How cozy should labor be with partisan politics?

■ Joey Aszterbaum / Contributed

The Supreme Court of the United States’ ruling in Janus v. AFSCME dealt a serious blow to public employees’ labor rights. Because nearly five in six union members are public employees, it was a setback for the entire labor movement. If the Republican-controlled Congress had done their job and confirmed Merrick Garland as a Supreme Court Justice while President Obama was in office, it is very unlikely that the court wouldn’t have ruled against workers.
In this era of political polarization, it would be easy to think that labor should be closely identified with the Democratic Party. Current Republican Party leadership is almost uniformly interested in supporting management, stockholders, and CEOs to the detriment of organized labor. Even before the courts upheld the so-called “Right to Work” laws signed by Wisconsin’s reactionary Governor Scott Walker—who, thankfully, is on his way out of office after the recent election—labor had lost considerable ground in the public imagination. After all, who could be against a person’s right to work? Why should employees, whose real wages have not kept up with the soaring costs of housing, healthcare, and education, give a portion of their paycheck to unions when the labor movement has had little success stemming this tide?
The nature of polarization is to think in terms of opposites. If prominent Republicans are dismantling the power of workers to democratically participate in their working conditions, then the Democratic Party must be our friend. Is it?
Wages, working conditions, and workers’ rights were already beleaguered before president Ronald Reagan decimated striking air traffic controllers in 1981. It is crucial to remember the extent to which labor had backed Ronald Reagan, somewhat in response to kindly President Jimmy Carter deregulation of broad swaths of the economy.
You could argue that we learned our lesson not to back Republican candidates since then. But what gains have workers made since, when Democrats have been in power multiple times, and sometimes with a veto-proof “supermajority”?
The recent decision by Amazon to open their “HQ2” headquarters in New York City and Washington, D.C. reveals just how easy it is for elected Democrats to uphold the interests of capital over labor. Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio hailed Amazon, claiming the company would bring tens of thousands of jobs to the city.
But upstart Representative elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez minced no words. What business did the city and state have giving billions of dollars in subsidies to a billion-dollar company run by the richest man in the world? Would the company be employing locals, or would it hire from outside the community and therefore exacerbate the community’s affordable housing crisis? Would the jobs pay a living wage? Would workers participate in collective bargaining? The city and state could have spent billions on crumbling infrastructure and sorely-needed repairs for public transportation, creating good-paying jobs in the process. Instead, billions in taxpayer money is enriching a company who played local and state governments off each other in a bidding war, accelerating the “race to the bottom” of working conditions, wages, and benefits.
Earlier this year, Cynthia Nixon ran to unseat Cuomo. Nixon’s platform included the right of public employees’ to strike. Cuomo argued that empowering workers would only create “chaos,” and Bill de Blasio agreed. Key unions backed Cuomo. In the process, the unions abandoned the Working Families Party, undermining the solidarity of New York labor and giving the impression that union leaders are busy currying favor with powerful Democrats rather than fighting hard for the rank-and-file.
I have no interest in tearing down the Democratic Party. Full disclosure: I was an elected delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, now serve as an Executive Board Representative to the California Democratic Party, and am the president of a chartered Democratic club.
But the hard-fought victories for workers over the last century were not due to politicians, legislators, and presidents being labor champions. Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s advocacy for labor rights and jobs programs weren’t from the goodness of his heart; direct action and strikes forced his hand, creating a crisis point where he feared inaction would lead to capital’s destruction.
The day after the 2016 DNC, I had a conversation with Khalid Kamau, later to become the first Black Lives Matter activist elected to public office (Fulton, GA City Council). Khalid was also an organizer for the Fight for Fifteen campaign. Khalid explained to me that the Black Lives Matter does not endorse candidates for public office. “We make candidates endorse us.”
Endorsing and supporting candidates for public office is an important strategy for labor. I am not suggesting that we stop using it. But if we are going to steer society toward the social and economic justice at the heart of our mission, it is crucial that we are meticulous about our message to workers—many of whom aren’t Democrats in the first place—and to the politicians who court us.
We only endorse candidates who endorse us.

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