February 10, 2024
Among many other things in my 45-year trade union career, I was for 21 years the national Political Action Director of the United Electrical Workers Union (UE). In that capacity I had a daily front-row seat to witness U.S. political events unfolding at both the state and national levels. As the UE Washington Representative I was on-duty to track legislation, follow every manner of political attack on working people and our unions, keep an eye on the other unions and employers, and ultimately be part of a leadership collective that tried to make sense of the situation and devise a response by the union membership.
During those years of the 1990’s and 2000’s organized labor was thoroughly routed, and unorganized labor was reduced to a pauperized existence. We lost virtually every political battle that came along. Some in labor learned the lessons of that period, but many did not, as the current situation attests.
The most common question asked of me over those years by ordinary union members was, “Chris, why can’t we get anything done, why can’t we make any progress on our issues? What’s wrong?” I would always thoughtfully listen and inevitably answer with something like, “Well, that’s because things are working perfectly. For them. For the bosses. Because this political system is their system. It’s not our political system. They own it, they fund it, they control it. We need to understand that.” I would also explain that while we were up against this monstrous system, we still had to participate in it and look for ways to fight back, to resist, and buy time. Buy the time needed to devise some sort of alternative. Someday, somehow, we needed to break out of this trap, the “two-boss-parties-is-all-you-can-have” setup.
Union old-timers, in particular founding UE Director of Organization James Matles, cautioned constantly that workers needed to recognize the differences between “engaging in political action and playing politics.” It’s a short observation but it says it all. Today, the political program of the labor movement lies in ruins. We are holding on for dear life in many regards, just one, or maybe two more elections away from even greater disasters. Possibly even liquidation, as we are witness to today in the Florida public sector. Florida sees its first major purge of public sector unions following passage of Republicans’ anti-union law (Orlando Weekly 2/8/24).
DICTATORSHIP IN THE WORKPLACES
Labor’s political balance sheet today is breathtaking. No significant pro-union legislation has passed Congress in the past 50 years. All existing pro-union legislation and regulation is now assaulted both legislatively or by the appointed judiciary. The movement towards legalization of public sector unions at the state level is in steep retreat. Living standards for the working class continue to be eroded across the board. New union organizing has slowed to a crawl owing to epidemic corporate lawbreaking. Real retirement pensions approach extinction. Health insurance remains the costly and confusing debacle that it has been for many decades. All just for starters. It is no overstatement to observe that in the U.S. workplace today a virtual management dictatorship exists. The tiny slice of workers covered by union contracts often times enjoys something measurably better, but even their situation leaves much to be desired and ultimately is precarious.
CORRUPT TO THE CORE
Both major U.S. political parties cater to the business elites, with the Republican Party moving towards complete merger with the corporate dictatorship. The Democratic Party is a more varied and mixed bag of frequently pro-business forces, where some will sporadically raise objections to the most outrageous of the attacks on working people. But elected Democratic Presidents have held party supermajorities 3 times in the past 30 years for a total of 6 years, with virtually nothing accomplished. Presidents Clinton, Obama, and Biden all squandered these critical moments where significant legislative progress might have been made. Enormous gains were, however, made during those regimes by businesses, banks, and the super-rich. A thousand excuses were manufactured by Democrats – and those who perpetually prop them up – as to why working people were abandoned to their drowning fate. Majorities of working people therefore regularly express their disgust with the state of U.S. politics, and their reaction would be justified in the face of such endemic corruption.
A WAY OUT OF THIS JAM?
Our small trade union garrison still possesses potent strength and resources which might be used to address this decaying situation. Progress is possible, but any chance of that will require a strengthened left within the unions. A left that clearly understands the need to unify with the center elements in confronting and challenging the existing right trade union forces who are largely leading the current disastrous course. If allowed to continue their failed program things will continue to worsen and that deterioration will only accelerate. The very existence of the unions is at stake.
There are several key elements that explain labor’s badly broken and failed political action “program”:
REFUSAL TO ORGANIZE
The near complete refusal of the unions to undertake the organization of the many tens of millions of workers in the industries is a paramount political problem. The numerical size of the union membership has now sunk to such a low point that any mass influence is being hopelessly diluted. The political messages of the labor movement rarely extend beyond the membership, leaving the unorganized in the near-complete grip of the bosses and their media.
POLITICAL MONEY OVER MOBILIZATION
Union ‘leadership” has chosen in many quarters to go all-in on political fundraising programs, hoping to outspend millionaire and billionaire opposition with out-of-pocket contributions from a shrinking pool of members. With hundreds of millions of dollars poured into mostly Democratic Party coffers each year, anti-union spending still grows beyond any capacity to compete. Unions rarely disclose the political recipients of this labor cash as well, magnifying the mistrust of the membership. So far as any major or mass mobilization of the union membership on the political front, these are restricted to relatively tiny election season get-out-the-vote brigades. Long forgotten are any attempts to mobilize on a mass scale even at election time, let alone between elections.
NO POLITICAL EDUCATION
As political spending by unions reaches its bloated limit the existing membership is increasingly disoriented by the cesspool of the corporate news media. Huge numbers of union members today commonly refuse the political direction offered by their unions, instead embracing out-and-out union-smashing politicians and candidates. Many union members in this situation have politically demobilized entirely. Any semblance of trade union or class-oriented political education for members has been long abandoned. Frequently not even the simplest work is done to instruct the membership in the political or economic realities of the current situation.
OPENLY DISCREDITED METHODS
Sporadic attempts to at least do something to conduct even rudimentary political education are frequently debased by discredited and even preposterous claims on behalf of Democrats. Most abysmal of all of these being repeating the Biden boast of being “the most pro-union President in U.S. history.” All modern political studies have shown that working people are openly mistrustful of such general claims and cheap bromides from a union “leadership” that is itself held in low regard by working people. Childish attempts to present life-and-death matters in a “non-partisan” wrapper also fail miserably and at worst minimize the danger of the most anti-labor forces on the political battlefield.
UNWILLINGNESS TO CONFRONT ANTI-LABOR FORCES
Most union political operations avoid the required explanations detailing the full extent of Republican plans to liquidate organized labor on behalf of the employers and ultra-right forces. Fearing some backlash from the membership who might disagree or object, this timid approach has led to a watering-down of the messages needed to convey the urgency of the moment. Canned slogans and go-easy rhetoric replace the needed hard-hitting wake-up calls aimed at the membership. Fanatic anti-union politicians get the light touch, as the unions increasingly resort to feelgood “positive” messages at election time. When combined with the lack of any ongoing political education within the unions this expands the full boundaries of the disastrous situation.
FEW DEMANDS PUT ON DEMOCRATS
Labor’s “leadership” has delivered a profoundly bad bargain for the huge sums of money and millions of votes regularly handed to Democrats – literally without conditions. While there are some exceptions to this – mostly at the state and local level – it is painfully routine for labor’s needs to be ignored once Democrats win office. As Republicans continue to metastasize into a malignant anti-union and anti-worker political force, Democrats are well aware that their positions and governance need only be somewhere to the left of the Republicans to guarantee receiving the coveted labor union cash and votes.
FOOTSIES WITH THE ENEMY
As the recent meeting held by Teamsters President O’Brien with President Trump attests, the phenomenon of labor “leaders” playing footsies with arch-reactionary and anti-union politicians is alive and well. All manner of these ridiculous and contemptible maneuvers were commonplace just a few years ago, being reduced in frequency mostly because of the unwillingness of Republicans to engage in these theatrics anymore. The skillful Trump is not to be underestimated in this regard, however, as he senses the deep dissatisfaction among working people with the failing and flailing Biden regime. Refusing to hit head-on the enemies of labor by educating and mobilizing the membership, elements such as Teamster big O’Brien instead play the dangerous game of legitimizing anti-labor maniacs such as Trump. And if the past is our guide, this episode may open the door to additional labor tea parties with Trump before the November elections. Assorted “misleaders of labor” will be tempted to “play politics” with Trump and his ilk rather than do the difficult work of educating and leading their membership in the hard political fights that loom.
INDEPENDENT POLITICAL ACTION
The current fiasco on the political front for organized labor is frustrating and dangerous, to say the least. Decades of mis-leadership, laziness, corruption, and a generally unimaginative and conservative trade union “leadership” has delivered us to the current moment. With a labor movement so politically crippled and addled it is also no surprise that it has difficulty commanding the loyalty of its own membership, let alone the unorganized majorities among the working class.
The chances of improving this deplorable situation are bound up with the need to build a renewed and viable left wing within the unions. The conservatives in the union leadership have proven their unwillingness to address any of these catastrophic problems, and in fact most of them would not even recognize the problems at all. Left forces in the unions must re-establish themselves and seek out honest center elements that can be won over to a more realistic program of political action. And should organized labor fail to address the situation of the unorganized any remedy to the current political problem is unlikely. A renewed program of new organization will be accompanied by a rejuvenated program of actual political action based on an increasingly independent labor movement. New growth and vitality will be the antidote to the utterly failed political “action” programs that we are saddled with today.
-Chris Townsend is a 45-year union member and leader. He was most recently the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) International Union Organizing Director. Previously he was an International Representative and Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE), and he has held local positions in both the SEIU and UFCW. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org