Union officials were steamed at the Obama administration after the Arkansas primary election Tuesday in which blue dog incumbent Democrat Blanche Lincoln won a not-too-surprising victory over Lt. Governor Bill Halter. It was reported that after Lincoln’s victory, administration staffers were saying the $10 million spent by the AFL-CIO on Halter’s campaign was a pointless waste of time and damaging to the Democratic Party.
According to the Huffington Post, a senior Democrat said, “Labor is humiliated. Ten million flushed down the toilet at a time when Democrats across the country are fighting for their lives, they look like absolute idiots.”
On the contrary, I say. For the first time in ages we are doing what Samuel Gompers, the founder of the labor movement, advised our predecessors to do more than 100 years ago: Reward our friends; punish our enemies.
And it’s about time—actually 50 or so years late.
In response to the indignant Democrats, AFL-CIO spokesman Eddie Vale said the unions are not an arm of the Democratic Party. “Is the lesson they are taking out of tonight that they can go after labor and anonymously trash us and we will put our tail between our legs and slink home? That ain’t happening,” Vale promised.
That’s good news to those of us old enough to remember all the promises that have been broken over the years by our so-called friends in the Democratic Party. Former President Bill Clinton, supposedly a “friend,” campaigned vigorously for Blanche Lincoln, who demonized the Arkansas unions in the primary campaign.
It was our friend Clinton who foisted the North American Free Trade on the country in 1992. NAFTA was the catalyst for loss of the country’s manufacturing base, which has cost hundreds of thousands of American jobs. And, lest we forget, Clinton failed to help labor pass an anti-scab bill during his first term as president. The bill would have made it illegal for strikebound employers to permanently replace striking workers. Key votes were cast against the bill by the two U.S. senators from Arkansas, who were friends of Bubba.
It is probably too much to expect that Eddie Vale’s heresy in Arkansas will permeate all of organized labor in the immediate future. Labor has been too timid and too compliant for too long.
That timidity has wrought nothing good–wage losses (real wages for U.S. workers have declined since 2000); fewer benefits, such as health insurance (with higher portions of the cost paid by employees); relaxed enforcement of workplace health and safety laws; less regulation of Wall Street money manipulators, multinational corporations and banking interests and the loss of manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries, among other things.
Meanwhile, because of its repeated refusal to demand anything of real value from the Democratic Party—such as passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would be the first labor-friendly revision of federal labor law since 1935—unions now represent only about 10 percent of our national workforce.
Democrats have offered little opposition to the corporate takeover of American politics in the past 50 years. But what happened in the Arkansas’ primary might stiffen labor’s backbone enough for more unions to stop supporting Democratic candidates who offer nothing more than that they are Democrats. Union leadership should immediately adopt a policy of labor first, Democrats second before the movement can be resuscitated
Labor joined with progressives and disenchanted independents in conservative Arkansas and almost engineered a major upset. In less conservative states, such a strategy might be highly successful.
And in some other states–Colorado among them–there have been encouraging indications that more and more labor leaders are finally becoming disenchanted with the Democratic Party, and that will be good in the long run.