Monday, June 9, 2008

Labor and elections: thoughts

by Ben Sears

A few thoughts on Labor and the coming elections:

Generally, it looks as if labor is ready to get behind the Obama candidacy and go to work to defeat McCain. Local and regional labor leaders from unions across the political spectrum appear to agree on this. For instance, local and state leaders of the AFT in Pennsylvania told the union's retirees at the annual luncheon last week, just after Sen.Clinton had decided to end her candidacy, that working all out to elect Obama and defeat McCain was now the job of union members. I understand that national AFT president Ed McElroy also made a statement. I'm still looking for it. The AFT was one of Hillary's early backers last fall.

At the PA AFL-CIO convention (in April I think it was), the over 700 delegates represented unions that were roughly evenly split between Obama and Clinton. They set an encouraging tone by receiving both candidates in a spirit of solidarity and listening to their remarks and basically getting in the spirit of putting a Democrat in the White House with a big Congressional majority.

A concern is that I'm also in hearing in conversations that significant percentages of members of unions that supported Clinton are angry enough about the primary elections' outcome to say they are interested in candidate McCain. In the case of AFT-PA the number I heard was 40 percent. That is a minority, of course, but a sizable minority. The union, I understand, generally figures that if 75 percent of members in PA support their candidate, they can have a significant influence on the state results. If this is true, that means that we have our work cut out for us: getting the number from 60 to 75 percent by Nov.

That is why it's encouraging to hear what Clinton is saying now. Essentially, to paraphrase, "if you support me, then support Obama. That's what I'm doing!"

The way the union endorsements broke down is interesting. Looking on the website of "Working Families Vote 2008" one finds, for example, that building trades unions (are these the folks that pundits stereotyped as the "white working class without a college education?") had a range of opinion. The plumbers and pipe fitters, whose abbreviation is UA (for the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentice Plumber and Pipefitters) and who claim over 300,000 members (including 35,000 in Canada) endorsed Obama early on--January or Feb of '08. The Utility Workers (UWUA) did the same in Feb. More recently industrial unions (that had either made no endorsement or had endorsed John Edwards) such as the mineworkers (UMW) and the steelworkers (USW) have come on board.

The issues that are getting the most emphasis in the labor movement should, upon even rudimentary reflection, render a vote for McCain virtually out of the question for anyone who works for a living: affordable healthcare, employee free choice, the environment (yes, true), and fair trade.

The fair trade issue can be both simple and complex at the same time. On the one hand, shipping jobs overseas to lower wage areas is no good. Simple. On the other hand, this issue can tempt politicians--and labor leaders--to pander to what they think are jingoist, super patriot instincts in order to rack up votes. This is where labor really could make its singular contribution by emphasizing solidarity with workers in places where the wages are low.

Also, it looks now as if labor's tendency is downplay the war as an issue. Maybe I'm making too much of this. Obama is the presumptive candidate, and he's the one who opposed the war from the beginning. In fact, Hillary's vote authorizing the war and her failure to repudiate it or apologize for it are being given as a big reason for her losing the nomination in some quarters. So, I guess you could argue that, by implication, labor support for Obama is a sign that labor is willing to back an anti-war candidate.

Comments and responses on these thoughts are, of course, welcome. The deadline for the print edition is not until Fri.


Joel said...

I wonder what Labor's overall national impact on the elections will be in 2008. I think I recall reading that it was about one-quarter (when union household members were factored in) of all voters, and that 75% of those voted Democratic. Is this true? What will it be in 2008?

Anonymous said...

I am not sure of the numbers right now, but Joel is right in general. Labor households have been the strongest mass force in the Democratic party and trade unionists the most significant longterm activist group. Reagan for example through a variety of phoney appeals got a larger minority of union households, but still a distinct minority, and this helped him win a large victory in his second term, where he had already significantly weakened the labor movement.
There is no reason, even the kind of phoney ones that Reagan used(he as former president of the screen actors guild claimed to be the "only union leader" to run for president, and pitched the trickle down theory as the best way to establish prosperity for labor) that McCain will draw labor votes.
It is also unlikely that Obama will not receive fairly united labor support. To be frank, I expect the Republican campaign to be centered around coded racist appeals, aimed at a variety of groups, including non trade union white working people, portraying Obama as someone who would "represent" Blacks and other minorities "against" them on questions of jobs, most of all.
Norman Markowitz

Doug said...

Unions need to do a better job of educating and informing the membership about the struggle of undocumented immigrants. Union workers need to realize that the struggle of the immigrants is their struggle too. I fear many (white) union households will vote against Obama or stay home on election day because they are brainwashed into thinking that undocumented immigrants are causing the economic recession and the rise in fuel prices.