As a labor leader my political principles have been driven by three “I’s”—independence, issues, and ideology.
Independence. Until the working class has its own political party, a party whose platform and candidates consistently stand for what’s best for workers, labor must maintain and build political independence. If labor ties itself to a political party that it does not control, it loses much of its influence with that party and can be pulled away from its moorings when that party drifts.
This is pretty much what happened to organized labor a couple decades ago when the party of the New Deal and the Great Society was taken over by something called the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). The DLC, made up largely of conservative Democrats, often southerners, was a reaction to the success of the Republicans during the Reagan era. The DLC’s philosophy seems to have been “If you can’t lick’m, join’m.” As a result, we got the Clinton administration, which gave us no labor law reform, but plenty more deregulation, including deregulation of the banking industry which contributed greatly to the current recession. It was at that time, a couple ago, that many of us explored alternatives to the DLC: Tony Mazzocchi and the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers pushed the Labor Party, the Green Party grew adherents, and the New Party, patterned after Canada’s New Democratic Party, was founded. None of these efforts, of course, ever reached critical mass or elected very many candidates.
So, it is clear that, so far anyway, American labor and its progressive allies have not yet figured out how to establish, maintain, and grow a political party of their own. Until we do, we must nourish political independence. AFL- CIO President Rich Trumka has been speaking more and more that way during the past couple years. Organized labor in at least one key instance actually practiced this kind of independence when it supported a primary challenge to Senator Blanche Lincoln (D) (Arkansas/Walmart) after she withdrew her support for the Employee Free Choice Act. We need many more such examples.
Issues. Our independence must be grounded in a core set of issues from which political candidates cannot deviate if they expect to earn and maintain labor’s support. While the issues would include opposition to weakening of prevailing wage laws, to privatization of public services, and to attacks on collective bargaining, the agenda should also be proactive—labor law reform, single-payer health care, and many other issues that affect working people’s lives whether they are union members or not.
These issues must be aggressively pushed during campaigns and the endorsement process and then even more aggressively pushed during the legislative process. As we saw a few years ago during the Dane County Living Wage campaign, if you get’m to publicly affirm support during the campaign, it’s much easier to hold’m to it afterwards. It’s not enough to simply “elect friends.” They need to know up front and to be frequently reminded what being a friend means. And if, like Blanche Lincoln, they stray from our agenda, we need to demonstrate what it means to no longer be our friend.
Ideology. To gain our support, politicians need to stand for something, need to have a pro-working class ideology from which they refuse to stray. If they say they support our issues, but they don’t have a core set of principles that naturally lead them to support of our issues, then chances are they will eventually stray due to the blandishments of a big donor or a persuasive lobbyist. All elected officials need to be constantly watched and repeatedly educated on our issues, but some, like Tammy Baldwin for instance, need much less watching because of their core ideology.
All of this is extremely important as we approach the recall of Governor Scott Walker. Labor cannot afford to pursue an “anybody but Walker” strategy. If we do and we wind up with a wimpy replacement, all the energy of last winter’s Uprising and this fall and winter’s petition signing will have been for naught.