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What Have Democrats Done for Workers Lately?

It’s a strange disconnect: what union leaders expect from their political allies and what they actually get.

This piece was originally published by Labor Notes. Come to the Labor Notes conference May 4-6 in Chicago, the biggest gathering of grassroots labor activists and all-around troublemakers out there! More than 100 workshops and meetings to ‘put the movement back in the labor movement.’ 

It’s a strange disconnect: what union leaders expect from their political allies and what they actually get. The latest example comes from the largest federal workers union and arguably the one that relies most on congressional lobbying: the American Federation of Government Employees.

When President Obama signed a bill February 22 that extended unemployment benefits eligibility and the 2 percent reduction in the Social Security payroll tax, a virtually unanimous, bipartisan attack on public workers went largely unnoticed. 

Newly hired federal employees, ironically including Social Security workers—represented by AFGE—who administer the most efficient and trusted government program in our history, will see their pension contribution tripled.

Another bill now under consideration would force federal workers to contribute 1.5 percent more to their pensions and reduce benefit formulas for new hires. A coalition of federal and postal unions said new workers would receive 41 percent less when they retire. (A “new hire” is any worker with less than five years’ seniority.)

The pension hit is estimated to cost federal workers $15 billion. It comes on top of $60 billion of givebacks from two straight years of pay freezes for the nation’s 2 million federal employees.

Such treatment of public workers is what Democrats say they stand against in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Ohio, where Republican governors attacked bargaining rights. But at the federal level the Democrats attack, demanding an “equality of sacrifice” that paints public workers—not corporate tax cheats—as the problem.

There Is No Alternative

Top union officials virtually across the board are rising once again to remind their ranks that only the Democrats can be relied upon, and that there is no alternative to funding their campaigns and turning out to vote for them.

Days after he unilaterally cut federal workers’ pay, Obama received hosannas at an auto worker conference. “Auto workers love you!” gushed the UAW.

The Wall Street Journal reports that union PAC contributions are up 15 percent from 2008. They’ve amassed $135 million since the 2010 races. The AFL-CIO political director assured Democrats who might remember labor’s off-year talk of “political independence” that the party will get “more value out of what we’re doing.”

Why can Democrats get away with it? One reason comes back to the nature of most public sector unions. Federal workers can be unionized only in “open shops,” where workers choose whether or not to join, but must be represented by the union. This makes federal worker locals particularly sensitive to the “what have you done for me lately?” question.

A service-oriented culture has developed, and the tough work of building rank-and-file participation falls lower on the list of priorities. In a union that relies almost exclusively on political friends who happen to be members’ ultimate bosses as well, mobilizing the ranks is often seen as a luxury. PAC money for friendly candidates is considered the best investment of resources.

This long-reliable pact among workers, union officials, and legislative bosses has been considered a winning formula all around. Until recently.

Withered Alliance 

During the Obama administration, and especially during its first two years when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, the alliance between unions and their political patrons began to wither. The Employee Free Choice Act, the law that would have eased union organizing drives, was shelved. When the administration bailed out the auto companies, it dictated wage cuts, plant closings, and tens of thousands of layoffs, and stripped workers’ right to strike. The health care bill attacked union-negotiated plans. A green-job transformation for the economy stalled.

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