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Unions in Washington State are doing it wrong

Unions and Democrats in Washington State have grown apart lately, while Republicans have been making overtures and peace fronds. Unions may start to stray, looking around for a “better offer.” This is healthy for both unions and our country, and unions should revert to an old strategy of holding both parties accountable.

The separation has been a long time coming, and a slow development. Back in 2009, another blog noted a bruhaha between Democrats and Labor over a threat not to give funds in the future. This is not notable, except that House Democrats called for a police investigation! This paragraph was most interesting:

“Are they that fearful of even the remotest appearance of impropriety that they’re willing to throw their most loyal supporters under the bus at the slightest provocation?  Is this whole incident a calculated effort to prove to the media and business establishment that the party really is independent of labor?  Or, have the state Dems really come to take labor money so for granted, that they’ve forgotten it isn’t their own, thus, in their own minds, making any suggestion of withholding future contributions the ethical equivalent of a reverse bribe… essentially a threat to steal money from Democratic coffers unless the bill is signed?”

Tough stuff. And now Jay Inslee’s idea for investing public union pensions into green energy start-ups (a tragic misstep politically, although it contains one-half of a good idea) is troublesome to union-Democratic relations once again.

Unions around the country are pulling funding from the Federal level, hoping to make better gains in state legislatures or hold off Wisconsin-style strategic losses in the 50 state houses. But even there, a similar lack of trust seem to be developing. The money was there, that’s for sure, but results  are not forthcoming, and Democrats seem to be complicit.

“Unions made up the bulk of the money going to the House Majority PAC with $300,000 in contributions.

It’s not a surprise that AFSCME, the public employee union, was the biggest contributor with a donation of $200,000. Public employee unions have been under attack in states where Republicans won governor mansions and statehouses in the 2010 midterm elections and they have mobilized heavily in response to efforts to strip them of collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Florida.”

It makes sense that public sector unions are donating most heavily and most actively, they are in the most vulnerable position. This is due to an unfortunate (for them) quote by FDR, and a newly moderated stance by many Republicans  distinguishing public from private unions. I remember congressional candidate Dick Muri saying multiple times during the 2010 race that he supports the rights of industry workers to either organize or not organize, and he ran an otherwise “conservative” campaign that year.

Even in the public union realm, Republicans are trying to make headway. Rob McKenna has gone on the record in support of unions right to organize, although his position is a moderate one. Still, the statement to the Seattle Times that,

“Collective bargaining [for government workers] is a right. It’s not the problem. The problem is politicians who give away too much at the bargaining table,” really can’t be construed as anti-union.

Locally, Doug Richards ran for state representative while being a union shop steward, and was narrowly defeated. The union didn’t endorse him, even though he was in union leadership! This strict partisanship isn’t necessary. Narrowly elected State Representative Hans Zeiger represents Puyallup (Pew-Al-Up) and surrounding areas, including the area where this author grew up. It’s a blue-collar, swing district, of a type common in Western Washington outside of Seattle. Zeiger was attacked fiercely during his campaign, including monies spent by unions, but when I asked, he had only positive things to say:

“Some of the most constructive input I have received as a legislator has been from labor union members and leaders. I have good working relationships with several unions, and I welcome opportunities to build relationships with more over time. Washington State is a place where business and labor have historically come to view each other as partners, not enemies. Those of us in government should look for ways to strengthen that partnership.”

Sounds like ignoring legislators like Zeiger is a missed opportunity for unions. I have maintained for some time now that giving 100% support for either party by any group eventually leads to reduced influence in the political process.

Firstly, every candidate needs more votes. If that candidate already has you “in the boat,” then your needs come second to the people on the fence.  And businesses are on the fence. For all the talk of “Big Business” colluding with or, more often, owning Republicans, corporate donations split almost evenly between the parties, and Democrats toe this line perilously. What that means for business, though, is increased influence: They may not like all of the points a particular legislator stands behind, but they’ll try for his or her vote on a given issue anyway. Meanwhile, Labor dollars go almost exclusively to Democrats, giving them incredible influence inside the party, but much less credibility in the public sphere than they used to enjoy.

Limiting donations along partisan lines goes against basic and pragmatic uses of money for politics. The website opensecrets.org lists this as #1 on their top ten list of things voters should know about politics:

“As surely as water flows downhill, money in politics flows to where the power is. Individuals and interest groups who want to influence lawmakers will spend their campaign contributions where they count the most: with the politicians in the best position to deliver what they’re looking for.”

Unions represent one of the few places in American politics where this is not evident. There was a time when Union bosses held incredible sway in American politics, and there was a time that Republicans held leadership positions at the national level in many unions. While there is a sense of “mission accomplished” that contributes to lowered involvement in unions today, this author believes the lack of bi-partisanship within the union leadership creates a myopic good-old-boy system that also hurts unions. The Union bosses themselves enjoy great power, but the union itself is diminished.

Secondly, backing only one Party means building up resentment with the other side, and Republicans have, for years, obliged and flaunted this role. Only recently have they realized the possibilities of working together with unions as an option. These two situations, Republicans fomenting while Democrats distance themselves, have led unions to where they stand today. Union leaders had succeeded in owning the microphone within the Democratic Party for years, but that has caused a loss of support among the American people. Democrats, in turn, have put unions at arm’s length. Unions today are often viewed as one more special interest. These days, people talk of unions as destroying jobs, not creating them.

This is especially true in Washington State, where Boeing drama has created a sort of “war weariness” in labor relations, and where the same Party that runs around with union bosses helped kill an entire industry because of the spotted owl. There’s just nothing union spokesmen and spokeswomen can say anymore, that the people of Washington haven’t heard recently. The message just isn’t getting out like it used to.

Backing candidates from both parties has always produced better results for a constituency. Name a constituency, note whether they back 95% or 51% one party, and look at whether its goals are largely accomplished or largely unfulfilled lately. Many minority groups and religious groups have stuck to one side and failed in their political goals while business,  and more recently women and environmentalists have gone “mainstream” and succeeded in having additional clout in the world of politics. Political power is held by The People; when these groups have attempted to appeal to everyone, a majority supported their efforts and they improved their status considerably.

It’s Big Labor’s turn to decide, and it faces a big choice: continue sending appeals up to only half the nation, or invest in new political strategies to democratize their political involvement, even if it means fewer big “D” Democrats.

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About humourologist

A man who is interested in almost everything, I am a writer, blogger, and political junkie since long before graduating from Pacific Lutheran University. Currently an Action For Washington fellow and content editor, I was a maintenance guy (including groundskeeping) for 3.5 years. I enjoy applying the inarguable principles of mundane life to big ideas, and I get beat up a lot for doing this.

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