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Labor's Lost Love
Unions should stop wasting workers' hard-earned money on candidates
By Jonathan Tasini
Jonathan Tasini, president emeritus of the National Writers Union, is
president of the Economic Future Group.

February 20, 2005

OVER THE last 20 years, the labor movement has poured billions of our
members' hard-earned dollars into electoral politics - and we've gotten very
little to show for it except a weaker labor movement, too many election day
whuppings and too many politicians who, when they do win, promptly turn
their backs on working men and women. It's time we turned off the spigot and
put the money to better use.

The Center for Responsive Politics reports that between 1979 and 2004,
unions gave about $500 million in direct contributions to candidates for
federal office. From 1998 to 2004, unions lavished about $600 million on
political parties. And unions paid $100 million to 527s (independent
political action committees) in 2004. That's $1.2 billion in cash - not
counting money spent on the parties from 1980 to 1998 and labor's own effort
to get its members out to vote. A few union political experts tell me unions
spend seven to 10 times what they give candidates and parties on internal
political mobilization. So we're talking $8 billion to as much as $12
billion on federal elections alone.

What have we gotten for that? For the last 25 years, employers have broken
labor laws with impunity and fired tens of thousands of workers trying to
organize. By every measure, life for most workers has become more difficult.
Few politicians challenge the right of corporations to run the workplace
like a dictatorship. We've lived almost entirely under Republican presidents
- the exception being Bill Clinton's eight years. Even those years hurt us,
as Clinton aggressively lobbied for the North American Free Trade Agreement
and enthusiastically embraced its dubious premise - an unmitigated disaster
for American and foreign workers. His secretary of Labor was pro-NAFTA, did
virtually nothing to push for the real right to organize a union and,
instead, advocated a now-discredited liberal, elitist view that we should
not worry about the global economy as long as dumb workers retrained

During the Clinton years, labor could not get a bill passed that would have
prevented strikers from being permanently replaced. The reason? The two
Democratic senators from Arkansas, Dale Bumpers and David Pryor, refused to
provide the two votes that would have ended a Republican filibuster. We got
exactly what we should have expected - a few crumbs.

Don't get me wrong. I admire the fire and dedication of the labor people who
pour their souls into campaigns. But we've been acting on the belief that
the political arena could make up for our declining numbers and weakness in
the workplace. Our money and troops have squeezed out a few victories for
Democrats. But we've remained passengers, not drivers of the political
vehicle. Politicians ignore us because we can't turn out enough voters to
end their careers. We couldn't even muster a meaningful spanking for those
NAFTA-backing Democrats.

So my proposal is simple: During the coming two-year election cycle, labor
should not write a single check to a federal candidate or a political party.
Let's take the money - and, more important, our focus and energy - and pour
it into organizing new workers, kicking the stuffing out of the Wal-Mart
family, pushing a national campaign for healthcare for all and advancing the
labor-environment-sponsored Apollo Alliance, a brilliant idea to pour
billions of dollars into good-paying jobs through new sustainable-energy
projects. Faced with the specter of a rapacious global economy, people are
ready for someone who'll champion broader, enforceable rights at work.

I can hear the chorus now: We have to support our political "friends" and
defeat the Republicans. Get real. Given that virtually every incumbent is
reelected in Congress, there is no chance the Democrats will be in a
position to retake either the House or Senate in the next cycle - nor will
Democratic incumbents lose. And, if by some miracle the Democrats recapture
Congress, the chances are less than zero that they would attain a
filibuster-proof margin in the Senate. Serious labor law reform is a pipe
dream for a long time to come - even if we could get full Democratic Party
support, which is doubtful.

So, for two years, let's do something radical: find out which politicians
fight for working people without needing to be slipped a check. If we have
to start trying to buy votes again, there will be plenty of takers. On the
other hand, abstinence might earn us something - like more members and more
respect, which, in the end, is what we need to have real power to shape the
political agenda.

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