09/23/2010 02:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Labor and the Democrats: Accountability for Next Election Cycle Must Start Now

For those who question whether the labor movement is still relevant in the United States, the last two months before an election should clear up any doubts. This is the time period in which Democratic politicians desperately seek help in getting elected. Organized labor, with its significant resources and savvy field operations, is by far their best hope--if not their only one. The truth is, for too long the labor movement has been treated like the ATM of the Democratic Party, and it has supplied almost all of the ground troops that go door-to-door to get out the vote.

Yet the labor movement, and its membership, is fed up with being taken for granted. That's creating a problem for embattled lawmakers. Steven Greenhouse at the New York Times recently provided a snapshot of this conundrum in his piece entitled, "Unions Find Members Slow to Rally Behind Democrats." He wrote:

The Democrats will depend on labor unions -- the shock troops of their political campaigns -- to offset two new developments this election cycle: Tea Party enthusiasm and corporations' ability to spend unlimited amounts thanks to a Supreme Court ruling.

Labor leaders, alarmed at a possible Republican takeover of one or both houses of Congress, promise to devote a record amount of money and manpower to helping Democrats stave off disaster. But political analysts, and union leaders themselves, say that their efforts may not be enough because union members, like other important parts of the Democratic base, are not feeling particularly enthusiastic about the party....

A.F.L.-C.I.O. leaders say that they will spend around $50 million on races in 26 states and that unions already have 1,500 full-time campaign workers on the ground. The service employees have budgeted $44 million for the election, while other unions will spend tens of millions of dollars more. All told, labor strategists say their ground troops will make more than 10 million phone calls to members' homes, distribute millions of fliers at workplaces and knock on millions of doors.

Such a commitment of resources will be a relief for Democrats. But it does not address the core issue, which is one of accountability. Greenhouse quotes Patricia Elizondo, president of the Milwaukee local of the International Association of Machinists, who sums up the situation well:

"People have been unemployed for two years, and they're unhappy that the health care bill was not as good as they expected... Two years ago, I had many members going door-to-door to campaign. Now they're saying, 'Why should I? We supported that candidate, but he didn't follow through.' "

Labor is in a tricky position. It cannot simply abandon the Democrats and allow for a new wave of Republican elected officials, who will be even less likely to push forward the movement's agenda.

At the same time, the answer is also not to try to convince the rank and file of the labor movement that it is wrong. Our members are absolutely right to be angry at Democratic politicians who become fair-weather friends every time an election rolls around, but who make advancing legislation that strengthens the role of employees in the workplace a low priority once they get elected. They are right that Democratic politicians who have done little to earn our support deserve a wake-up call.

The solution to this situation is for those of us in the labor movement to change the way we do politics, so that accountability is ingrained in the process from day one. This requires long-term planning and institutional memory. It means that when we recruit and interview candidates, we put forward a policy agenda and educate them about that. We choose candidates based on who is most committed to our agenda and most willing to treat organized labor as a partner in pushing it forward once elected.

After they're sworn in, we don't send them off to Washington with vague hopes that they will "do the right thing." Rather, we work with them throughout their time in office to make sure the policies they champion serve the needs of working people. And we judge their tenure based on how well they do at that.

All this might sound confusing to some Democratic elected officials who think they are working on behalf of labor already. Some of them are regularly in touch with the presidents of our international unions and offer to secure pro-union tweaks in legislation that is going through Congress. These lawmakers might feel bewildered at why union members would be disappointed at the end of their terms. They think they are doing labor a favor and instead they are missing the bigger issue.

The answer is that these officials are rarely willing to be champions when it comes to the big battles. They fail to step up for public policies that would expand the role of labor in the economy or that would directly affect the lives of our members and all working people in a significant way.

This is partly labor's fault. Too often, we acquiesce to the comforts of "access" and small favors. In doing so, we allow elected officials to treat unions as just another special interest. We don't make clear our real priorities. Laying out our agenda in advance means emphasizing the public policies that are truly vital in reversing the assault on America's middle class. It means communicating to candidates that we will evaluate them based on their advocacy in those tough fights.

If the question of accountability only starts rearing its head six weeks before an election, it's too late. We're put in a no-win situation. That's why we need to learn a lesson from the legitimate disappointment of union members throughout the country: Accountability for the next election cycle--and the cycles that follow--must start now.

-- Amy Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement. She worked for nearly two decades in the labor movement and now works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations in progressive, labor, and faith communities. She can be reached via the Web site: