Divide to Conquer?
When I look at Sweeney, I see Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968. Decent enough men. Way past their prime. Completely lacking in the vision thing. Elevated to the top of the organizations they lead by their predecessor and/or the well entrenched insiders. Organizations with demonstrable failures that they cannot reject and therefore, embrace. Organizations that don’t accept any responsibility for their failures.
The difference is that Unions have been wandering in the wasteland for years and 1968 was when the Democratic Party entered the wasteland. Maybe when I see Humphrey in Sweeney, I am only seeing the face of a leader in the wasteland. And the faces of Humphrey and Sweeney morph into each other because the progressive voices in their organizations at convention time made a stand. Both in Chicago - noisily on the part of young Democrats and through a boycott of the convention by unions representing approximately a third of union members. The progressive rank and file didn’t want what Humphrey and Sweeney were selling.
What keeps people like Sweeney in power is a combination of organizational inertia, the skill of insiders to prevent alternative leaders to emerge with enough solid support to challenge the anointed one and fear. Fear that the external opposition will gain strength if internal divisions are recognized. Conflict is seen at something that must be denied and not something that requires resolution and institutional change.
Organizations in the wasteland collude with the opposition and expend a lot of energy beating down the voices of those who object to cozying up to the opposition. They allow the opposition to frame the debate and concede the major points, reduced to quibbling minor points. Don’t debate a preemptive invasion of a country that poses no threat, but quibble over the execution of the invasion and occupation. Settling for a few minor victories and losing most of the minor and all of the major ones. Enmeshed in organizational delusion that they will win the next big one and the big one will reinvigorate and renew the organization.
Organizations in the wasteland are always out of step with those they should best serve. Organizations gasping for breath, one step short of going on life support, exhibit a disconnect between the top and a large contingent of those in “middle management.” Many observed such a disconnect at the 2004 Democratic Convention. Mr. “reporting for duty,” the man who would wage war better than GWB, echoed Richard Nixon, and that echo extended beyond foreign policy to domestic policy. No wonder the Democratic Party has found so much recent support from those who once supported Nixon and more recently Reagan and GHB.
Andy Stern was one of the few who expressed his disgust with the 2004 Democratic Convention charade. Who could see the utter cluelessness of the Party. Who saw it long before then, but saw the handwriting on the wall for the 2004 election at the convention. Nothing since the election has given me any hope that the Democratic Party is poised for a resurgence in the near future. They always begin from a defeatist position. Can’t keep flaming rightwing nutcases off the bench. Can’t challenge those who took the US to Iraq. Can’t object to the someone outside the “mainstream” who arrives from central casting for the SCOTUS. (Only 29% of this country wants the SCOTUS to overturn Roe. Sandra Day O’Connor was in the mainstream on that question and it did much to blunt the perception of how truly conservative and far out of the mainstream that she was on a large number of issues.) If the Democratic Party is incapable of scoring strong points when 70% of the public agrees with their position, how can they ever win when the margin is smaller? In short, nothing in the Democratic Party that suggests that they can regain and retain power. Labor and unions are so far down the list of concerns for the Democratic Party that even if GWB falls and takes down some congressional seats with him, there is no gain for labor by merely dumping their resources into propping up the Democratic Party.
History is not kind to splinter groups. In part because the internal strife is frequently not reduced, and can magnify, in the splinter group. In part because the splinter group is too narrow and membership tends to be at its largest at the point of the rupture or shortly thereafter than it will be in the future. In part because the splinter group leadership is rarely any better than what was left behind. Stern’s no dummy. He knows all of that. However, when to stay is to slowly die, it’s difficult for the alternative to be worse.
The thing Stern has going for himself that Howard Dean didn’t have is a strong base of support that was years in the making. They’ll hang in there with him even if they experience some set-backs. They have more commitment to SEIU than they do the AFL-CIO. Their growth is more dependent on expanding unionization than it is in attracting others from the AFL-CIO to join them, beyond the Teamsters that provided the critical mass that Stern needed to make his move. It will be interesting to see if the two waiting in the wings decide to take the plunge but where the new coalition is in two years is more important than how far they get in the next few weeks.
Is it coincidental that as union membership declined, voter participation rates also declined? I think not. Whether that translated into a 5%, 10% or larger reduction in voting participation can’t be known. But even 5% is significant when winning margins are so small. Maybe it had no impact in the right to work states in the south, but it’s not difficult to postulate that it has had a decisive impact in OH, MO and WV.
Politically, as deadly as the decline in union membership has been over the past thirty years from a third of workers to 13%, union households still account for something close to 25% of voters. However, only 60% of those voters support Democrats. That’s not a strong enough electoral base. As in any broad measure, there will be no single explanation as to why that 40% appears to vote against their own interests. However, broadly it does indicate a significant disconnect between unions and their members. OTOH, policies like NAFTA championed by the primary Democratic spokesperson doesn’t help. If unions are to be an effective political force, they can’t simply contribute money to Democrats and run phone banks on election day.
Unions have put themselves into a negative feedback loop. (They created the conditions precedent that Reagan needed to begin a frontal attack on them. The busting of PATCO has always seemed to me to be a seminal event in the labor movement. At the time, I was shocked to encounter union members that could have cared less about PATCO. Non-union workers were completely ignorant of how the existence of strong unions benefited them. They can’t see the strong correlation between the decline in real wages and the decline in union membership.) Unions can’t deliver the winning margins necessary to give them the political clout to demand governmental policies that will protect unions and bring back those lost traditional union jobs. Nor can they see much benefit in organizing low wage workers and none in organizing workers abroad that they view not as their brothers and sisters but as their enemies.
The dynamics that built unions are similar to what built the Democratic political power. The young, the poor, the disenfranchised. Slow down the entry flow of new members and the institutional power base erodes. When union leadership acts more like management than the voice of workers and Democratic leadership relates more to corporations than “the people,” the growth dynamics are long gone. What both organizations completely overlooked is that as members age and/or get a secure and large enough personal piece of the economic pie, they get selfish. The more they get, the more they want. They more they have, the more they resent union dues and taxes. Devalue unions and government.
I’m not prescient enough to know if Stern will succeed. Maybe workers will have to be abused more and the economy spiral downward much faster before workers wake up. Nor do I know how long the Democratic and Republican Parties can survive with 25% of the electorate each. Do the fundamentalist “Christians” hang in through two more election cycles if the GOP doesn’t get Roe overturned? How empty can their wallets get before Roe seems not so important? How long do the civil libertarians hang in with Democrats that screech patriotism over personal freedom?
Democrats and the DLC are back to preaching the same old thing -- “find the center.” The AFL-CIO is still banking on the Democrats finding the “center.” Both risk becoming shrinking middle-class, “white collar” organizations. Bland, timid and lacking long-term memory and vision. Stern is interesting. Feisty. Passionate. Qualities people long for in leaders until one surfaces. Then they run like hell back to those who promise to stop time. An ostrich for the ostrich gaggle on the path to Dodo-Land.