Today is Election Day, and we could quite possibly see many changes in Congress and in governships. It’s just not the kind of change that President Obama and his supporters were hoping for. See, the Democrats are on track to lose seats in both the House and the Senate, with a very good chance of losing control of one or both of them. The writing has been on the wall for months, as unemployment continues to remain high and foreclosures hit record numbers. This has made people angry, very angry, and they are targeting their anger at the party in power—the Democrats.
The most visible, and I stress visible, example of citizen outrage has been the Tea Party. Some have argued that their size and strength are not as massive as the media has made it out to be. Regardless, their message has received immense media coverage. Tea Party supporters not only call for a reduction in government spending and tower taxes but also accuse the President of being a socialist. The latter, and of course the former, are most vocally expressed by Fox News personalities like Bill O’Reilly and Glen Beck.
The first casualty of voter backlash happened in January, in Massachusetts, when Republican Scott Brown, in a special election, won the vacant U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy—a hero among liberal Democrats. Brown campaigned on a platform that railed against the healthcare bill and decried the woes of government spending. Now enter organized labor.
The very next day, the president of the AFL-CIO, Rich Trumka, released a video discussing the results in Massachusetts. He rightfully pointed out that pundits in the corporate media were going to attribute the outcome to voters punishing the Democrats for overreaching in policy-making, when the opposite is true. For example, on issues like healthcare, many Americans feel that the bill did not go far enough! Trumka stressed that working people feel like Wall Street and the bankers are being taken care of but working people are not. He said that Scott Brown’s victory should be a wake-up call to both Democrats and Labor. It signaled that people want action and not excuses. It was an excellent address. However, what kind of action would Labor take as part of their wake-up call?
Well, even before the Brown victory, Trumka threatened to cut support for Democrats who didn’t push for a more comprehensive healthcare bill and who didn’t back the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). Specifically concerning healthcare, Trumka issued a threat:
Well, we need to send them a special message: it’s that you may have forgotten what the labor movement did to get you elected; but, by God, we never will! And if you stab us in the back on health care this year don’t you dare ask us for our support next year!
Fast forward to the present. What has happened? Healthcare passed without a public option, EFCA is not even being talked about, and the government is not taking adequate measures to spur job creation—like something along the lines of a public works project of some sort. Then, don’t forget that we have two wars going on and something called climate change. Oh, boy! Watch out! Labor must be planning to run more progressive candidates against Democratic incumbents who did not follow through, right? Wrong.
Instead, all of the blame is being put only on Republicans and Fox News. Labor is scrambling, at the tune of millions of dollars, to get the very same Democrats who should be on the chopping block re-elected. Is it just me, or is there something wrong with this situation? Didn’t these people betray us?
I am in no way advocating that Labor throw their support behind the Republicans as a way to smite the Democrats. I am saying that if Labor truly wants to fight on behalf of working-class people, it needs to be able to flex its muscle and make good on its promises (and threats). Otherwise, our elected officials have no reason to listen to us. As Trumka, himself, noted, Americans truly want change in a progressive direction. The labor movement should be at the forefront of providing a vehicle for that change, and to get on that path, the unions out there might want to question their relationship to the Democratic Party.
I would also like to make a suggestion to labor leaders and rank-and-file workers, alike. We should always work to get the most pro-labor candidates in office, but time after time, we see politicians fall very short on their promises. There is a way, however, to increase the chances that our voices are heard and our demands met. And that way is to mobilize the power we have as workers outside of the ballot box. Sometimes we need to vote with our feet in the streets. We could definitely learn from our fellow workers in France about that.
John Cronan Jr is a restaurant worker, organizer, and a masters student at the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies. Currently, he is a volunteer organizer for the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY). John is also an avid Boston sports fan.