By Leslie S. Lebl
Last Thursday Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, told reporters that organized labor will reduce its funding of Democratic party coffers and instead build up its own grassroots structure. This structure, which sounds a lot like the Tea Party, would pressure candidates to honor promises made during the campaign.
So what would such an organization look like and how might it function? Would it be able to duplicate the Tea Party's success in shaping decisions in Washington? First of all, the similarities:
-- The Tea Party grew out of frustration with both parties. The unions are clearly very frustrated with President Obama and Congressional Democrats. Despite spending over $400 million to help elect Obama, unions were disappointed when the president failed to deliver such things as the card check bill that would facilitate union organizing. And the president is reportedly about to submit three free trade agreements for congressional approval that the unions oppose. (The unions apparently don't give much weight to the passage of ObamaCare.) More importantly, as Trumka puts it, Obama has allowed the Republicans to shift the terms of debate to debt and deficit reduction - definitely not union priorities.
-- In 2010, money that Republican party organizations might have hoped to get went instead to Tea Party groups, and that's likely to happen again in 2012. But in the end, most of it supported Republican candidates.
-- It's hard to think of the unions not supporting Democratic candidates next year, in the final analysis. Like the Tea Party, they're likely to conclude that you're more likely to get what you want by working within the two-party system, rather than outside it.
The differences, though, are more numerous:
-- The Tea Party was a genuine grassroots movement; it wasn't organized top-down, although senior Republican politicians have since taken key Tea Party positions. I'd be very surprised if that's what Trumka is talking about; I suspect he's got "astroturf" -- a movement directed by professionals -- in mind instead.
-- Fairly early on, the Tea Party decided its priorities were reducing government deficits and debt, shrinking the size of government, and strengthening America's foreign and national security policy. Social issues had to take a back seat. But any real grassroots labor group may find such unity elusive.
-- First of all, unions have never controlled the actual votes of their members. Significant minorities have always voted Republican, and there haven't been any reports suggesting that this situation will change. That being the case, grassroots positions on the unions' political agenda are also likely to be split.
-- Second, Trumka said that his members were "working-class people ... looking for three things: jobs, jobs, jobs." But organized labor consists of two different groups: private sector unions, who now represent no more than 6-7 percent of private sector workers; and public sector unions, now including almost one-third of state and local employees. By now, the former have surely realized that stimulus spending doesn't help them; the latter will continue to press for such spending to preserve public sector jobs.
-- Third, new laws in several states no longer require all public employees to pay union dues, so organized labor may find itself with less money in its coffers than before. No matter what, this will translate as decreased influence - hardly an encouraging development. The Tea Party, on the other hand, started from zero so had the encouragement of an upward trend in money available to spend on key issues and on political campaigns.
-- It's also easier to get out activists and voters if you feel like you're on a roll. Unions are famous for their ability to turn out the demonstrators and voters, but that may not be so easy if there's less money to fund those people.
-- And there's one final problem: everything the unions want costs money. Already, unions in many states are battling the public perception that it is their extravagant costs that are running up state and local budget deficits. The Tea Party, on the other hand, is arguing for less spending. That may be unpopular in many quarters, and politically extremely difficult, but at least they're not demanding more resources when the coffers are empty.
So will Trumka find a way to energize his base and build a new organization capable of exerting significant pressure on Obama and Congressional Democrats? It seems unlikely - and he runs the risk that withholding union funding from the Democratic Party will contribute to its defeat in November 2012.