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Thank You Sir, May I Have Another: Labor Leaders Destroy Their Own Ability to Influence Democrats

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A few weeks back, I wrote a post on the politics of organized labor -- a post that was fundamentally about how political power is wielded through both both the carrot of reward and the stick of punishment. Same thing for the converse: If you only use the carrot -- or worse, if you hand over the carrot without something in return -- you incinerate whatever political power you have, as politicians will know they never have to do anything you ask.

This is not some great revelation -- it's about as rudimentary a political principle as there is. Which is why it's truly stunning to see that some top professional labor leaders in Washington -- i.e. people paid lots of hard-earned union dues to engineer political strategy for labor union members -- either A) don't seem to understand this idea, or B) refuse to understand it out of a corrupt willingness to sell out labor union members on behalf of these leaders' partisan affinities and/or their personal loyalty to cronies inside the Establishment Democratic Party.

We saw this here in Colorado when the AFL-CIO responded to Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet's opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act - ie. labor's top legislative priority - by loyally restating its lockstep support for Bennet and by then insisting that EFCA was suddenly a "non-issue" for labor unions.* We also saw it with AFSCME president Gerry McEntee compliantly endorsing Rahm Emanuel for Chicago Mayor, despite Emanuel consistently laying waste to organized labor's basic agenda. This was the same McEntee who previously promised to lead the fight against any progressive groups trying to run primaries against anti-labor Democrats. Now, we see even more of this ignorance/corruption from labor leaders -- and in even more shockingly ignorant/corrupt terms.

In an article headlined "Labor holds nose, backs former foes," Politico reports that "Labor's big threat to punish misbehaving Democrats has largely evaporated in the heat of the midterms, as unions now scramble to rescue incumbents they once pilloried." In this, the message to all Democratic politicians now and in the future is clear: Labor may talk about using the stick, but it won't actually follow those threats up with action come election time. Which, of course, tells all Democratic politicians that they won't pay a price for opposing labor's agenda... which, of course, effectively encourages Democratic politicians to oppose labor's agenda on behalf of corporate interests. This is, in short, labor saying "Thank you sir, may I have another?" to anti-labor Democratic politicians.

Is this political ignorance/naivete by labor leaders? Or is it deliberate corruption, whereby labor leaders are selling out their members so as to preserve their personal connections to their D.C. Democratic Party friends? It's hard to say, but my guess is that it's a little of both. I say that because this statement from one AFSCME leader is so idiotic -- so truly incoherent -- that I can't tell:

For us, (backing all Democratic candidates) is a no-brainer... Once you get back into session, we're going to be trying to move people on votes. But right now, we're all about getting people elected.

This statement is confusing from an analytical standpoint because it's difficult to tell whether it exhibits innocent (and a shockingly huge amount of) stupidity or whether its stupidity is so intense that it simply can't be genuine and instead is just an unconvincing public excuse for deliberate corruption.

Honestly, I can't really tell, but what I do know is that the statement makes absolutely no sense. Think about it: Labor leaders are saying that "once you get back into session" they'll be able to "move people on votes" -- even though they've spent the election telling most Democratic politicians that they don't have to move their votes in order to get labor's support. Indeed, if "moving people on votes" is predicated on those people, in part, fearing electoral retribution from labor, and if labor hasn't exacted any retribution at all, why would those politicians ever move on votes at the request of labor in the next congressional session or any other?

They wouldn't, which is why I say, again, this statement is perhaps the single stupidest -- or single most unconvincing -- rationale for sacrificing movement agenda to party that I've ever seen. Labor leaders in D.C. would have us believe that they don't have to answer their own legendary "which side are you on?" question. They would have us believe that they can simultaneously serve two masters -- The Democratic Party and their own members who pay those labor leaders' salaries. With many good, pro-labor Democrats they can certainly do this -- but they cannot when it comes to clearly anti-labor Democrats. And when those labor leaders back those any and all Democratic politicians regardless of those politicians' record on labor issues, they are unduly prioritizing partisanship over their own union members.

When you want to know how labor can spend so much money supporting Democratic politicians and have so little influence over those Democratic politicians, remember this statement.

Sure, labor gets outspent by corporations and that plays a part. And let's be clear -- I'm not suggesting labor unions actively back anti-labor Republicans over anti-labor Democrats. But make no mistake about it: When labor leaders in Washington aggressively back anti-labor Democrats (rather than, say, sitting out those elections) and/or refuse to follow up their own threats with action, those labor leaders are destructively undermining the political agenda of their rank-and-file membership. That's a true tragedy for those of us pro-labor progressives who understand that a vibrant -- and honest -- labor movement is essential to the progressive movement as a whole.

* On this specific issue, I'll be interviewing Colorado AFL-CIO chief Mike Cerbo at 9:20am Colorado time (11:20 ET) on my AM760 show on Wednesday (10/27). It should be an interesting discussion, and I promise I will demand some answers. Tune in at http://sirota.am760.net.