People Over Politicians: Why a Shift in Labor’s Priorities is Needed

douglas williamsAshley Byrd, News Director for South Carolina Radio: We are going to stay on the topic of job creation. And, uh, let’s start with this: Boeing is bringing more than 8,000 jobs into South Carolina. So here is a two part question first to Ms. Colbert Busch: Did the NLRB overstep its bounds when it tried to block Boeing’s approach to expansion in South Carolina? Yes or No, and why?

Elizabeth Colbert Busch: Yes. This is a right-to-work state, and they had no business telling a company where they could locate.

If the first thought that ran through your mind was, “Sounds like a standard Republican answer to a question like that,” you would be right. But, of course, Elizabeth Colbert Busch was the Democratic nominee for Congress in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District. In response to the Republican candidate, former Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC), stating that Colbert Busch “wants to be the voice for labor unions in Washington, DC”, she said the following:

First of all, um, Mark, what you’re saying is just not true. Things can be taken out of context, and everybody knows that. I am proud to support and live in a right-to-work state, and I am proud of everyone who has supported me.

Incredible, huh? Here is something even more incredible: the person who said those things, and who did not mention “labor” or “unions” once on her economic issues platform, received at least $32,500 from labor, with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers being her second biggest contributor at $10,000.

Labor also gave $68,000 in 2009-2010 to U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR). Yes, that would be the same Blanche Lincoln that played a large role in blocking the Employee Free Choice Act and who now works for Wal-Mart as a “special policy advisor” (read: lobbyist). You know, the same Wal-Mart notorious for its anti-union policies. It is not altogether surprising, though, given that Wal-Mart gave her $83,650 in donations over the course of her last term in the U.S. Senate.

Something is not adding up here.

Labor gave $1.1 billion in donations to candidates in federal elections between 2005 and 2011, and what do we have to show for it? No Employee Free Choice Act. President Obama’s nominee for Commerce Secretary heads a corporation that is being boycotted by labor for anti-union practices and horrible working conditions. The candidate who stated in 2008 that he would put on his walking shoes and join a picket line wherever collective bargaining rights were threatened seemed to forget where his local Foot Locker was when it came to worker oppression in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. But then again, that should not be surprising, given that the 2012 Democratic National Convention was held in a right-to-work state at non-union hotels.

After so much continual disappointment, it seems like a good time for introspection. Is continued engagement in national politics the best use of union resources? If we cannot point to any major victories after $1.1 billion of investment, largely in one party’s candidates, then is it not time to think about more productive, movement empowering ways to spend that money?

As an exercise, let’s take away half of the money spent by labor unions on federal candidates between 2005 and 2011, and reinvest it in organizing new workers and building internal capacities. For roughly $550 million, here is what labor could buy (these figures are calculated with the advertised salaries in AFSCME job listings for each position):

That is a lot of people, no matter how you divy them up between each position. Those are the kind of numbers that could really begin to do some major work in an area like the South, where years of inattention by major labor federations has served to make the work that much harder. A movement building apparatus that large could not only educate, inform, and organize workers on the job, but it could also mobilize communities to battle against employers and elected officials who seek to undermine a worker’s voice in the workplace.

To that end, if the labor movement must invest in politics, it would be wisest to do so at the community/local/state level. It is there, our “laboratories of public policy”, where the labor movement can have the most positive impact on the lives of working people. For example, the residents of New Haven, Connecticut have seen their city council transformed into one that values educating children in low-income communities and building up a strong local workforce due to labor’s involvement in local races. In addition to that, Minnesota’s home health care workers have been given the right to organize through legislative action by a new DFL (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party) majority, and a piece of legislation that would have made Missouri a right-to-work state was defeated because of a veto threat by Gov. Jay Nixon (D-MO). When labor is deciding where to invest its political capital, it should always have one mantra: community first.

The labor movement’s biggest strength has never been its campaign war chest; it has always been its people. It is time to invest in movement building. It is time to invest in the organizers and the members who make the labor movement the force for progressive change that it has been for generations. And most importantly, it is time to invest in building solidarity amongst neighbors and between communities. If we are to invest in politics, then let us invest in the sort of politics that impacts people and communities the most, and that will put people in touch with the brand of social justice and progressivism that has been a staple of movement unionism.

No amount of money spent on a member of Congress or a Presidential candidate will ever match the effectiveness of investing in people. If the labor movement is to grow, we must recognize that simple fact.

This article was originally printed on The South Lawn on May 29, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Douglas Williams is a third-generation organizer, having a grandmother who worked to integrate the schools in his hometown and a father who continues to be active in labor organizing.  He earned his BA in Political Science at the University of Minnesota at Morris in 2008, as well as his MPA at the University of Missouri Columbia.  He is currently a doctoral student in political science at the University of Alabama (where he just happened to meet Sarah, the love of his life), where his research centers around public policy as it relates to disadvantaged communities and the labor movement.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.