Crumbs from the Master's Table

May 31, 2015

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said recently that his labor coalition may not support Hillary Clinton if she backs the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP). [1] Perhaps he is coming around to the realization that the Democratic Party isn’t the American labor party after all. That, of course, is a truth that he should have gathered long before the sitting Democratic president began to agitate for passage of the TPP.   

The problem has been organized labor’s approach to politics lo these many decades. Instead of eschewing party loyalties and making the major political parties tailor their platforms to gain the labor endorsement, organized labor has been giving the Democratic Party its perennial guarantee of support.

The result was predictable. The Republicans have come to view unions as intractable foes to be destroyed, while the Democrats have taken organized labor for granted to the extent that Democratic presidents actually negotiate free trade agreements.

Organized labor’s awkward political position is exacerbated by the fact that union representation has dwindled to just over 11% of American workers. [2] If present trends continue, neither of the major political parties will care if organized labor supports them or not.

Forming a third party as a labor party is no answer, since candidates for office in the United States usually only have to win a plurality of votes to get elected. If an actual majority was required, third parties could be more influential in those cases where they were able to prevent any candidate from obtaining such a majority. But, in the American system, candidates don’t need majorities to win elections. 

Until some way is found to break the power of the major political parties, organized labor will have to play in the ballpark in which they find themselves. Fortunately, it is not without options. 

One critical approach is to expand its membership beyond those who have union representation in their place of work. This is already being done by the AFL-CIO, which has opened “its doors to everyone, including those who are between jobs or don't have unions at work,” by setting up “an affiliate union - Working America - to focus on many of the same hot button issues that unions do, including health care access, retirement security and unemployment insurance benefits.” [3] Like “other interest groups, the AFL-CIO can galvanize its newest members almost instantly.” While members of Working America don’t “have collective bargaining rights or the protections of the National Labor Relations Board, members” do “have many of the same union benefits for $5 a year….” “Created ten years ago,” Working America “now claims 3.2 million members—more than any of the individual unions in the AFL-CIO, or any of the other ‘alt-labor’ groups organizing and mobilizing non-union workers in the United States.” [4] The potential political power of a group like this is both obvious and needed.    

Another problem that the labor movement faces is the nature of the Democratic Party. Not only is it increasingly apathetic to workers’ concerns, but it is dominated by secularists and the pro-abortion lobby. The pro-choice position on abortion has become a litmus test for Democratic presidential candidates. The problem with that is that it alienates many working people, who often are very religious and very pro-life. The result is that a good number of working people vote for Republican candidates, against their own economic interests, but in accordance with their interests of conscience, a phenomenon that is puzzling to the materialist Democratic overlords. This situation can also affect union organizing, as workers, with much justification, view unions as handmaids of the Democratic Party.  

It would be in the interest of the labor movement to work to rid the Democratic Party of this albatross, because, right now, labor’s choice is between a party that is positively hostile to it and one that treats its concerns as secondary. It would also be in the interest of the Democratic Party, because if it wants to be the party of the working class it ought to take care that it represents actual working people.    

Richard Trumka’s warning to Hillary Clinton is a good first step in asserting labor’s independence, which will be essential to regaining its political influence. Once the labor movement can demonstrate that it can deliver votes in the millions it will be in a better position to direct the priorities of the Democratic Party, rather than satisfying itself with scraps from the master’s table. Indeed, a powerful labor movement may even convince the Republican Party to call a halt to its anti-labor rampage.  

Jack Quirk