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Labor Unions' Fight for the 99% Goes Way Beyond Raising Campaign Dollars

Labor is an integral part of the progressive coalition, one of the only forces capable of acting as a counterweight to the organized money that's taken over our politics.

Picture thousands of people streaming across the Brooklyn Bridge, with UAW, 1199 SEIU, and Teamsters' “Stop the War on Workers” signs held aloft, as projections on the side of the Verizon building declared, “We Are the 99%!”

Or think about thousands more thronging into the Wisconsin Capitol, singing “Which Side are You On?” as teachers and students held hands and firefighters marched in with bagpipes, all to fight Governor Scott Walker's attack on public workers' unions.

Recall a parade through Columbus, Ohio, workers and their allies dancing in the streets as they delivered 1.3 million petition signatures to the Secretary of State on their way to overturning Governor John Kasich's anti-union bill.

Those are just a few recent images of struggle that organized labor has given America in the past year. Images of working people banding together, union members side by side with workers who don't enjoy union protections, with their families and friends. For me, the indelible moment was October 14, at 5 AM in Zuccotti Park, when thousands of union members showed up -- transit workers and teachers and construction laborers – to defend a few hundred kids who'd occupied a park and brought the idea of economic inequality back to the lips of a nation.

You'd think people would have learned the lesson in 2011: labor is an integral part of the progressive coalition, one of the only forces capable of acting as a counterweight to the organized money that's taken over our politics.

Yet as election season wears on, many politicians and reporters seem to have forgotten. From Wisconsin, where the former mayor of Madison claimed that candidates shouldn't be “beholden to big unions,” to the Web, where debates over union endorsements seem to focus only on how much money labor will spend to support its chosen candidates.

The Huffington Post, for instance, recently wrote of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, “facing an avalanche of negative advertisements, labor’s most outspoken and visible champion in the Senate has, so far, been left to fend for himself,” and granted anonymity to a “top Democratic operative with ties to labor” to complain that unions haven't done enough.

But Democrats and progressives who see labor as just another special interest to be tapped for funds during election season and then negotiated with (or more often, forgotten about) when it comes time to govern have forgotten those vital images from last year—or the last century. They've forgotten that unions represent millions of working Americans, struggling under the weight of austerity policies and a stagnant economy, who are getting increasingly fed up with their treatment by politicians.

“The labor movement has always given money to candidates,” Damon Silvers, policy director and general counsel at the AFL-CIO, told AlterNet. But when it comes down to winning elections, their greatest contribution is boots on the ground. “And not just any boots, but people who are plugged into their communities, who are trusted. They're the backbone of America's civic culture, the people who are the poll watchers, the people who volunteer at food banks, local leaders in unions, the shop stewards, the people who pound the pavement. They are the core of civil society in the United States.”

Forgotten History

“Most people's idea of a union is what we do politically. Let's face it, politics is now a 365-day-a-year sport, so that tends to get most of the focus. It's not sexy to talk about somebody's 4 percent raise or somebody who just got health care for the first time,” Jason Perlman of the Ohio AFL-CIO told AlterNet.