Unions Hedge Their Democratic Bets

By Daniel Kreiss

Throughout this election year, labor unions have been stalwarts of John Kerry’s campaign for president. They attend rallies, make donations, and volunteer with activist groups to register new and lapsed voters.

But even while dedicated to putting a Democrat in the White House, some new unions are working at the ground level to make the party more responsive to their concerns on issues such as health care and free trade.

These efforts include running their own candidates in Democratic primaries, and even building an alternative political party in New York state.

Waning influence
Union membership has steadily declined over the years — from 20.1 percent of the workforce in 1983 to 12.9 percent, or 15.8 million people, last year.

But union clout remains formidable: According to CNN, fifty-nine percent of the union electorate supported Al Gore in 2000. And on August 10, the Chicago Tribune reported that the AFL-CIO and other major labor groups will collectively invest an estimated $150 million in get-out-the-vote efforts this year.

Members can be influential “beyond their numbers,” said David Levine, a business professor at the University of California in Berkeley, “not just as voters and not just as contributors … but as volunteers manning the phones and knocking on doors.”

But Democrats have not necessarily returned the favor, said Stanley Aronowitz, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York.

“For the last 25 years the unions have always supported the Democrats against their own interest,” he said. “At the policy level, union influence has waned … [Kerry] voted for NAFTA, whether unions endorsed it or not.”

Lane Windham, spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO, said unmet union priorities under both Clinton and Bush include raising the minimum wage and securing health care coverage for America’s 45 million uninsured.

The AFL-CIO, representing 13 million members from 63 unions, is also pushing for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which was introduced in November 2003 but has not moved far in a Republican Congress.

The bill would strengthen the employee protections of the National Labor Relations Act, which unions say does not allow employees adequate recourse to mediation and arbitration, limits their ability to unionize, and doesn’t provide adequate penalties for employer violations.

“Needing to make people earn it”
Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at UC Santa Barbara, said leaders of new labor activism include the Service Employees International Union and the Union of Needletrades, Textiles and Industrial Employees.

He described then as “imaginative unions; both are thinking of new ways to connect with social [activists]” by recruiting idealistic young organizers right out of college, and building a membership base in hotels, casinos, hospitals and laundries — industries that, unlike an automobile factory, can’t be easily relocated to Mexico or China if employees try to organize.

UNITE recently merged with the 265,000 member Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, and now represents 880,000 active and retired members in 46 states, primarily in urban areas with abundant textile and laundry industries, hotels, casinos and airports.

“In the late 1990’s we started to talk and act as an independent union,” said Abbie Illenberger, an assistant political director for the group. “We stopped giving money to the Democratic Party, we made stricter endorsement procedures … There was definitely a sense of needing to make people earn it before and after they get elected.”

These new unions are promoting emerging, pro-labor Democratic candidates, in the hopes of refashioning the party to be more attentive to their concerns.

They were among the first to endorse Howard Dean in the Democratic primaries, and Illenberger said the SEIU also was a supporter of North Carolina’s John Edwards in his successful 1999 run for Senate.

According to Lichtenstein, unions have had notable political success in Los Angeles.

“The key in L.A. is the rise of the service sector unions,” he said. “They have the L.A. Federation of Labor. They usually win, not just in the general election, but also the primaries … They intervened in primary campaigns, and they could pull out precinct workers.”

An AFL-CIO affiliate, the Los Angeles Federation of Labor was credited in 2000 with helping get a progressive Democrat, Hilda Solis, elected to the House of Representatives, by challenging the centrist incumbent Matthew Martinez during the primaries.

Activist leaders
Aronowitz advocates unions forming their own labor party modeled on New York’s Working Families party, a coalition of labor and grassroots organizations with 19,000 members.

Both UNITE and the SEIU have leadership roles in the organization, which under New York state law is able to cross-endorse candidates in other parties.

According to their website, in 2003 the Working Families party endorsed 532 candidates, crossing party lines primarily in support of Democrats, and providing the margin of victory in 24 races.

Also in 2003, Working Families candidate Letitia James became the first third-party member elected to the New York City Council since 1977.

UC Berkeley’s Levine said that any labor optimism is based on hopes for motivating the rank-and-file.

“I think the image that [union activists] are hoping for is thousands and thousands of union voters spreading out through the country, knocking on doors, driving people to the polls, filling out absentee ballots,” he said, but turnout is not guaranteed. “[I]t’s not clear if all of this vision will be implemented.”

It remains to be seen whether labor will be able to advance its policy goals with a hypothetical Kerry win, or even be willing to criticize the Democrats after four years under Bush.

But Andrew Stern, president of the SEIU, recently broke ranks on the opening day of the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Stern told the Washington Post that the Democrats and organized labor are in “deep crisis,” and that complacency following a Kerry win might hinder reforms.

His remarks drew rebukes from other union leaders, including Teamster president James P. Hoffa and AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney.

The next day Stern issued a statement reaffirming his support for Kerry.

Illenberger said that UNITE will continue their efforts regardless of who becomes president.

“Well, one thing we talk a lot about within the union and our membership is that our job starts again on November third,” she said. “Even when you put your friends in office, they do not automatically do what you want.”

Additional reporting by the editors

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