardice.  At a crucial historic moment for the American labor movement (the long-suffering but loyal foot soldiers of the Democratic party) the face of “hope” abandoned them in the name of short-term political expediency.

If Obama were a man of his word, a person loyal to his core principles, he would have come to Wisconsin and given one of the best speeches of his life in defense of the essential value of collective bargaining.  He would have spoken to the importance of the American labor movement to our democracy.  If the role of American labor as working peoples’ only way to stand up to powerful economic interests actually meant something to him, Obama would have done what he did on gay marriage. He would have tossed the polling concerns to the side and stood with labor by educating the American people about the importance of unions.

Instead, labor got public silence and a pity tweet to the ground troops.  Yes, Obama people were there on the ground, but the great man himself stayed out of the fight and big time resources were never brought to the battle. As one of my colleagues told me upon his return from the fight in Wisconsin: “The national Democratic party was missing in action man.  Too little too late.  We were totally outgunned by all that out of state money and folks there kept wondering when the re-enforcements were coming, but they never did.  Where the hell was Obama?  He let us down, big time.”

That, dear readers, is a character defining moment.

The less conventional wisdom is that Obama didn’t come to Wisconsin because he doesn’t really stand with labor.  While it is true that labor unions are the only source of non-corporate money on the list of top donors, their influence is waning and now labor money only represents about a third of the money given to Democratic candidates.  Combine this with the fact that Obama’s education policy, rather than being driven by the unions as Romney claims, is, in fact a union-busting policy in many ways, and you can see why severely weakened but still compliant public sector unions would not be such a bad thing for the President.

Case in point: on the national front, both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have chosen to support Obama despite the many problems they have with his education policies because the alternative is a candidate that would support legislation that would totally destroy union rights at the national level.  So, it’s the lesser of two evils.  What this means for the Democrats is that they can pretty much take the money and ground troops of those unions for granted.

What about the money over the long term?  Well, with more and more campaign cash coming to the Democrats from non-union sources, the answer is to appeal more to those potential funders while slowly weaning yourself off union support.  Hence the importance of organizations like the Democratic Leadership Council historically and the New Democrat Coalition today who are seeking to move the party to a far more business friendly orientation. Add this to the fact that there are plenty of liberal billionaires and millionaires out there that, if you take economic populism off the table, will happily support a socially liberal Democratic Party as long as it embraces neo-liberal economic policy.

Thus, if you lose the teachers’ union money, you can turn to Bill Gates and to the Michelle Rhee crowd who are happy to support your corporate style education reform and weaken unions along the way.  Want an example? Take a look at the relationship between Obama’s old pal Rahm Emanuel and the teachers in Chicago.

Moving away from public sector unions, take a look at who Obama favors on trade.  Is it the old industrial unions, financial reformers or environmental activists or those who favor corporate globalization?  The answer to that question was made quite clear with the leaking of a document that outlines the Obama Administration’s plans for the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership.  As the Huffington Post’s Zach Carter reported last week in “Obama Trade Document Leaked, Revealing New Corporate Powers And Broken Campaign Promises”:

A critical document from President Barack Obama’s free trade negotiations with eight Pacific nations was leaked online early Wednesday morning, revealing that the administration intends to bestow radical new political powers upon multinational corporations, contradicting prior promises.

The leaked document has been posted on the website of Citizens Trade Campaign, a long-time critic of the administration’s trade objectives. The new leak follows substantial controversy surrounding the secrecy of the talks, in which some members of Congresshave complained they are not being given the same access to trade documents that corporate officials receive.

“The outrageous stuff in this leaked text may well be why U.S. trade officials have been so extremely secretive about these past two years of [trade] negotiations,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch in a written statement . . . The newly leaked document is one of the most controversial of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. It addresses a broad sweep of regulations governing international investment and reveals the Obama administration’s advocacy for policies that environmental activists, financial reform advocates and labor unions have long rejected for eroding key protections currently in domestic laws.

Under the agreement currently being advocated by the Obama administration, American corporations would continue to be subject to domestic laws and regulations on the environment, banking and other issues. But foreign corporations operating within the U.S. would be permitted to appeal key American legal or regulatory rulings to an international tribunal. That international tribunal would be granted the power to overrule American law and impose trade sanctions on the United States for failing to abide by its rulings.

While it is not news that corporate globalization has long had bipartisan support, it is particularly noteworthy that Obama wholeheartedly supports exactly the kind of unchecked corporate power that he will undoubtedly campaign against.  But the truth is that there is less and less separating the two parties when it comes to economic matters.

So what can we look for in a second Obama term? The Employee Free Choice Act?  Bucking WalMart?  Forget about it. There simply isn’t enough private or public sector union money coming in to make these issues a priority after the campaign is over.  Just be happy Obama doesn’t want to fire you all like Mitt Romney does.

But who cares, labor has been on the ropes for a while, right?   Well, even if you aren’t in a union but care about the state of American democracy you should take heed.  Once labor money is gone, working and middle class Americans will have no large non-corporate organization to check the interests of the rich.  This will not just hasten the movement of our country toward plutocracy, it will enshrine the rule of the dollar for decades.  It can happen—we’ve been there before, and we are busy rolling back the twentieth century as we speak.

If we continue down this road we’ll have a politics driven by the right wing billionaires on one side and the liberal billionaires on the other.  And our elections will be ever more characterized by one party supported by the Koch brothers et al and another driven by Silicon Valley and Hollywood types with both of them vying for your vote with slick marketing campaigns designed to appeal to the passive consumers formerly known as citizens.  Want your voice heard? Perhaps you can hope that some of the liberal millionaires will be soft hearted enough to think about the little people once in a while. With the last and only check to the power of the moneyed elite gone, participatory democracy might get lip service around the drum circle at Occupy Wherever, but the folks with real power will just be able to tune it out.

So if you like begging millionaires and billionaires to listen to you, you’ll love the post-labor Democratic Party. The post-labor corporate Democrats will feel your pain and then work against your interests.  Too harsh? Well consider the fact that over the last thirty years, under both Democratic and Republican rule, the gap between the rich and the poor has continued to expand while the untrammeled power of the mega-rich and corporations has continued to grow.  And this is a deadly threat to our democracy unless you believe that the only real freedom we should have is the freedom to shop.

But if you’ve studied the history of working people in our country, you know that nobody ever gave us anything.  The vast majority of Americans—women, people of color, even unpropertied white men—simply weren’t allowed to vote in the early days of the Republic.  That privilege was reserved for the rich.  It took a couple centuries of struggle just to gain the basic rights of enfranchisement for the majority of us, and it took much of the twentieth century to ensure that ordinary people had access to economic success and a voice in the workplace.  That happened because Democrats eventually came to believe that the government should blunt the hard edges of the market and that workers’ rights to organize should be basic American rights.

Back in the days before the New Deal, people used to talk about Wealth against Commonwealth as they railed against the robber barons.  Today, it’s one market under God, Commonwealth be damned.

A couple days after the Wisconsin results I joked with a friend that he should have a drink with me before I was deemed to be a member of a criminal conspiracy (that’s what unions were considered by many before the New Deal).  He kidded me back that it was too late: the Koch brothers were already tracking me with a GPS device they’d had secretly implanted during my last doctor’s visit.  Joking aside, he’s right to see me as an endangered species—particularly if the current trend in the Democratic Party holds and the legacy of the New Deal dies at the hands of the technocrats.  In the post-labor Democratic Party even the old friends of labor can’t be counted on to do anything for working people except asking you to volunteer at their phone bank.


Jim Miller

Jim Miller, a professor at San Diego City College, is the co-author of Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See and Better to Reign in Hell, and author of the novel Drift. His most recent novel on the San Diego free speech fights and the IWW, Flash, is on AK Press.


  1. avatarRB says

    When labor unions decide members are more important than the union leadership, when the unions understand members should decide were their political contributions are made, when members join unions of their free will not by force, when union protect member jobs rather than illegal workers, when members are rewarded for merit and quality work not attendance and seniority…….union membership might start to increase.

  2. avatar says

    RB and doug – both of you are obviously out of the loop when it comes time to view who paid for this last election. We know who paid for it. The rich billionaires and corporations. The only source of money that stands to counter this mega-rich control of our democracy are unions. Where does this money come from? The members. Who elects the leaderships of the unions who raise this money. The members. Get off your anti-union diatribes and figure out who your real allies are.