Boston Fight for 15 March, April 2015 — Photo © 2015 Jason Pramas
A number of contradictions hung in the air at the Greater Boston Labor Council’s annual Labor Day breakfast on Monday. Foremost among them was that the Democratic Party-dominated Massachusetts legislature has agreed to release the MBTA from the provisions of the anti-privatization Pacheco Law for three years — which will allow Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, to start to privatize some of the beleaguered transportation agency’s services.
This unfortunate decision by the Dems spurred hundreds of Boston Carmen’s Union members to stage a protest outside the labor breakfast. With Pres. Barack Obama about to headline inside, the transit workers demonstrated in favor of keeping the T public and saving good union jobs. A worthy goal to be sure. So worthy that Steven Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, spoke at the rally as well as the breakfast. To his credit. But neither he nor any other labor leader at either event laid out any specific plan to punish politicians who support replacing decent unionized jobs with lousy non-union jobs. Vague warnings were about as heated as things got. And ironically, the rally primarily targeted the Republican governor who proposed the hated privatization move rather than the Democratic legislature that disposed it. Or perhaps not so ironically.
In an ordinary year at an ordinary Labor Day breakfast, the rally and maybe the remarks of the ranking local politician present would have been the biggest excitement of the day. But this year, Obama not only addressed the breakfast, but also used his speech to announce an executive order providing up to seven days of annual paid sick leave to 300,000 federal contractors. Unable — and often unwilling — to push larger versions of this and similar labor reforms through either friendly or unfriendly Congressional sessions, Obama has taken to using executive orders to improve the situation of discrete groups of workers that he can affect directly when it suits his political purposes.
The problem being that any future President can reverse such executive orders upon taking office. And Presidents often reverse their predecessors’ executive orders. So they are a policy tool of only limited usefulness.
The other problem, and certainly the most significant contradiction on offer Monday, is that it has been decades since the Democratic Party has been reliably pro-labor — which means that neither major party genuinely supports American workers in this era.
Despite this monumental political crisis facing American labor, two linked spectacles were on display — for those who cared to look — at Monday’s breakfast that demonstrated the reluctance of current union leadership to break away from the Dems. The first was that the Boston labor establishment hosted Democratic leaders and candidates shortly after the legislature they control handed a new Republican governor a victory on his dangerous agenda to further privatize and destabilize critical public services like the MBTA. As a fellow union held a significant protest against that agenda outside. Some offending pols were then scolded by speakers, but most current labor leaders will not actually follow through on threats. Instead they’ll do what they have grown too accustomed to doing: brag about minor achievements, and remain silent as a tomb about their many failures.
The second was the even larger spectacle of the President of the United States — a Democrat — flying national labor leaders up to Boston in Air Force One, and offering unions an olive branch in the form of a decent (but minor) reform. All the while eliding the fact that he has personally inflicted some of the most bruising defeats on labor in history — including winning fast-track approval authority for a so-called “trade agreement,” the Trans-Pacific Partnership, earlier this summer. An agreement that, among other very bad things, will accelerate the “race to the bottom” among the global workforce by allowing corporations to more easily outsource jobs to countries with worse labor standards than our own. Yet those same labor leaders ate up the President’s very temporary attention with gusto. At least in public.
While it may seem strange that labor continues to cleave to a political party that is openly committed to supporting the very capitalist forces that are ripping this country and planet asunder, it makes sense if one understands that most labor leaders are terrified to let the increasingly feral and triumphalist Republicans gain any more political ground. Yet they have no strategy to break free of the two-party duopoly. And the Republicans are hammering labor mercilessly, it’s true. Because the Democrats not only let them do so, but ally with them more often than not.
This regrettable alliance with the Democrats prevents labor from organizing waves of mass mobilizations and other forms of direct action against corporations and the rich that might actually change the American political scene. Because such mobilizations would be difficult to control. Too much like Occupy, which scared some labor leaders (and some ostensibly left-leaning non-profits) so much that they tried to co-opt it or outflank it on a number of occasions.
By way of example, the Service Employees International Union did lead the latest in a series of marches and rallies Monday for its version of the Fight for 15 campaign following the Labor Day breakfast. But it was a march of hundreds — a good number of whom, as ever, were staffers from participating unions and progressive non-profits. Not the needed march of tens of thousands of enraged and emboldened Boston workers, synced with marches of millions of workers in cities around the country. And thus it presented no challenge at all to a Democratic establishment that has failed to enact needed reforms, even when it has controlled the entire Congress and Presidency (as was the case after Pres. Bill Clinton’s 1992 win, and Obama’s 2008 victory). Or entire state governments, as with Massachusetts under eight years of Gov. Deval Patrick.
Improving this difficult situation for labor will require a number of internal reforms, even as the various external crises are taken on. Highest on the list should be democratizing the more authoritarian unions to allow free, full, and ongoing discussions of key political economic issues. Followed by regular, binding, union-wide referenda on vital questions like: “What politicians, if any, should we support in the next election cycle?” And: “What politicians should we punish?” Such a program of reform is absolutely necessary if labor is going to transform itself into the militant independent force for democracy that it once, at its best, was. And stop the kinds of weak back room deals that have passed for political programs in many sectors of American labor for far too long.
At the end of the day, it’s up to union members to change their organizations from one-stop free money and campaign worker shops for the pro-business Democratic Party into standard bearers for the just society to come.
Will they do so before American labor unions cease to be a meaningful social force? That remains to be seen.
Copyright 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network. APPARENT HORIZON is the first column syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is a longtime labor activist and BINJ network director. He recently lost his job as assistant professor of communication after helping lead a successful core faculty union drive at Lesley University with SEIU Local 509. He is currently challenging the Lesley University administration’s refusal to renew his contract at the National Labor Relations Board.