It didn’t get the attention it deserved, but one key development from last Friday was that AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka, in an interview with Salon, essentially declared independence from the Democratic Party. Trumka vowed that unions would be putting more of their money into their own organizing and less into defending Obama and Congressional Dems in 2012.
That echoed an earlier vow by the chief of the International Association of Fire Fighters to shift union cash from federal to local contests.
Commentators and political reporters will roll their eyes at these threats. They will point out that such tough talk rarely produces any real break with the Democratic Party; labor’s threat to primary Congressional Dems who bucked Obama on health reform, for instance, largely fizzled.
But while there’s something to that analysis, it overlooks the degree to which the events in Wisconsin have altered the calculus for labor. The surprising organizing success labor and state-level Dems have had there, combined with the fact that Republicans and conservatives are increasingly committed to pursuing anti-union initiatives in multiple states, may produce a real shift in labor’s strategy, in which resources really do get redirected to local organizing and state-level battles.
So what should national Dems do about this?
One thing Dems can immediately do is show some spine in a battle that’s gotten little national attention but is hugely important to unions: The war over the House GOP drive to roll back worker rights in the forthcoming Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill.
The short version is that House Republicans passed a version of the bill that would greatly complicate the ability of airline and railroad employees to organize. The White House has threatened to veto the bill if it includes the anti-union provision. It’s now in the midst of conference negotiations, where Senate Dems are being pushed by unions to stand firm and not allow the provision into the final legislation. The Communication Workers of America has taken the lead against the initiative, but other unions also view it as a priority.
Whether or not you believe labor’s threat to soften support for national Dems in 2012, it would be folly to take full-blown union support for granted — in 2010, recall, turnout among union households dropped significantly. Standing firm in this FAA fight would be a good way for national Dems to restore organized labor’s confidence that the national party will fight for labor’s priorities — and hence is worth labor’s maximum time and money.