Which comes first, a strong Democratic party or strong unions? It is a chicken-and-egg argument of no mean consequence, arousing fierce passions on both sides and occupying the heart of organized labor’s recent split. Our August 12th post cheered the cooperation of both factions of the union movement in mobilizing resources for the November elections. Well and good for the short run and for the Democrats’ hopes to win majorities in both houses of congress in November.
But the long-term strategy of allocating more resources to build strong unions and less to politics merits a fair hearing and some serious consideration by all Democrats. A good place to begin is Kelly Candaele’s piece in today’s Los Angeles Times “Unions Should Organize, Not Politicize: More collective bargaining, not government action, is what workers need most.” Candaele, a former employee of the Los Angeles County AFL-CIO makes several good points:
The American labor movement is using political power to make up for its own failure to organize new unions. It’s unclear whether this trend is a sign of weakness or strength.
…While recognizing the power and importance of the state, the most successful and dynamic unions have also had a healthy independent ethos. Despite its flaws and current weakness, the best bet for providing the protection and decency that working people need is still a revitalized labor movement.
Some labor leaders argue that the Gompers approach simply doesn’t work in today’s hostile environment, and that improving conditions through politics is the only alternative. There is some truth to this. After all, where would the elderly be without Medicare and Social Security? But if there is a future for organized labor in the private sector, workers have to build power from the bottom up. Government can be helpful, but unions also have to save themselves.
Strong progressive parties in other nations are undergirded by a much higher level of union membership. For the long-range health of the Democratic Party, American progressives outside the union movement should begin to direct more attention to making it true in the U.S.