American federalism and the case for reevaluating labor’s priorities.

On March 8th, Wisconsin became the 25th state to legalize the open shop. The provision commonly referred to as “right-to-work” by the corporations and right-wing politicians who back it has very little to do with economic freedom and liberty for workers, and everything to do with the destruction of a movement that has given the American economy a tiny measure of democracy. Ever since the 2010 elections that swept Republicans to power across the country, the push to make America an open shop nation has been stronger than at any time since the policy’s genesis in the Jim Crow South. Nineteen state legislatures have seen right-to-work proposals during the 2015 session, a clip similar to the period between 2011-2014, and there is no reason to believe that the pace will be slowing down anytime soon.

In Local Elections and the Politics of Small-Scale Democracy, J. Eric Oliver notes that the people who are most likely to vote in local elections are those who own homes. This makes sense in a way; the homeowner is more directly affected by changes in their land values than those who rent, and are thus more likely to be in tune with the ways in which local government engages in land management. Oliver notes that as land management is the most important function that most local governments provide (since many communities contract their emergency services and utilities to county or regional authorities), it will be the concerns of the homeowner that dominate election issues at the local level.

But another thing that drives the disparity between homeowner turnout and renter turnout in local elections is the gap in outreach to the two groups of people. According to data the author pulled from the National Elections Studies in 2008, homeowners were reported to be 60 percent more likely to have been contacted by a political campaign than renters. Combine that with educational disparities (renters are twice as likely to not have a high school degree), and homeowners are engaged with at a rate at least double that of renters. While Oliver makes the case that low turnout in local elections should not be automatically seen as a delegitimizing force in our democracy, the fact that there are some who are being engaged in the political process and others who are not is something that is deeply troubling. This goes double when you consider that renters are three-and-a-half times more likely to earn under $15,000 a year (the rough estimate of the federal poverty line for a family of two) than homeowners. These stats underline a long-standing contention by political scientists and leftist organizers alike that American democracy is regressing in its responsiveness to working-class concerns.

But the question becomes: how do we change this for the better?

A disengagement from federal politics….

The labor movement has given generously to federal politicians, particularly the Democratic Party. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, well over 90 percent of all donations go to Democratic candidates. In addition to the money spent directly on campaigning, labor unions have spent nearly $428.6 million on lobbying members of Congress on their top issues. What does labor have to show for it? Not the Employee Free Choice Act, despite having the largest Congressional majority in over four decades. Not a public option for Obamacare. Not any kind of deal that will prevent the so-called “Cadillac plan tax” under Obamacare from hitting the health benefits that labor has won through negotiation and struggle. And all the money spent on ensuring that a Democrat remained in the White House did not keep the President from appointing judges and cabinet members who have worked against the working class throughout their careers.

If we could not get decent labor policy during a Democratic bonanza at the federal level, what are we honestly to expect when the party of Scott Walker controls Congress? Maybe we get another Democratic president, but Hillary Clinton ain’t exactly Norma Rae. It is clear that both parties have failed unions and the working class at the national level and that a reassessment of priorities for movement resources is required.

….and a rededication of resources to the local level.

Recent years have brought with them some very encouraging news for the working class in local politics and policymaking. In 2010, local labor unions in New Haven, Connecticut backed city council candidates and defeated candidates backed by the long-serving Mayor (and failed 2006 Democratic gubernatorial candidate) John DeStefano. The year 2013 would be even better: in addition to the election of socialist Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council, a slate of independent labor candidates stormed the city council elections in Lorain County, Ohio; in that election, nearly two dozen candidates defeated people backed by the long-dominant Democratic machine in the union-dense county.

But winning the election was not enough; these candidates had to produce once they were in office. And produce they have:

  1. While the Fight For 15 was a movement that predated Sawant’s ascension to the city council, her dogged determination on the issue pushed the council and mayor to an agreement that will bring in a $15 minimum wage for Seattle workers in the next few years
  2. The New Haven councillors crafted an agreement that allowed a charter school into the city, but mandated them to allow the unionization of its employees and the acceptance of disadvantaged children who were not already in one of their schools elsewhere

And in Lorain County, the councillors have simply given an ear to the working class that had not been there before, when the former mayor took it upon himself to break a picket line and do sanitation work for a day. That work can be just as valuable as a concrete policy outcome. Increasing the political efficacy of the working class is what spurs the development of social movements and efforts at an independent political voice in a landscape where common concerns can fall on deaf ears. The capital class knows this all too well, and has seemingly cleared the floor for the advancement of anti-worker policies.

I thought I read that the New Haven effort began as some sort of worker center?

You read correctly.

That is the last plank of this community engagement plan. It has nothing to do with labor unions, of course, as worker centers are barred from engaging in activities that could be seen as preparing workers to join a union. Doing so would bring them under the administrative clutches of the Landrum-Griffin Act, which has odious reporting requirements that often hamstring union organizing budgets. But they should be more than just a means of entry into traditional labor unions, anyway: they should independently act as a means of mobilizing the working class around issues of democracy and economic justice, as well as educating communities about the ways in which capitalism continues to fail them on a regular basis.

Local and state governments are often referred to as the “Laboratory of American Democracy”, and it is not hard to see why: the pilot projects that begin in a neighborhood, city, or county can become national policy under the right circumstances. The dismantling of our national welfare system did not begin with President Clinton in 1996; it began over a decade earlier with Gov. Tommy Thompson’s (R-WI) efforts to change the federal matching system for funding to a block grant system that would severely curb the flexibility of state governments in managing their welfare systems. After a reduction in welfare rolls (but, notably, not a reduction in relative poverty), the program was greenlighted for other governors who wanted to do the same. Eventually, it became federal statute with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which is the welfare reform bill that President Clinton signed into law. So it was with this thing that its proponents called “right-to-work” in Florida during the early 1940s. After its passage in a statewide referendum, the policy spread like wildfire across the South and the Great Plains, eventually finding federal backing in the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, better known to opponents and allies as Taft-Hartley.

With an increased focus on communities and local politics, the labor movement can begin to turn the tide against the right-wing onslaught of the last couple of years. Otherwise we are just waiting for the next catastrophe to take hold.

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