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The Political Union

Unions and politics have always gone hand in hand. Unions view PAC monies as a back door way of funding events, union candidates and public political candidates that would support the union movement.

Ricardo Torres President & CEO - PSLC

7/2/2010

Unions and politics have always gone hand in hand. Unions view PAC monies as a back door way of funding events, union candidates and public political candidates that would support the union movement.

When I was a union official, I educated local union and regional chapters on how to set up political action committees throughout the country. This had a two prong effect on boosting membership involvement. These groups raised millions in soft money and promoted an A-team/first responders type of organization ready to spring into action for whatever issue the unions felt were important. It is hard to say where all that money goes, Personally, I have heard of bribes, backdoor deals, funding suspicious projects and all kinds of activities paid for with PAC monies under the table.

The union’s political arm and the politicians have a clear understanding of the others position. The unions want to buy clout, they want someone from a city, state or federal branch of the government to support their agenda while the politicians wants the grass roots union supporters to roll up their sleeves to do the meticulous day to day labor of the campaign, open up their wallets to help fund the election and be their attack dogs to go after their opponents so they can keep their hands clean from these attacks.

Unions are a little more complicated than one might think. They are a Socialist organization that has many arms and at first glance their endeavors may not make sense but once you understand their overall strategy maintaining a political power broker status, then their tactics make more sense. Many believe that a union uses its political connections to achieve its goal of growing its membership with the intention of improving contracts for its members. The real goal is to use its membership as a power base to achieve its political and social goals. Unions desperately need to increase its membership to stay relevant in the political world and push its social agenda; its social agenda is its first priority.

This was explained to me when I was a union lobbyist in Washington D.C. There are different levels of unionists that exist within the system. I was told that local leaders and the members are the work horses of the system while national leaders overlook the social paths the union will follow. It was explained to me that the union is a political machine first and a labor movement second.

While almost every new labor leader like John Sweeney, Andrew Stern and Dennis Rivera come into office from the far left of the labor movement (industrial unionism), they get hit with the reality of union leadership and almost always resort back to craft (corporate unionism).

Corporate unionism is the term we use to describe what [Stern] was doing," said Sal Rosselli who has been challenging SEIU leadership as the president of the union’s largest local.

Healthcare alone is a potential billion dollar industry for unions and like Sweeney and Stern who preceded Sal Rosselli; they promoted a bottom-up (decentralized) control system.

When you look at the history of the union movement, you will see the new leaders almost always come from turmoil with a promise of peace and change and a promise to share the power but never fulfill this promise.

The national union leaders have supported movements that most members don’t want and/or don’t know the union is getting involved in. I guarantee there is very little time spent talking about the clean air act, banking reform laws, labor laws in India and Pakistan, immigration reform, same sex marriage laws and the balanced budget amendment at monthly local union meetings across the country. In fact, a study found “A majority of union members do not realize organized labor is using union dues for political purposes, and a strong majority opposes them doing so”, says a new national survey conducted by the Luntz Research Companies.

When I was on the USWA’s national political advisory committee we recommended local and state candidates from across the country. One such meeting will stay forever in my mind, In Taylor, Michigan, at the USWA district headquarter, we had a meeting with the political team, wife and now jailed former Mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick. They came into the meeting very uninformed about unions. The first mistake they made was walking into the meeting with a newspaper that was on a nationwide union boycott list and was still on an almost 7 year union strike (Detroit Newspaper Strike/Gannett/Knight-Ridder 1995, 2002). I happened to be a director of this strike. When I confronted him about this he said “we didn’t know about the strike or the boycott”.

I remember Kilpatrick’s pro union pitch, filled with promises of every kind including pressuring new businesses coming into Detroit to recognize the USWA in organizing drives. I strongly questioned their ability to have any control over any new businesses coming into the city and we had very few, if any, city contracts within the city government structure. Side deals were hinted at and questionable opportunities dangled in front of our faces.

I saw no advantage to us spending money or resources to help elect Mr. Kilpatrick and in fact I was surprised at the overt offers to pressure companies on our behalf and appointments to important committee positions that influence contract bids.

We all had a good laugh after his team left. I voted to deny any support for his candidacy but I was outvoted. When I inquired into the reasons the committee voted in favor of Mr. Kilpatrick, I was told about the social issues that he supported which convinced the majority to vote in his favor.

While at the AFL/CIO, in meetings with top officials, we almost always talked about “the big picture” in which day to day issues involving bread and butter problems were almost never discussed. For the most part we discussed social issues that took center stage even though we knew we had to cloak ourselves in this populist movement.

A good example of the aggressiveness displayed when unions attack political opponents is in California. Meg Whitman is a Republican gubernatorial candidate who has been on the receiving end of the well funded and coordinated political attacks by the California Nurses Association (CNA). The group's increasingly visible activism also has exposed it to criticism that it's straying from its worker advocacy mission to become the Democratic Party's boisterous ground troops. It is becoming visible but in reality this is the norm for the union. The unions true core mission has very little to do with local labor issues. They have been following Whitman around the state and trying to disrupt her rallies and using childish pranks like going and protesting in front of her house to embarrass her. These tactics are nothing new to unions and are the only way the CNA knows how to challenge anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Whitman is fighting back. She has taken the microphone out of their hands and has resorted to communicating directly with both union and non-union nurses. Inside sources report that this has really gotten under the skin of CNA senior leadership, they have members who are openly criticizing their expenditures and expressing support for Whitman. Reportedly, heated exchanges resulted in a member being asked to leave the CNA union office. Whitman has proven that the only way to fight the union’s political machine to take the fight to them, and beat them at their own game.