How Can the Labor Movement Move Beyond the Democratic Party?
Wisconsin activists make get-out-the-vote calls at the Labor Temple.
Photo Credit: Jenni Dye
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If we were designing a way for unions to be involved in politics on a clean sheet of paper, would we choose to spend hundreds of millions of dollars and countless thousands of hours on millionaire candidates, financed by the super-rich and selected by party leaders who view unions as an embarrassment?
To put it politely, this “strategy” has produced unreliable allies. To put it bluntly, the policy of hitching labor to the Democratic Party has given us virtually nothing to show for it. That President Obama and the national Democratic Party practically boycotted the Wisconsin struggle is only one more proof.
Bitter though we may be, labor can’t turn its back on political action. These institutions set the legal rules for labor’s struggle and employ a majority of the organized workers in the country. Political strategy doesn’t have to center on electing officials, but it must impact the institutions of government.
What we need is a political movement that unabashedly challenges corporate control over our daily lives. The Occupy movement brought this perspective out from the fringes of American politics.
The focus of political organizing has to be identifying, reducing, and then eliminating the power of the class of people who control the corporations, rake off giant wealth for themselves, and restructure jobs for still-greater profits, at the expense of most of the population. We call out the 1% and say that the solution is putting the majority in charge.
Tragically, despite the educational value of advocating a labor party to carry out this working-class politics, organized labor is now too small for such a project. Its leaders are turned in another direction and isolated from their members.
If national unions can’t be counted on to be the solid center of an anti-corporate movement, how do we get there?
The first step is rebuilding our unions from within, through fights to defend members against their bosses. If you don’t see the need to stand up against the boss at work, you won’t see the need to do so in politics.
At the same time, national and local political efforts should feed off each other. Unfortunately, we are pretty much starting from scratch in both cases. Educational efforts, independent efforts like the Green Party, and struggles within the Democratic Party may all contribute to a national political movement down the road.
The other place to start is in local coalitions of labor and community. A workshop at the recent Labor Notes Conference examined some efforts, including the New Lynn project in Massachusetts, the Working Families Party, and an attempt to remake a local Democratic Party in New Jersey.
Another effort is the Richmond Progressive Alliance in California, where a community-labor alliance has reshaped local politics.
Richmond lies on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, a few transit stops north of Oakland. Home of a Chevron refinery, it has been used as a dumping ground, like most older industrial cities. Its shoreline is still plagued by toxic wastes from chemical companies and its air is polluted by the refinery and other industries.
Richmond is about 40 percent Latino, 30 percent Black, and 15 percent Asian. Its unemployment rate is around 18 percent—about twice that of the state and the surrounding communities. Every corporate proposal, from tax breaks for Chevron to shoreline property deals, is always presented as a job-creator. The Richmond Progressive Alliance is tagged as a job-killer.