- Who ABD is
- What ABD does
- ABD Blog
- Work With Us
- Public Speaking
Despite coming up short of retaking control of the Wisconsin Senate, yesterday’s recall elections sent a clear signal to conservative politicians who are using false pretenses to slash social safety nets, scapegoat public employees and immigrants, and take away the rights of working people. The message: Beware. The public will no longer accept your abuses of power.
The fact that there were recall elections at all meant that voter anger overcame the typical inertia of off-cycle, special elections. Contrary to conventional assumptions, turnout in some areas was nearly 60%. Democrats were victorious in recalling two Republican senators and they were competitive in every single recall district, which is even more significant given the fact that when Obama carried Wisconsin by 14 points in 2008, Democrats did not win any these seats. In fact, the GOP carried those districts with 55%.
Democrats may have won just two more seats, but they should not see that as the end. It should just be the beginning. Beyond the message sent at the polls, I believe we need to concern ourselves with another question: What lessons will Labor and its community allies take away from these recall races? This question is vital. We miss a key opportunity if we measure our success based only on Election Day results, and not also on our ability to build permanent progressive infrastructure at the state and local levels.
Currently, many things are going well on that front. Under the umbrella of an impressive political action committee called We Are Wisconsin (WAW), a coalition of unions, community groups, and outraged citizens in the state have joined together to undertake voter education, grassroots lobbying, and media advocacy activities. While Progressives are often fractured, this organization has demonstrated an admirable degree of coordination among varied groups.
We Are Wisconsin is also innovative because of its independence from the Democratic Party. Labor and its allies have built a field operation functioning outside of party structures. They have raised money independently, tying funds first and foremost to progressive values, not to individual candidates. They have done so with a mission not solely of supporting any candidates who put a “D” next to their names, but rather of promoting an agenda that stands up for civil rights, essential public services, and the ability for people to have a voice in their workplaces. Short of nominating candidates on their own ballot line, they have operated very much like a separate party in their campaign around the state senate recalls.
The question for We Are Wisconsin now that the recall elections are over is where to go from here. Thus far, the coalition has primarilyóand necessarilyówaged defensive fights, battles around the state budget and around ousting conservative senators who aided Governor Scott Walker’s power grab. But now they have an opportunity to build in a more proactive way.
Their challenge is taking the impressive work they’ve done so far in building community-labor alliances and making sure it does not fall apart now that the polls are closed. Their challenge is to become more than just a conventional electioneering operation and instead, looking to the future, create a real organizing program on the ground.
Over the past several months, the focus of We Are Wisconsin has understandably been the recall election. But already they have planted seeds of what should be a strong, ongoing organization. They have gone door to door and talked with countless Wisconsinites. They have asked neighbors to vote but also to get engaged in opposing the assault on workers’ rights and defending the middle class. If done right, the energies of Election Day can be channeled into an organizing program that will continue to advocate for working people in the state. There will be a loud voice helping to ensure that politicians “do the right thing” once in office.
The people working most closely with the organization recognize that it would be a shame for We Are Wisconsin to disintegrate and then have to be recreated for the 2012 election cycle. Their challenge is to convince a wider set of allies to stay invested for the long haul. Inevitably, the operation will lose some funding, staff, and attention when the high-profile recalls are over. To lessen the potential for a wholesale shutdown, those of us outside Wisconsin must continue to extend our support and enthusiasm. We must continue to spread the word that this is a fight that affects us all–and that it is not over.
Within the state of Wisconsin, public sector unions will have to face the responsibility of rebuilding their own organizations. The need will be to convince officials in these unions that maintaining an investment in their neighborhoods through community issues is not a distraction from internal union organization or from building political power. Rather it is an essential asset in these tasks. Community-labor involvement and worker organizing cannot be seen as “either-or” options; they must be recognized as mutually beneficial.
A “day-after” evaluation of the recall efforts should go beyond the traditional analysis of races and districts where campaigning was or was not successful. It should involve assessing how many future leaders were cultivated out of door-to-door mobilizations and how these people could be integrated into a long-term political operation. The product of such a review should include plans for leadership development, outreach, and organizing connected to local and statewide issues. It should mean developing, among leaders and activists, a shared analysis, a shared vision, and ultimately a shared program that people can take into 2012. Working for the future, together, is the best way for this newborn coalition to demonstrate that all of the work of the past months was not a one-time occurrence but something that has the potential to be a positive force in shaping the future of Wisconsin politics.
The people of Wisconsin have made amazing progress in taking back their state. Yet they still have plenty of work ahead of them to build a model for a new kind of political action based on independence, values, and collaboration. All of us have an interest in seeing this model built so we can defend the interests of working people from future attacks and we can take the offensive in advancing them.
Originally Posted on Progress Illinois.
Electoral irregularities and promises of recounts have thrown into question the final outcome of the hotly contested race over a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat. Yet, these complications notwithstanding, the elections in Wisconsin last week sent a clear message: The conservative attacks by Republican governors represent a losing strategy.
Regardless of the final result of the Supreme Court race, the fact that progressive challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg was able to run a neck-and-neck race with conservative incumbent David Prosser, who just two months earlier had been favored by 30 points, shows a dramatic reversal. Despite almost $2.2 million in spending by right-wing interest groups in support of Prosser, voters outraged by Governor Scott Walker’s recent assaults on workers’ rights came out in far greater numbers than expected to oppose the pro-Walker candidate.
Other local races similarly showed that scapegoating unions for states’ economic woes is not working for Republicans at the polls. The race for Milwaukee County Executive, a position previously held by Scott Walker himself, took an unexpected turn when Democrat Chris Abele, who had been trailing by 18 points just two months ago, soundly defeated the highly favored Republican candidate, State Rep. Jeff Stone. Abele won the seat with just over 60 percent of the vote, after running television ads that specifically stressed the ties between Stone and Governor Walker.
More broadly, approval ratings for conservative governors seeking to scapegoat public workers have plummeted. In Ohio, recent polling shows that 43 percent of voters in the Buckeye state disapprove of the way Governor John Kasich is handling his job, and 53 percent of voters think that his budget is unfair to them. In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder has seen his disapproval ratings jump from 7 percent in mid-January to 43 percent just two months later. And national polling continues to show significant disapproval for these efforts more broadly. A recently released NBC News/Wall Street Journal (PDF) poll showed that 54 percent of Americans opposed the efforts of Republican governors to attack public employees.
However, the fact that conservatives are currently pursuing a losing electoral strategy is not enough for progressives to win in the long run. The labor movement and its allies must seize the current moment and use it as an opportunity to put forward a winning program of our own.
Progressive leaders are right to celebrate all of the hard work at the grassroots level that led to the upheavals in Wisconsin’s elections. But we can’t set our sights so low that we count a temporary staving off of our opponents’ assaults as the best victory we can hope to achieve. Unless we take the confidence we have gained from last week’s elections and use it to change the way we organize, this moment will only be a short lull in the frightening downward slide for the American middle class.
Specifically, progressives in general — and the labor movement in particular — should take three lessons from last week’s elections.
First, we must demand more from our elected officials. In the wake of the battles in Wisconsin, we should have a day of thanks for the 14 Wisconsin state senators who resorted to civil resistance to stand up for what was right. These officials courageously left the state to prevent Walker from strong-arming a vote in the Senate. Going forward, we should use this level of commitment as a new standard. We should hold up their example when prospective officials who are seeking our endorsements vow that they will support our movements.
With this new standard in mind, labor and its community allies can no longer afford to make endorsements based solely on past loyalties or long-standing friendships. We do not need friends; we need champions. And unless public officials who profess to be our friends are willing to take stands like those of the Wisconsin 14, they have not earned our support. Nor can we grant endorsements because officials promise to back a single piece of legislation that benefits our members. This is a path to forever being viewed in the public mind as just another special interest. More than small favors, we need elected officials who consistently stand up to moneyed interests and advance the common good.
This leads to a second lesson: The labor movement needs to be putting forward a public policy agenda that does not just benefit its members, but that demonstrably creates benefits for all working and middle class families. Recent polling shows that Americans believe the voices of working people are not adequately represented in politics. At the same time, they think that unions have too much political power. There is a clear disconnect here. And the labor movement must take responsibility for overcoming it.
Given that unions represent just 12 percent of the workforce, we cannot advocate for public policies that represent only the interests of union members. We must present bigger solutions. We have to be putting forward our own budgets, every year, that bolster the essential community services that people have consistently said they support. We have to advocate changing tax policy and closing loopholes that allow corporations to avoid paying their fair share. We must start a broad conversation about what the proper role of government in our society should be. And we must present clear alternatives to the “starve the beast” program that has been at the heart of the radical conservative agenda going back to the 1980s.
A third lesson for the labor movement is that we must rethink the ways in which we represent working people in America. We have to put forward a new definition of union membership that says, wherever there is a critical mass of workers trying to come together to address issues in their workplace, we should acknowledge it as a union. Whether or not these people fit within traditional union structures, we need to develop an open-source movement that welcomes them. There are thousands of workers’ centers and professional organizations in this country that are already expanding the definition of employee representation. At a time when traditional union structures are dying, we need to be able to embrace these new efforts, bring fresh faces to the table, and become advocates for an ever broader range of American workers.
Right now, conservative overreach is backfiring and costing Republicans public support. Americans are outraged over dishonest moves by conservative governors to place blame on teachers and other public servants, rather than to propose genuine solutions to our economic problems. The public is right to be outraged. But unless we implement a real program for change in our organizations that can translate this outcry into long-term support for progressive movements, we, too, will be left without a strategy for winning.
Originally Published in Yes! Magazine.
Thousands of people gathered on the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota on April 4 to take part in a “March for the Middle Class.” As they made their way from the St. Paul Cathedral to the State Capitol, they carried signs that defended the rights of working Americans and chanted, “We are one.”
The march in Minnesota was just one of hundreds of events that took place around the country. The events marked the 43rd anniversary of the death of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who, shortly before his death in 1968, had gone to Memphis, Tennessee to support a strike by local sanitation workers.
Carrying signs that read, “From Memphis 1968 to Madison 2011,” thousands of workers, students, civil rights activists, and supporters gathered at rallies in all 50 states to continue Dr. King’s fight and to show their support for workers who have been under attack by conservatives in recent months.
This tremendous outpouring was remarkable not only for the demonstration of nationwide support for working people and their collective bargaining rights, but also for the broad coalition of organizations that came together in this powerful moment of solidarity. But, unless we seize this opportunity to change the way that the labor movement works and the way in which it is perceived, that’s all this will be — a moment.
Earning Public Support for Unions
Following months of assaults by Republican governors in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan, the labor movement is now in a unique position. Despite efforts by conservatives to portray the tens of thousands of pro-union protesters in Madison and elsewhere as violent or greedy, Americans by and large recognized them as the hard-working teachers and firefighters they know in their own communities. And polls now show strong public support for embattled unions in the states.
But we should not misinterpret this information. Americans have not suddenly decided that they love public sector unions. Instead, they have reacted against the overreach of Republican politicians who said they were going to create jobs and deal with real economic problems, but who instead used the economic crisis as an excuse to lash out against political foes.
It is a mistake to see Wisconsin and other state battles as marking a sea change in public opinion about unions. However, these fights have put the labor movement in the spotlight. And, in doing so, they have given us an opportunity to rebuild our relationships with the community. Instead of assuming that we have already won a public stamp of approval, we must use the moment to truly earn this support.
Polls show that Americans have rejected Republican characterizations of unions as the cause of the state budget crises. But this is not enough. If we want to build sustainable support among a majority of Americans, community members need to see us playing a proactive, productive role in solving these crises. That means doing more than changing our rhetoric. It means changing the way we do business.
3 Steps Toward A 21st Century Labor Movement
To go forward from here, we need to do three things: expand the range of issues we take on when we represent employees in the workplace, change the way we relate to the community, and begin to move away from outdated models for labor activism rooted in the era of the industrial economy.
As a first step, with regard to representation in workplaces, we need to be making demands that highlight our role as problem solvers. If we only negotiate over things such as pay and benefits, the public will always see unions as special interests. Instead, we must be concerned with advancing service delivery and using collective bargaining to improve the departments in which we work.
This is especially true in the public sector, where unionized workers are often teachers, firefighters, social workers, and others working for the common good. When public unions began organizing in earnest several decades ago, they bargained over issues like the amount of time social workers would be allowed to spend on a given case: over-hurried employees stood up to management to insist that they get the time they needed to help families. Unions are still very much involved in these kinds of issues, but questions of service delivery have often been overshadowed by wage negotiations. We need to re-embrace demands that highlight unions’ roles as public interest advocates, bringing a focus on service to the fore of our efforts.
Second, we must change our relationship with those outside the labor movement. The time to reach out to community allies and to develop deep relationships is not in the middle of an emergency campaign or a contract fight. Instead, community outreach should be a part of the ongoing organizing work of every union local. Locals should be developing training programs that teach people about the value that our organizations add to their communities. We should use these programs as a way to educate candidates about our work before they receive laborer’s endorsement, so that elected officials have a substantive commitment to supporting our efforts. And while we’re teaching, we should also be learning, understanding the concerns of other community organizations and developing durable bonds based on mutual interest, not momentary convenience. That way, when there is an emergency, we have real community partnerships that we can turn to for help.
A third way we need to change how we do business is to move beyond outdated models of unionism developed in the age when America’s economy was based on manufacturing. When public sector unions began to seriously organize, they looked to the dominant model of industrial unionism in place at that time. Organizations such as AFSCME brought in representatives from the United Auto Workers (UAW) to lead trainings for emerging union leaders. They formed labor operations based on then-dominant norms. These structures might still be relevant in some manufacturing environments, but most of America’s economy has dramatically transformed in the past 40 years; and most union structures have not. As Jim Grossfeld points out in a forthcoming article in the American Prospect, even new auto workers’ President Bob King has recognized the need to build a “21st-century UAW” to adapt to changing times.
Today, we need to be more decentralized, recognizing that framing issues in national offices doesn’t always work. We need to empower local unions to develop their own capacities to proactively engage their communities — allowing them to step forward with research, policy, and coalition-building proposals uniquely suited to their metropolitan regions. That means redirecting resources from the national level into local. National officials need to provide the leadership, funding, and support that will allow locals to enter their communities as problem solvers.
In order to move forward and harness the kind of support we saw in yesterday’s demonstrations, we cannot merely tell our story differently. We must act differently, earning lasting support from the public by showing, in concrete and local fashion, how much the labor movement serves the public good.
Find ABD on Facebook