The Role of Labor in a Political Campaign
by Matt Stoller, Thu Dec 01, 2005 at 10:33:32 AM EST
For instance, SEIU had a huge victory in Houston, organizing 5000 janitors, and yet there was very little chatter on this enormously important victory. Nathan Newman had to go so far to point out to Ezra Klein why it is in fact a good thing. I don't have very much experience with campaigns and politics, but what I do have suggests that even small groups of labor support are critically useful. 5000 janitors can provide a base for a politician, and that politician can write labor-friendly laws or make sure that contracts go to unionized companies. 5000 janitors can do PR on behalf of workers, and point out legal and political problems that might remain otherwise hidden. Unions are an organized constituency group that can organize other groups into political coalitions that help Democrats; without them we lose. It's that simple. So while musing about car companies closing is important, using that fact to dismiss what could be a model for a newly unionized American workforce is incredibly foolish. If you are a liberal and you write off unions, you are writing your own political obituary. Also, if you consider that the future of political campaigns lies in door walks, the internet, and social organizations, labor unions look more and more important for any progressive coalition.
So let's talk unions. Unlike Nathan or Chris, I'm no expert, and unlike Ezra, I'm no journalist. I've never done actual union organizing work, as I can't even organize my sock drawer. But I've looked through FEC reports and seen the financial support, and looked at the numbers and examined the demographics. My brother is in a guild, I worked a bit with unions, and I have friends in unions. I'd like to look on a more practical level why unions are important to Democratic campaigns. If you have a different view, please chime in below.
One of the coolest experiences I had during the Corzine campaign was hanging out in an ironworker local union hall for an afternoon. We were using their hall to conduct a training session for non-union volunteers, and before the session I talked to some of the guys there. There were amazing posters on the wall. One was the New York Times list of dead from Iraq. One was a picture of four workers sitting 50 stories up on a metal beam eating lunch during the construction of the Rockefeller Center in the 1930s. And one was a bunch of ironworkers on a New Jersey pier angrily watching the World Trade Centers fall. The guys at the hall were huge and burly - they worked with metal - and yet they talked like angry liberals. One of the workers showed me a joke Bush doll, which cursed in a not-particularly-nice manner. You didn't see any parsing here, or any triangulation. These guys hated the Republicans because they think America is a place where you build things, and the Republicans destroy things.
Labor is the single most reliable, organized and powerful segment of the Democratic political coalition. It's not necessarily the biggest, but if you are good to Labor, Labor people show up on time, wherever you need them, and act as surrogates on whatever issue you need. And that's not all. Let's go through what labor does for a Democratic campaign.
Unions support candidates with money, reliably. That's a big deal. Cycle after cycle, union PACs give money to local candidates, state candidates, Federal candidates, and do it when and where it is necessary to advance the interests of working families. The blogs focus on national races, but politics is a local game. If you're running for state assembly, or town council, or mayor of a small town, especially in an off-year, very few people are interested in your race, and few give money. Labor is interested in these races, for pragmatic and ideological reasons. But they aren't like normal donors; they always give. This means you can rely on them, you can plan for them, and you can negotiate with them. It's invaluable to have that kind of political stability if you are not a millionaire political hobbyist, or even if you are.
Nathan Newman points out what this means for the Houston area:
Do these numbers-- janitors pay dues of roughly $20 per month, or a bit over $200 per year. Multiply by 5000 and you suddenly have an organization with $1 million per year to promote organizing and political mobilization in the Houston area.
$1 million, every year. If you're considering running for office, a quick call from the janitor's political director can be a strong incentive to get in the race. If you're a politician considering allowing a Walmart into a town, a quick call from a political director with a $1 million cannon is a disincentive. That's huge.
Field and GOTV
If it rains on election day, unions show up. That's a big deal, but it's not something we think about very often. In 2000, Gore was down by a few points to Bush in the polls the night before election day, and it was union GOTV work that brought him back up to even. Labor GOTV adds several points to Democratic campaigns where Labor is strong, and this cannot be understated, since turnout is often low in less sexy elections.
Unions also show up in crowds when and where campaigns need them, and campaigns need crowds, a lot. During the Corzine campaign, and yes, New Jersey is an especially unionized state, we built press events all the time, and because of labor, there were crowds whenever it was important. Before debates, Doug Forrester would see a group of Democratic supporters shouting for his opponents, and Jon Corzine would see lots of people shouting his name. That was critical, because Forrester would get pysched out, and Corzine would get pumped up. The press was impressed by the crowds. And this wasn't a one-off. Any time the campaign needed crowds, we could turn to labor.
Oh sure, you can build crowds with other techniques, but on, say, a boring rainy day, in a lackluster race, it's pretty nice to have unions to rely on.
Want 2 working families as media surrogates whose husbands were disabled because of faulty consumer products, in two days? Where are you going to turn? That's right, labor. It's not just an issue of money and field, it's also that labor unions are reliable advocates for legislation that promotes progressive issues such as health care, safety for workers, and economic equality. They will fiercely attack Republican candidates, and surrogates, when a campaign needs a boost and the press needs someone to quote other than a candidate (which is often). It's like a constant stream of pundits, except pundits who actually work for a living and who take losing personally (because losing means jeopardizing the welfare of their families).
Leadership and Intangible Benefits
There are many other ancillary benefits - unions provide a pool of talent from which you can draw candidates, and they also have union halls, space where you can conduct trainings, have parties, and generally get together. Without public space, it's surprisingly difficult to organize anything, actually. Unions solve this problem.
Newman points out that unions also create a cultural and political presence:
Add a few more around the region and you've added what will automatically become major new political and social institutions in regions that now lack them. Just by existing, the Houston janitors will be an example to other workers that they can organize and they can win even in the South-- a key message for any hope of labor revival.
I suspect, though I don't have proof, that union members are also less prone to race-baiting than other groups, because unions take a pragmatic approach to politics. This is not to say race-baiting doesn't happen, or that unions are always on the right side of every issue, but it is to say that unions provide a strong structural advantage for Democrats. They provide crucial and reliable campaign help, field help, media help, talent, money, and social and political leadership even when there are no elections and you need 20 people to picket, say, a new Walmart.
Importantly, when a politician wins because of union support, they pursue union-friendly policies that are often strongly progressive. Though trade is a wedge, on taxes, worker safety, consumer rights, health care, education, and infrastructure, unions are important areas of agreement. Democrats beholden to unions do things we like. Democrats beholden to wealthy donors do not.
I hope that blogs can one day do all of these as reliably as unions do, and I think we will. Politics is about staying in the game so people can count on you. Labor has done that for Democrats for more than a century, and far from being in the past, unions are simply essential.