Three years ago I wrote in one of my initial Chief columns that “…there are only two political institutions that have even the remotest chance of serving as the vehicles to get our democracy back on the path to personal economic security and transparent, functional government that serves the interest of working people instead of the wealthy elite. Those two institutions are the labor movement and the Democratic Party.”
So here we are three years later and three years into the existential national political nightmare known as Donald Trump, facing the most critical national election since 1932, and these institutions’ political directions are a muddle.
Rank and File Split
Let’s begin with labor and the most distressing point of anything else that follows. For years now I have written and spoken about the fact that survey research since the Reagan election of 1980 has consistently shown that Democratic Presidential candidates rarely get more than 60 percent of union voters in presidential elections. Now that might seem like a good percentage, until one realizes that 40 percent of union members are voting for Republican Presidential candidates who make no secret of their disdain for any policy that would strengthen union organizing or membership! So 40 percent of union members are voting against their own economic interest.
That’s bad. But it gets much worse. A Jan. 27 ABC-Washington Post poll noted that in 2016, the Democrat/Republican split in union member voting percentage fell to 55-46; and even worse, the current Biden-Trump polling margin among union members was 49-45! So, the candidate currently touted as the “labor” candidate, Joe Biden, does not even get the support of a bare majority of union members in a reliable poll of 2020 voters.
What is happening here? Webster’s New World Dictionary 1960 College edition defines a “movement” as “... a series of organized activities by people working concertedly toward some goal. “Labor” is not only not working concertedly; it does not appear to have a goal!
Individual unions are scattered about the Dem candidate field. That results in a disjointed message to union members and the public that significantly diminishes labor’s impact on this election.
And “labor” is also not adequately engaging and educating their membership. Certainly not when the candidate currently touted as the most-representative of “labor’s” interest does not get even a bare majority of union workers’ support in a serious poll!
Trump wins if he maintains the 46% of union members he got in 2016. The ABC-WAPO poll has him at 45%, with 6% undecided. If he gets only 1% of those undecided, it will give him the union-member vote with which he won in 2016! I repeat: what is happening here?
Labor Issues Neglected
And there’s more. Not only is “labor” absent from the conversation, worker issues hardly even register in polling; nor do they emanate from the mouths of most of the Democratic candidates. A Jan. 30 chart in The New York Times titled “Priorities of the Supporters of Leading Democratic Candidates, Ranked From 1 to 41” notes only three of forty-one issues that have somewhat of a relationship to work and workers: the $15 minimum wage, a Universal Jobs Guarantee and the always misnamed “Right-to-work laws.”
A Federal $15 minimum wage is important; a universal job guarantee is nirvana. But the fight against union-busting, so-called “right-to-work” laws is current, ongoing and existential! The $15 minimum wage was pretty high up at a 14 rating average among supporters of the candidates. But right-to-work was way down at an average priority of 36 out of 41!
Where is there any public consciousness of the fact that union workers make better wages and receive better benefits than non-union workers? Where is the point made that bolstering union representational rights will improve the lot of all workers on the job? Answer: nowhere!
This is because labor is absent from public discourse. This is because labor has no public message. In the 1970s, we all hummed “Look For The Union Label,” and “Norma Rae” was a film-award winner. Fifty years on we’ve got … not much! A supposedly preferred candidate who couldn’t deliver “card check” certification for union organizing campaigns as Vice President in 2009, and who gets only 49 percent of union voters today. And this while there are two other candidates, Warren and Sanders, who support everything that the labor “movement” purports to want, but who are deemed “too radical” to be supported. You can’t make this stuff up!
And with reference to those two “scary” candidates, consider this. The Nevada Independent reported on Feb. 11 that the Nevada Culinary Union distributed a flyer to its members claiming that Bernie Sanders would “end Culinary Healthcare” if elected President.
What they don’t say is that it is a basic tenet of contract bargaining that a union would advocate for higher wages if a previously negotiated benefit—like health care, pensions or even working conditions—were to be provided by the society through government action. Union leaders know this. So one can only assume that misinforming their members means they are afraid of altering their organizational bureaucracy, or of building a better society in which worker needs are recognized and met through public policy.
Not Exactly Neutral
Not hallmark behavior for a “movement”! But this became more bizarre when it was reported three days later that this union was not endorsing a candidate in the Nevada caucus. So let’s tell the members who not to vote for; but not tell them who to vote for. Now that’s a weird form of leadership.
If labor were a “movement” its “concerted goal” would be better wages, benefits and working conditions for all workers. And, as in other “social democracies” worldwide, such a “movement” would constantly and aggressively work to build a civil society in which the democratic government would provide its citizens with rights and benefits through programs that would constantly better their lives. If society, through government, provided health care to all its citizens and pensions to all its workers, unions could focus more on increasing wages, enhancing the workplace environment; and improving worker-management interaction, skill development and other worker concerns. If you take the Culinary workers’ contention to its logical conclusion, we would never have gained the eight-hour day, or the five-day work-week. We would never have gotten workplace safety through OSHA; never have seen time-and-a-half overtime pay. All these policies were achieved or reinforced through government intervention supported by strong and concerted union action.
Disingenuous is a kind term for this behavior. The unions that are advancing this bogus Medicare-for-all attack on Sanders and Warren know damn well that the original Medicare legislation was part of LBJ’s Great Society program that the labor “movement” wholeheartedly supported! And without that Medicare program, unions would likely not be able to provide decent medical care for their retirees even today.
Finally, here’s the worst news. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that union membership rate fell yet again in 2019. And that is notwithstanding a gain in membership in the public-employee-union sector that resulted from good old-fashioned internal organizing on the part of the major public unions after the Supreme Court’s Janus decision. If that good old-fashioned organizing was applied by other unions to keep members engaged and educating them constantly to where their interests lie, then labor might still be a “movement.” If “Labor” constantly, publicly, and consistently touted its involvement in any and all political issues that affect workers, they might still be a “movement.” If their involvement was united and “concerted,” and not a victim of concocted differences among “locals” and “internationals,” they would absolutely still be a “movement.”
But sadly, this is not the case. Labor is an association. Labor is an interest group. And because there are thousands of associations and interest groups vying in the political process, labor gets lost. If it has a “concerted goal” which is part of a movement’s primary definition, this year’s Democratic Presidential nominating process would be the obvious place to begin projecting that. But there appears to be no such concerted effort, among and across the different unions associated with the national AFL-CIO, to affect the outcome of the Democratic presidential nominating process.
Supposedly Biden is labor’s candidate. But that does not seem to be working well so far. I’ve always liked Biden. But I think his time has passed and there are better candidates who have been running hard for over a year now. But if it’s Joe Biden, then go all in for him! As I said in another column three years ago, be the dog and make the party your tail; not vice versa!
Because by not being the dog, by not being united and concerted in choosing and working for a candidate; by not adequately educating and organizing their members to achieve better than 60 percent support for a worker-oriented Democrat in the general election, the current association of labor unions is relinquishing any meaningful control of the nominating process, thus opening the path to a Trump-Bloomberg billionaire oligarch presidential contest which will not end up benefiting unions or their members, or workers anywhere.
In Part 2 of this piece, I’ll be dealing with the second question of its title: Are The Democrats Still A Party?
Editor’s note: Mr. Montalbano is a retired labor lobbyist and former political action director for District Council 37.
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