Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Let Them Eat Ballots: Unions’ Obsession With Political Action

California’s Proposition 32, on the November ballot, has been dubbed the Stop Special Interests initiative. In reality, it is targeted at the state’s unions, with the goal of preventing them from using payroll deductions to fund their political campaigns and lobbying. The bill would have virtually no effect on private businesses or corporate lobbying, as private businesses do not raise political funds through payroll deductions.

The campaign in support of 32, not surprisingly, has been heavily funded by corporate interests that hope to stifle unions’ political involvement, which is already miniscule compared with theirs. Yet even their small involvement in politics is unacceptable to the wealthy, who would like to see the unions, as well as any workplace and environmental protections, disappear completely.

One of the major funders of Prop 32 is the American Future Fund, a Super PAC affiliated with the Koch Brothers and Karl Rove, which recently contributed $4 million from secret donors to the campaign. Prop 32 is also backed by Democrats for Education Reform (DfER), an anti-union and anti-teacher organization that is funded by hedge fund managers and Wall Street brokers.

While the backers of 32 have been very deceptive in their promotion of this legislation, inaccurately suggesting that the bill would stop all special interests from influencing politics, the unions themselves have engaged in a deceptive, top down and undemocratic campaign to defend themselves. For example, representatives of the California Teachers Association (CTA) have told members the bill would end collective bargaining rights for them. However, Prop 32 says nothing about unions’ right to collectively bargain and if it passes it would have no direct effect on collective bargaining. Nevertheless, it is safe to assume that the bill’s backers would like to end collective bargaining, and that passage of the bill would facilitate this goal by stifling unions’ ability to lobby in defense of collective bargaining.

It is also probably safe to assume that most union members would oppose 32 if educated about it and that they would support their unions’ efforts to resist it. However, the CTA’s decision to prioritize the anti-32 campaign (and the pro-30 tax increase campaign) over virtually all other activities was essentially made from the top-down, with very little input from the rank and file. This approach has the potential to alienate and anger members, rather than encourage their support and participation.

Furthermore, the way the CTA engaged the locals to participate in their campaigns has been autocratic and coercive. In my local, for example, our CTA representative told us we “had to” participate in the CTA activities around these two initiatives and we “did not” have a choice in the matter. To make matters worse, we were expected to carry out some of these activities during the same week we had to vote on a new contract, adding an unnecessary degree of confusion, anxiety and frustration to our members, who were already overburdened with their normal teaching responsibilities, and to our organizers and representatives responsible for carrying out these two unrelated union duties.

Of course it will be devastating to students and teachers if 30 loses and 32 wins. K12 and higher education will lose $6 billion in funding, while the corporate education reform movement will gain considerably more political power to further gut public education. Yet one the reasons why corporate interests have gained so much political power in recent years is that unions have relinquished their most powerful weapon—direct action—in favor of going toe to toe with the wealthy in the political arena. Even without Citizens United, corporations were able to outspend unions by large margins. And even without outspending them, policy will almost always come down in favor of the wealthy and their businesses because the politicians are members of the same class and their economic interests lie more with their corporate friends and allies than with the rest of us.

The unions argue that their funding of political campaigns and lobbying have led to important gains for teachers and this is partly true. However, this does not mean that political action is the only or even most effective tactic. And despite these gains, real wages and benefits have been declining steadily for decades. Class sizes have been soaring. Programs continue to be cut. Working hours have increased. And perhaps most devastating to teachers’ living conditions, the unions have completely failed to do anything substantive about rising health care costs, with the result that workers must pay more and more out of pocket for health coverage each year, a cost that further erodes take home pay.

Workers’ real power lies in their ability to withhold their labor, and this is only effective when workers are well-educated and organized. Ironically, a well-organized and educated membership can also easily be mobilized to engage in canvassing, phone banking, letter writing, fundraising and other political activities, potentially with greater effectiveness than can be achieved through union-hired lobbyists and campaign managers. However, the ultimate goal should always be job actions, including General Strikes, as these have the greatest potential to force bosses and politicians to buckle to workers’ demands. This sort of organizing  needs to be initiated from the bottom up and, to be effective, must empower workers, not make them feel like minions of their unions.

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