What if

by on Oct.29, 2010, under Politics

For someone who usually gets more excited to go door-knocking on Election Day than on Halloween, I’ve had a fairly detached view of the national political scene in the run-up to Tuesday’s election.

It’s clear that the Democrats will lose the House and keep the Senate, and that the President will spend the next two years doing small-bore politics frustrated by Congressional investigation a la the last six Clinton years. His re-election will depend on the state of the economy (political constraints suggest to me that it will not turn around very fast, which will cost Obama the 2012 election).

The last two years suggest to me that the next two will not cost progressives huge opportunities that were ever real. The utter failure of two years of a Democratic Presidency and a Congress under lopsided Democratic control to get anything done on climate change suggests that prospects for the future of the earth haven’t been very high and though they’re now dimmer, it’s not by much. The structural reform that could make the biggest difference would be the elimination of the filibuster, but too many Democratic Senators are too fond of their privileges to make that a reality, and even in a majority-rule Senate, I think that regional concerns would defeat effective climate change intervention.

It’s tempting to ask what if? I’m inspired by the round of What if Al Gore had taken power in 2000 over at Unfogged to ask this question: what if, for the past two years, the labor movement had been united?

The history of this is shameful enough to make me think that it could have made a bigger difference.

The setup was, I think, an honest mistake or a good idea that soured: in 2005, five unions left the AFL-CIO and formed Change to Win, ostensibly to re-focus union resources on organizing the unorganized, presumably at the cost of electioneering. The unions who led the charge were and remained avid electioneers, but they had bankable reputations as organizing unions, SEIU and HERE (the latter would merge with UNITE to become UNITE HERE — “once two labor unions, now a very short sentence” as one friend of the blog put it).

Andy Stern, the leader of SEIU, the Change to Win exodus, and probably still the most famous living labor figure, was an early and ardent supporter of Barack Obama. The 2008 victory left him poised to wield significant influence both inside and outside the administration, with more than 2 million union members to “go out and make me do it” as FDR apocryphally instructed his labor supporters.

So what did Stern do?

While the Tea Party was forming itself from the primordial soup of American race-hatred and rage, Stern focused his attention on two campaigns: an internal power struggle between himself and California health care SEIU leader Sal Rosselli, and a struggle internal to the combined UNITE HERE union.

He trusteed Rosselli’s United Healthcare Workers, provoking the UHW to secede from SEIU and form the NUHW.

And as the UNITE HERE confederation began to unravel, Stern took a highly partisan stance, backing former UNITE president Bruce Raynor’s secession efforts in a bid to bring hospitality and food service workers into SEIU.

Change to Win was dead as a reform movement; UNITE HERE and the Laborers have rejoined the AFL-CIO, though individual UNITE HERE locals were successfully raided into SEIU.

All this unfolded during the beginning of the first unified Democratic Congress, including a 59-seat Senate, since 1993. Stern was quoted and nominally consulted throughout the health care reform process, but he–and, through his action, the other vital sectors of the labor movement–failed to develop the kind of a social movement that could have shaped health care reform into something other than the realization of a decade-old Heritage Foundation report.

(About the health care reform bill that passed, I have mixed feelings. I think it’s incredibly important that the country now has a policy that everyone should have insurance. I think the policy itself contains a critical regulations in the fact of community rating, but overall further entrenches insurance companies in the lives of Americans in an aspect where we would do well to expel them. I believe that Medicare for all would result in better, cheaper care and an real, beneficial shift of the balance of power in American life.)

A focused, constructive SEIU would have improved the prospects of progressive legislation generally during the 111th Congress. More so generally, I think, than for labor’s most specific demand, the Employee Free Choice Act; at least that would remain on the far side of any counterfactual. But I think health care reform would have been significantly stronger, that climate and energy policy would have had stronger support, and that more audacious stimulus would have had a louder, more unified constituency.

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2 Comments for this entry

  • Josh H. Pille

    I guess I’m a little more skeptical than Josh is regarding the marginal efficacy of a more united labor movement. There are three areas I’d look at:

    1) Legislative achievements. I think that Josh may overstate the case. It’s tempting to think that a unified labor movement would have pushed for stronger heath care, or would have helped any number of other initiatives (immigration, stimulus, even climate change) get traction. I tend to doubt it. First because this isn’t the terrain where labor has ever really had much strength to begin with. In contrast with local efforts, where a unified labor movement can be quite strong, it’s been ages since labor got much of anything on the national stage (minimum wage, 1997). Second, we should factor in that a more unified labor movement would have incited a stronger business backlash.

    I think it likely is the case that labor’s distraction over the past two years has had costs at the state & local level. Maybe if CTW had stuck together, for instance, the UFW’s legislation in California would have had a better shot. But even that seems dubious, as it came down to the Gov’s veto.

    The reason that I worry about this counterfactual theorizing is that it lets us off the hook too easily for our own failings & our own mis-prioritization. “If only we had been unified, we could have gotten single payer” is a hell of a lot less depressing than “The labor movement is under 7% in the private sector and we simply do not have clout.” We have money for elections and we have foot soldiers for elections, but we still get taken for granted. Until we reexamine our basic relation to these politicians, I suspect we’re just not going to get very much that’s meaningful. Now, things might have been different had we been able to seal with deal with Blanche Lincoln. We came damn close to unelecting her, and that would have gotten some notice.

    I will cop to the fact that I’m not sure what to do with the information that Andy Stern has visited the White House more times than Bo’s fleas. I suspect that this supports my theory that a unified labor movement wouldn’t have gotten any more (given that it was all getting filtered through Stern’s mouth regardless). But it may mean the opposite.

    2) Organizing. SEIU’s war of choice has had concrete, measurable effects on new organizing. UNITE HERE had to shelf a major industry-wide campaign (I probably shouldn’t be any more specific) to defend itself. Both unions (as well as NUHW) had to devote hundreds of staff and millions of dollars into the various civil wars, raiding efforts and defensive efforts; those resources could otherwise have gone into new organizing—and would have. I think it’s safe to say that absent Andy Stern’s foolishness, right now we’d have thousands of new union members.

    3) Our own paradigm. One of the most pernicious effects of the civil wars was to cast doubt on the very basis for CTW’s founding (as evidenced in this very blog post). CTW was founded in 2005 – under the leadership of SEIU – on the theories of (a) core industry jurisdiction and (b) creating a virtuous cycle of density and standards. By 2009, SEIU had claimed jurisdiction for every industry under the sun, and was deeply compromising on standards in order to grab density. The founding ideals of CTW remain valid, and important rallying cries, but they are no longer taken as seriously as they should be, because of SEIU’s actions. (Also because of wildly unrealistic promises made at the outset of CTW.) Now we look back on the CTW split and think: it was all about money and personalities. Actually, no: there were (and are) real ideas at stake here. But no one thinks so anymore, because SEIU sold out those ideals that they themselves argued so persuasively for. (Josh, above, echoes the radically oversimplified narrative that has come to be accepted about the split: that CTW intended to shift resources from politics to organizing. While this is how it was reported on, it was never accurate.)

    In sum, maybe things would have been better, politically, with a unified labor movement. But not earthshakingly better. But we have fewer newly organized workers than we otherwise would have, weaker standards, and confusion about what it is that we stand for. Since politics is, at least in part, a function of the other two, the real upshot is that we squandered two years when we could have been doing the hard work of building the movement. Which, I guess, brings us to a final point, now about the intersection of organizing & politics. John Wilhelm is known to have argued back in 2008 that we should not make a single legislative ask of Obama. Rather, he argued, we need Obama’s bully pulpit. We need him on picket lines, we need him castigating bosses, we need him talking about the importance of organizing. I’m not sure if that would have been the right strategy or not, but by spending the last two years fighting each other we deprived ourselves of any opportunity to test the theory.

  • Josh K-sky

    Thank you for correcting my simplified take on the CTW rationale — that’s a valuable correction.

    The more I think about the John Wilhelm ask, the more I like it, counter-intuitively. At 7% density (really? Jesus) you need a cultural shift, and since business was going to label Obama anti-business no matter what, it would be good to have that discussion with Obama taking a side. It would have drawn more anti-union heat, but I think the more you ask Americans what they think about unions they more they want one. Right now it’s more of a historical trivia question.

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