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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

After Madison: How Dems Can Mobilize Working-Class Anger

John Nichols post at The Nation, “The Post-Wisconsin Game Plan” provides a nuanced ‘where-do-we-go-from-here’ consideration of progressive strategy to mobilize middle class voters for the 2012 elections. Nichols sees the still-strong outrage against the effort to eradicate collective bargaining rights for public workers in Wisconsin, Indiana, Maine and Ohio as a powerful force, which can be leveraged to strengthen the Democratic party and its prospects:

Post-Wisconsin, there is a tentative but emerging consensus that mass movements at the state level might matter just as much to the broader goals of labor and the left as traditional election-oriented campaigning. As Steve Cobble, former political director of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition campaigns of the 1980s, argues, “The energy that’s developed in Wisconsin and Ohio, and that could develop in a lot of other states, is what’s needed to renew the coalitions that can re-elect Obama in 2012 and elect a lot of Democrats. But it should go further than that. With the right organizing push, unions can build a base that forces Obama and the Democrats to take more progressive stands and to govern accordingly.”
The size of the demonstrations in the states, and the agility with which protest movements have pivoted to political fights that could shift control of governorships and legislatures, has prompted this reassessment of strategy by labor and its allies. Rather than a single-minded focus on electing Democrats–or the rare friendly Republican–the idea is that more might be accomplished by directing cash and organizing hours to (as one SEIU draft document suggests) “mobilizing underpaid, underemployed, and unemployed workers” and “channeling anger about jobs into action for positive change.”

Nichols acknowledges that some progressives are skeptical about this approach:

…Henry has conceded that the decision to focus more on nonunion workers is risky. The talk is of a major expenditure of resources, with some 1,500 SEIU staffers fanning out in seventeen cities to knock on more than 3 million doors–including those of millions of non-SEIU members. Some worry that this is not the most strategic use of resources. Veteran organizer Jane McAlevey argues that intensive engagement with union members should take precedence over a diffuse attempt to mobilize nonunion workers for mass rallies with an uncertain purpose. “The go-big, go-wide and go-shallow model may generate 2012 voter IDs outside their base, but it’s not going to mobilize a real fight for a fair economy,” says McAlevey. “To do it right requires deep work with their members and their members’ organic connections in their communities.”

There is an emerging consensus, explains Nichols, that “the greatest threats to unions as forces in the workplace and in political life are posed at the state level–where GOP governors and legislators are attacking collective bargaining rights while proposing brutal cuts in spending on education and services…” But he notes the overwhelming complexity of meeting this challenge:

States have unique political cultures, quirky voting patterns, divides between heavily union and nonunion regions that can be finessed only by those who understand the territory. “I’ve heard from people in other states who want to know how they can do what’s been done in Wisconsin, and I tell them it’s not that easy,” says Ben Manski, an organizer of the Wisconsin Wave protest coalition. “They have to focus in on their own strengths, their own history and their own challenges.”

Nichols provides a succinct summation of current initiatives, post-Wisconsin:

Whereas Wisconsin activists are focused on recall elections this summer that could remove Republican state senators who have backed Walker’s antilabor agenda, Mainers are lobbying moderate Republican legislators to break with right-wing Governor Paul LePage. While there is talk in Michigan of trying to recall Governor Rick Snyder, in Ohio there is no recall option. But Ohio has a veto referendum provision that unions are using to try to overturn Governor John Kasich’s attacks on collective bargaining.
Every one of these state battles turns a labor struggle that initially played out in the streets into an edgy political fight. Instead of waiting for the next election, labor and progressive campaigners are forcing votes on their schedules to address unprecedented assaults on union rights and public services.

Naturally some Democrats are very concerned about the deflection of needed labor resources from the Presidential contest next year. And there is concern, reports Nichols that the White House should be doing more to support unions, although the President’s approval ratings are still high in Wisconsin.
Nichols spotlights Sen Sherrod Brown (D-OH) for taking a gutsy, pro-union stance other Democratic politicians have avoided — a gamble that appears to have paid off in the latest opinion polls. He quotes Publi Policy President Dean Debham, “Sherrod Brown appears to be in a much stronger position now than he was just three months ago…There’s been a very significant shift in the Ohio political landscape toward the Democrats.”
As Nichols says “…the challenge is to build state-based movements that are muscular enough to win immediate fights (blocking bad legislation, preventing cuts, preserving embattled unions, organizing new workers) while pulling Democrats–including the president–away from the politics of caution and compromise.” He credits SEIU, CWA and National Nurses United, MoveOn and other progressive groups for innovative “neighborhood organizing, coalition building and demonstrations” against tax give-aways to the wealthy, home foreclosures and assaults on Medicare and Medicaid.
President Obama would do well, says Nichols, to heed the example of FDR in 1936, “after a wave of militant labor organizing and localized general strikes had swept cities across the country,” when he crafted “a populist appeal for unity…to battle the economic royalists who would turn the country back toward ‘the old law of the tooth and the claw.'”
Sad that 75 years later the “economic royalists” description still fits the modern Republican party so well. Hopefully, FDR’s example will not go unnoticed by President Obama, who has recently had his own lesson in how bold leadership can win public support.

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