CommunityFDL Main Blog

Labor and Netroots


(Inspired by an AlterNet article on John Edwards and his support for labor unions as part of his anti-poverty strategy, reader diogenes was inspired to write the following piece which echoes what Markos and Jerome say in Crashing the Gate:  there is an extremely important bridge that needs to be built between between the netroots and labor. They seem to be fighting may of the same foes — JH)

Bona fides are in order. I am not a high-powered and highly sought-after union honcho, fresh off the weenie circuit. I am a working class Southerner. The only thing I knew about a union for the first two decades of my life was they won the Civil War. I literally did not know a soul that belonged to one.

That changed when US Air bought Piedmont Airlines, and immediately hit financial turbulence. Agents were non-union: pilots, flight attendants and mechanics were organized. We agents took pay and benefit hits, while the union groups got raises. When I asked our CEO why, he said “They have contracts, and you don’t.”

An organizing campaign sprang into life, and I threw myself into it. We eventually got a union, and a contract. My peers elected me to serve them as vice-president and grievance chair, and I co-chaired our legislative committee. It is a somber obligation to represent someone when their job is on the line. It was a joy to make the union case to our congressional delegation. I will be a unionist to the day I die. I also know some of the problems, and the similarities mimic the progressive relationship with the Country Club Democratic (CCD) ‘leadership’ – that’s what got Jane and me talking.

The first problem CCD’s and union leaders have in common is they don’t listen to the membership. Oh, they’ll take our money and let us do the dog work, but they won’t listen to us – I guess a bunch of white folk are learning what our African American brothers and sisters have known all along.  Here is a nice little love tap from the DLC, just in case you think they are going to embrace us anytime soon. Unions do the same stuff. During the 2002 North Carolina primary season, the IAM leadership decided, sans any meaningful input from the membership, to endorse Erskine Bowles, former Clinton chief of staff, over Elaine Marshall, secretary of state (she beat the King, who in NC, ain’t Elvis!).

Now the sad fact is, there are children yet unborn who will hate all things Clinton, because mamma and daddy taught them to. There are plenty of those folks in North Carolina. We locals knew if Erskine ran, this would get shoved down our throats. We begged the IAM (The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers) to reconsider. Elaine had a more compelling story. And with Liddy Dole going to get the Republican nod and $$$, how nice (and smart) would it have been for the Dem’s to be as progressive as the Reps?  Moreover, even if Elaine lost, she’d be on the bench if John Edwards decided to run for President (I had no knowledge at the time, just a good vibe!).

Bottom line was, a Clintonite couldn’t win dogcatcher in the Old North State. Did the IAM listen, or even have a mechanism to listen? Nooooooo, so we and Erskine got our asses handed to us.

Fast forward to 2004. Edwards’ seat comes open, and the Reps put up a congressman nobody heard of. Who did the IAM endorse? Did they learn anything from the last go-around? Did they listen to the locals? Nooooooo, they went with —- Erskine! We got this for a suppository this time. Elaine would have mopped the floor with Burr: we and Erskine got our asses handed to us. Senator Burr went on to renege on his promise to oppose CAFTA (and his freakin’ part of the state used to be textile mill Mecca!). I guess when CCD’s can’t vote against working people, they’ll hold the coat of a Republican who can.

The second problem CCD’s and union leaders share is they have forsaken their membership. CCD’s vote for NAFTA, and unions funnel them PAC money as a thank-you. When have you seen union leadership really hold an elected official’s feet to the fire for betrayal? To the point of cutting off the money? Withholding support? You haven’t. ‘Cause they are in it together, and the game is perpetual cocktail weenies and the good life. Somebody’s gotta pay for it, and that somebody is us.

During the 2004 campaign season, most unions threw their weight behind Gephardt. That was cool – Gephardt has fought the good fight for working class folks (I’d loved to have seen him win). When Gephardt didn’t take off in Iowa, the AFL-CIO tapped Kerry. Problem was, Kerry had been seen as accepting a US Airways failure rather than accepting the proposed US Airways – United merger in 2000. The IAM represented ramp agents and mechanics at US Airways.

IAM fell in line, again without so much as a by-your-leave from their members, endorsing Kerry. Kinda gives you a warm feeling when your union endorses a guy calling for the end of your career. It also frosted me the unions fell in behind Kerry while Edwards was still viable. From a pragmatic viewpoint, the country was electing good ol’ boys. They gonna relate to a Brahmin, or the son of a mill worker? I thought at the time, and events have proven me right: CCD’s fear populism, and by extension, us. I guess they don’t want to get off their lazy asses, and actually have to deliver. Maybe cocktail weenies (if you can’t tell, I totally love the metaphor!) induce torpor, like Thanksgiving turkey.

How has it come to this? It’s as old as the Good Book – “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  "All this I will give you," he said, "if you will bow down and worship me." It’s easier, and the perks are much nicer, to shake down a few moneybags, than to represent regular folks. Keep the peasants fighting amongst them selves – “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half” – and live off their blood and sweat. I knew Bush’s “I’m a uniter; not a divider” was bullshit when he said it, because the last thing the moneybags want is harmony among the proles. Think about it. Every traditional media highlights antagonism and aggression. Survivor shows feature the knife in the back. Which way has the hate needle pegged in the last six years?

CCD’s would rather eat their children than heed their membership. They dread us more than Republicans – they have more in common with Republicans. Unions are not going to listen to dues-paying members – the leadership has more in common with the CEO’s. CCD’s are counting on us to remember the Nader factor, hold our noses and vote for their guy – then on to business as usual on the cocktail weenie and corporate jet circuit. They are not going to accommodate us, or cede an inch.

We know Feingold gets this. Dean gets it. Edwards gets it, too. I can’t tell you how smart I think it is for Edwards to bypass the leadership, and address the roots. If you want to engage unions in the netroots, forget the hierarchy. Talk to local legislative and grievance committee members – they are already activists. They’ve already butted their heads against the corporate and union hierarchy, and are ready for alternatives. So are their members. These are the folks that do the dirty work of voter turn-out.

Hooking up net activists and union activists is a huge piece of the puzzle, and good on FDL for talking responsibility into their own hands, and making things happen. If we’re going to have a democracy, we’ve got to pitch in.

Previous post

Where is This Going?

Next post

Welcome to the SLDN's 14th Annual National Dinner live-blogging event