Notes on a Theory…

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Either Elections are Important or They’re Not: Unions and the Democratic Party

with 3 comments

[Updated below]

Recently, the Culinary Local 226 in Las Vegas made a big splash by announcing that it was not going to make electoral campaigns a priority.  Local 226 played a major role in helping secure a victory for candidate Obama in the Democratic primary, as well as the 2008 election and Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s tough 2010 re-election campaign.  The union didn’t point to the disappointment, widely shared in the union movement, with what Democrats at the national level have delivered for labor, but rather to the pressing needs of the local and its members at this moment.

With all their contracts with local unionized casinos expired and a bitter organizing fight underway with the non-union Station Casinos chain, Taylor said that the group is at capacity.

“We really divide between two things, which[are] our contracts and Stations,” Taylor told National Journal.  “I’ve told everybody if we don’t have those settled, or some of them settled, we’re not going to lie to you and tell you we’re going to be involved politically.”

Taylor isn’t bashful about wanting some help from the same Democratic politicians the union has helped elect over the years. But such assistance has not been forthcoming. “Sometimes the Democrats wonder why workers don’t rally around them. It’s because they really don’t rally around workers in time of need,” he said. [my italics]

David Dayen explains why this is such a big deal.

Very few unions could pull off this kind of power play. But the Culinary Union in Nevada, the virtual home of the hospitality industry, can. They have a large membership base of cooks and housekeepers and hotel personnel in the main population centers of the state. And they have the ability to mobilize those voters, particularly the Latino voters who make up 45% of their membership, as we saw in the re-election of Harry Reid in 2010. As I noted, there are key downballot races in Nevada, in addition to the Presidential contest. Shelley Berkley and Dean Heller are in a neck-and-neck race for the US Senate. And at least one and possibly two House seats are in play.

Erik Loomis, a well-informed and generally sympathetic commentator on labor issues, questions the reason offered by the union, suggesting “the more likely reason is because Democrats rely on labor to win elections and then do very little to press labor’s agenda.”  It’s not clear why Erik thinks this, and while I agree it’s probably a part of it, it seems unlikely Local 226 would be making this move solely for that reason, or more to the point, that they would be able to defend the choice on this basis alone.  At the very least, I think it’s important to take seriously the reasons being offered, even if in the end you reject them as a possible explanation (which I don’t).

Stories about this development have generally been framed around two questions.  First, is this just a bluff?  Implicitly the answer is often yes given the stakes of the election (despite the fact that these stakes are themselves contested).  And second, is this the right strategic move for the union?

What I find strange, not in the sense that it’s unusual but rather that it’s so taken for granted, is that very few people are talking about the strategic choices of the Democratic officials who Local 226 is criticizing.
If Democrats think that the active engagement of Local 226 is so important, there is an easy solution–put pressure on Station Casinos and the unionized shops, which is what the union has been asking for all along.  Help the union resolve its disputes fairly, thereby freeing up resources for other things.  It’s simply impossible to argue with a straight face that the election and the Culinary Union’s participation are so important that the union must shift resources away from a major fight but it’s not important enough for top Democratic officials to lift a finger.

Don’t like it? Then pressure Dems and Station Casinos.

From the article linked above:

Taylor said he wants to wrap up existing contract negotiations before the elections and, more ambitiously, make inroads in a years-long fight to unionize Station Casinos, itself a powerful player in Nevada politics. Asked if he has sought help from Reid in that fight, Taylor paused, blinked twice and said, “You just have to follow the money.”

Data from the Center for Responsive Politics show that PACs and people tied to Station Casinos have been among the top 10 donors to Reid in every election cycle since 2002, with more than $74,000 given this cycle alone. Station has been a major contributor to both sides of the political aisle.

Reid failed (and continues to fail) to help by supporting them – that’s the complaint, as the quote above clearly shows. That Reid took money from Station Casinos is offered as an explanation for his inaction, not the grievance.

As Julius Getman explains, HERE (the predecessor union to UNITE HERE) determined in the late 1980s that the NLRB process was too rigged against unions to be worth pursuing.  Instead, they sought to find ways around it—specifically, the comprehensive campaign.  Unions seek to pressure employers to agree to a card check process and to ensure neutrality in order to produce a fair process.  Numerous pressure points can be pursued, but one key one is political pressure—including building alliances with key politicos who in turn can pressure employers.  Local 226 was the testing ground for this approach, and it has seen significant growth outside of the NLRB process at a time when union density has been declining around the country. (More background from Dorothee Benz on all this here).

Getting politicians to put pressure on corporations to bargain in good faith, remain neutral, etc., is standard operating procedure in a comprehensive campaign. If they won the campaign, it would energize their workers and free up resources. (I suspect it would do most of these things even if they got the help and it didn’t end the campaign).

It is certainly in the Democrats interests to do this. So it strikes me that they ought to.

So why is no one talking about that?  Why are working people supposed to sacrifice so much and top-level officials so little? Even if you think they are making the wrong choice (and hopefully you would take some time to learn about what has going on in Las Vegas before attacking someone you want to be your ally) why not also ask something of politicians and party officials who supposedly represent us?

I’ll have some thoughts about possible answers to these questions and what it means for our politics more generally later.

*I’m leaving aside other questions like the relative importance of electoral politics or working within the Democratic Party versus third parties. My argument here assumes that Democrats winning elections is the central goal.  Let’s leave those other questions for another time.

[Update 7-24-12]

Mike Elk notes that the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers (AWPPW) will picket an Obama fundraiser over the Administration’s push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade agreement.

“I was at a meeting recently with the Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, Liz Shuler. People within the labor movement are not at all happy with Obama on the trade agreements,” says [AWPPW Vice President Greg] Pallesen. “They feel the election is so close that if they beat him up on it, it will get Romney elected. That may very well be. However, as a union representing its members who are fed up with these attacks, we got to represent our members. Our members have made it clear they are sick and tired of the trade agreements. It’s our number one job killer.”

Again, labor is supposed to change but not public officials.  The rationale for so-called “free trade agreements” used  to be that they would provide economic benefits.  Now you often see people claim that they won’t actually cost jobs, which isn’t much an endorsement.  More often, the claim is that low cost goods make up for lost jobs, but in the midst of the Great Recession and close to a decade of wage stagnation this is highly questionable.  But even if AWPPW were inclined to keep quiet, it would be more difficult for them to go to their members and try to mobilize them to support Obama and the Democrats come election time.

If union help is important, why make it harder to provide?

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Written by David Kaib

July 22, 2012 at 11:32 am

3 Responses

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  1. Good post and a good summary of relevant questions.

    As I said in the comments to D-Day’s post, every dollar unions pony up to the Party is a a dollar that can’t be used on organizing and strike funds. So those resources have to be found to be of benefit to the rank and file, or it looks like a maddening waste to people who are in negotiations and may have to strike. I wouldn’t care about Reid’s fortunes, for example, if it meant me being evicted and unable to feed my kids.

    For the Democrats, winning elections isn’t Priority One. Taking care of one’s bacon is the first priority, as has been illustrated nicely by Karp, Ferguson, Wolin and others…indeed, it’s been institutionalized for the better part of 20 years now. So for most Democrats, at least on the national level, it’s better to lose and have a cushy sinecure post-election than it is to win and piss off those interests. That’s where all the incentives are now.

    All this muddies up even more when one adds in the consultant-class, for whom winning has never really been a top priority… and they run most campaigns now.

    So under the old model of traditional constituent relations, it would make sense for the Democrats, at least in this case, to back up labor and win elections. But under the new, financialized model of client (as opposed to “constituent”) relations, it’s vastly less important. A blow to one’s ego is far less painful than a blow to one’s net worth, especially when 90% of one’s cohort is doing the same thing.

    As such, it’s high time unions recognize that they are on their own and should prioritize their resources accordingly. Sadly, it’s a bit like starting from scratch, but it’s far better than seeing your accounts drained by a duplicitous Party solely interested in bigfooting other people’s money. I hope others follow and take care of their own, before ruining their own finances to benefit people who simply have no loyalty to them.

    Additionally, looking at how the money system is changing, both parties are becoming less relevant, as the system is being funded more by outside orgs than party orgs. In 2010, IIRC, roughly 70% (60? I’m not sure) of GOP campaign expenditures came from outside groups. If a party doesn’t control “it’s own resources,” it doesn’t really exist in real terms, does it?

    I tend to think the fig leaf of “political parties” will come off altogether in the next two or three election cycles. At that point it will be difficult to call our system a “democracy” in any real sense at all and like labor, we’ll also finally have to start from scratch.

    So elections don’t matter all that much. It’s not black and white, as they have to maintain the appearance of caring about them. But even that appearance of “caring” is being gradually dropped, when people like Pelosi crow about the need to auger in a “new era of austerity.”

    Ford Prefect

    July 22, 2012 at 5:06 pm

  2. […] I’m not as pessimistic as some of Meyerson’s sources are about what’s possible, but I do fear the impact of […]

  3. […] 4) Either Elections are Important or They’re Not: Unions and the Democratic Party : I object to the idea that elections are so important that unions must give anything in order to increase the chances that Democrats will win but at the same time Democrats shouldn’t have to do anything to earn that support.  When Democrats come calling for help, unions should ask what those officials have done to show they really care about workers and the strength of the union movement. […]


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