THE BLOG

Raising Hell, Not Raising Money, Is What the Middle Class Needs From American Labor

09/06/2010 01:06 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The problem with American politics is that there is too much focus on raising money and too little on raising hell. The labor movement in America suffers from the same fate.

This Labor Day, let's remember what works for the American middle class and the labor movement that's supposed to represent it.

Authentic campaigns that seize on strong public outrage and funnel that anger towards a big target are what's secured suffrage rights for women, the safety net and a minimum wage. Raising money for politicians has pushed labor leaders from their perches and into jail.

As we scan the labor movement across America today, the hell raisers are building their numbers and the fundraisers are fading away.

The most successful and progressive union in America, the California Nurses Association, grew from 25,000 a decade ago to 75,000 today, and its recent unification with other national groups has led to a 150,000-united nurses alliance dedicated to improving the quality of health care and making politicians more accountable to the public.

Led by the irrepressible Rose Ann DeMoro, raising hell is the California nurses' way. In 2005, DeMoro's core of Florence Nightingales took down Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in a special election he called over five reactionary ballot initiatives. The initiatives failed after Schwarzenegger famously claimed nurses were special interests and he was "kicking their butts." The day after the election, Schwarzenegger apologized and unfroze patient safety standards he had put on hold and sparked his scrum with the California nurses in the first place.

As one observer noted at the time, you don't win many battles with nurses. Not to mention the firefighters, teachers and cops who joined together after the nurses started the fight to stand up to the slate of reactionary ballot measures. The defeat changed the ever-flexible Schwarzenegger into an environment-loving, gay-embracing and minimum-wage-raising progressive for the rest of his tenure.

The fundraisers in American labor are easy to see, but their impact is harder to feel. The splintered labor movement lost one of its Dons this year when SEIU leader Andy Stern, who split from the AFL-CIO to form Change To Win, suddenly resigned. Stern's approach was not raising hell, but mollifying corporate leaders and pandering to politicians. He departed shortly after a scandal in Los Angeles's SEIU branch caused serious questions about fundraising and high-rolling by some now-deposed union leaders.

In California today, DeMoro's nurses union is the chief challenger to gubernatorial-hopeful Meg Whitman, the former CEO of Ebay who hopes her $150 million kitty will buy the hearts and minds of Californians. SEIU has spent millions on television advertisements attacking Whitman this summer, but the nurses have given the labor movement a lesson in how spending a little money but raising a lot of hell can turn the tide. Whitman has been so angered by nurses following her around the state and rallying at her home that she has attacked the union leadership and created a spectacle that is far more revealing of her motives than any message wielded by the millions spent on television advertising by the SEIU-sponsored PAC attacking her.

The fate of the middle class depends largely on what paradigm American labor chooses from now: raising money for politicians, or raising hell with them. History teaches raising hell offers a lot more bang for the buck. And in this double-dip depression, workers will appreciate austerity hellraising a lot more than lavish cash register politics.