The Future of the Democratic Party and Big Labor

Despite Democratic politicians' lack of fidelity to big labor, unions are still forced to support them. Major changes this election cycle, however, have redirected funding away from the national level, as unions focus more and more on the state and local levels.

Ricardo Torres President & CEO - PSLC


The current political dynamics and economic climate are transforming the relationship between the modern-day labor movement and the Democratic Party, which has historically been the union's party of choice. Understanding this process will provide insight into the future of Labor Unions and their agenda.

Political support – whether from union political action committee (PAC) monies, grass-root support groups, support action committees, election mobilization actions or any of the vast array of methods unions use to support politicians – has always been a contentious endeavor. While I served as a union lobbyist in Washington, D.C. and worked with union legislative departments, there were endless debates on how to achieve balance. Balance was key. We had to ensure that the right politicians were selected: those who would support the union movement but not take us for granted once they entered office. Despite all of our efforts, there were many politicians who refused to fulfill their promises to the unions after they were elected. Another roadblock to union control was the infighting, which led to many stopgap solutions that were never brought to conclusion and fractured the union movement with the creation of the Change to Win federation.

A big part of today's problem is that the unions' interests have outgrown the interests of their members. Unions are now finding themselves expanding into foreign markets in order to keep pace with large conglomerates. This not only means that they have to negotiate organizing alliances with international federations but, more importantly, are forced to merge with foreign unions. Interactions with foreign federations and mergers with foreign unions have put American unions in a "political pickle", as politicians of both parties have been pushing for trade deals to expand U.S. exports, while unions have been fighting against these measures for years. A perfect example of this is the recent trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, which created union outcry when it passed in 2011.

Most rank-and-file union members don't understand the international expansion that unions have embarked upon or how their dues are being used to finance this effort. Millions of dollars are being spent to fight labor law changes in Latin America and Asia. Colombia in particular has become a hotbed of union intervention. I happened to be in Colombia back in 2000 with the United Steelworkers (USW), meeting with some of the country's union federations Central Unitaria de Trabajadores & Unión de Trabajadores Colombianos and interviewing workers at multinational companies like Coca-Cola to document alleged abuses, threats and murders. It was like a witch-hunt and was the early stage of where the unions are now in their efforts to globalize to survive. These campaigns are done to build trust and find common ground around the globe with foreign labor federations that know all too well that American unions have an ultimate goal of putting a stop to the outsourcing of jobs into markets that are desparate to have them.

The latest political quagmire is evident in some of the long-term choices unions have been making this election season.

In 2008, unions collectively contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure that key Democrats (including President Obama) were elected. They did so with an understanding that significant changes would be made in labor law, which would make it easier for them to operate and organize new members. To date, they have not seen all of the changes they expected. When the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) came to vote, it did not have enough support to pass. Richard Trumka, President of the AFL/CIO, laid the blame on President Obama and said it was caused by Mr. Obama's lack of direction and support.

Due to these "failures", today's union leaders have uniformly expressed a lack of enthusiasm about spending more money to elect politicians in national elections. They have clearly indicated that the money should be spent at the local level, as they feel it would better serve their agendas. In May of 2011, Trumka declared labor's independence and vowed to put money that was earmarked for national political support into organizing efforts to obtain new members.

The Democratic Party, at the national level, has made choices that further reinforce the unions' decision to distance themselves. There was little support from President Obama towards the recall efforts against the Republican Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker. Unions also felt a slap in the face when the Democratic National Convention was held in Charlotte, NC, which is a state with very strong anti-union laws for public employees.

These are just a few of the reasons that the AFL/CIO and other unions have decided to put an end to funding candidates at the national level.

Unions are desparately trying to escape the corner they have painted themselves into, but as Republicans push toward reforming collective bargaining in the public sector, unions find themselves right back in the arms of the Democratic party. A perfect example of this is California's Proposition 32, on this November's ballot. If pased, Prop 32 would prohibit unions and corporations from making political contributions. The wording of Prop 32 regarding corporate provisions is far weaker than the wording for union contributions; it even prevents unions from using automatic payroll deductions to raise money for political campaigns.

Democrats at the state level have been doing their best to try to bring union support their way. An example of this can be found in Proposal 2 in my home state of Michigan. Prop 2 would add language to the State Constitution guaranteeing the right to organize and bargain collectively for public and private employees. According to F. Vincent Vernuccio, Director of Labor Policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Prop 2 would make it virtually impossible for Michigan to become a Right to Work state without further amending the State Constitution. Members of the current State Senate support Michigan becoming a Right to Work State, even though Republican Governor Rick Snyder has publicly urged them not to pursue it.

The unions are using Prop 2 as a back-door way to repeal the Emergency Manager Law in Michigan, which gives the Governor the right to appoint an Emergency Manager to municipalities in fiscal disarray to try to prevent them from entering bankrupcty. One of the rights given to the Emergency Manager is to suspend all union contracts to bring the municipality out of the red. According to Governor Synder, this amendment would "actually override that, and could leave us in a spot where communities might only have bankruptcy as an option and that's a very bad answer." The Democrats are fighting tooth and nail for the passage of Prop 2, which has been dubbed the "Protect Our Jobs Amendment" and the "Protect Working Families Amendment", creative names for a change in the State Constitution that would protect the power currently enjoyed by union leadership at the taxpayers' expense (including dues-paying union members). According to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the passage of Prop 2 could cost taxpayers 1.6 billion dollars.

Where does this leave the unions and the Democratic Party? Very little will change in the foreseeable future. While it is true that unions have been trying to wean themselves from Democrats at the national level who have been unreliable to the union agenda, unions have no choice at this moment but to reluctantly maintain their alliances. Unions are certainly looking for options for change. I predict that the AFL/CIO will take steps to reunite over the next two years.

There are rumblings in Washington that the NLRB's "quickie elections" will be implemented after the elections. Unions are hoping for truth to the D.C. rumblings because, as their membership grows (which it certainly will with "quickie elections", unless employers are proactive and prepared), so will their consolidation of power on a national level. This will, in turn, further their ability to exert influence more and more on a state and local level.