I. Labor Day in the Park with George
If you closed your eyes at this year's New York City Labor Day rally, you might have thought you'd been transported to some Hibernian rite at the turn of the last century, back when organized labor spoke with a brogue. The city's locals had assembled in Battery Park for a mix of candidates' speeches and tributes to the union members who had died a few blocks north at the World Trade Center nearly one year earlier. The bagpipe band of Electrical Workers Local 3 kicked things off with an all-George M. Cohan overture -- "Give My Regards to Broadway" and "You're a Grand Old Flag" -- segued into "Amazing Grace" as Air National Guard jets flew overhead in the missing-man formation and, in a perhaps unintentionally grim forecast of days to come, marched off playing "The Minstrel Boy to the Wars Has Gone."
The program grew less Irish and more disorienting, however, as it moved from music to speech. In New York, after all, the pols at the Labor Day rallies tend to be Democrats. Which Democrats, exactly, has varied over the past century. The Irish building trades had been close to Tammany Hall, the Jewish needle trades saw themselves as the New Deal's shock troops, the liberal unions of the 1960s -- hospital workers and public employees -- played a crucial role in the civil-rights movement, while today's janitors' union does battle for the cause of immigrant rights. The particular struggles and alliances may change, but taken together, these unions have been and remain the linchpin of the ever-changing Democratic coalition, in New York and across the country.
And yet the featured speaker at this year's rally -- called to the podium right at 5 p.m. so he could lead all the local newscasts -- was George Pataki, New York's Republican governor. His Democratic challenger in November's gubernatorial contest, State Comptroller Carl McCall, had been accorded a seat on-stage several rows back but had not been invited to speak. McCall was having an otherwise splendid day -- his primary rival, Andrew Cuomo, had withdrawn from the race just a few hours earlier -- but being asked to sit in silence through Pataki's speech was clearly not McCall's vision of the perfect afternoon. By the time the emcee asked him to stand and acknowledge the crowd's applause, McCall had long since departed.
New York's unions have supported Republicans before, of course. Some of the more business-as-usual unions have long been willing to trade endorsements for good contracts, and that was surely part of the dynamic that had brought Pataki to the podium for this year's event.
At one entrance to the park, where Teamsters stood handing out Pataki leaflets, I asked Joel Saroli, a Teamster political staffer, the basis of his group's pro-Patakism. Saroli started with the general: "Anytime we get a political leader who's pro-union, we've got to back him." Saroli moved to the specific: "He negotiated very lucrative contracts for the workers at the Javits [New York Convention] Center."
This kind of parochial calculation hasn't always sat very well with the more socially conscious wing of New York labor, and sure enough, just a few minutes later, a plainly disgruntled older woman was in Saroli's face, demanding a broader justification for the Teamsters' inexplicable deviation. "What's the unemployment rate in New York right now?" she snapped, in a tableau straight out of Jules Feiffer. "Six-point-two percent!" she snapped again, answering her own question with a figure, she plainly believed, that should keep even the Teamsters out of Pataki's column.
This year, however, the socially conscious wing of New York labor is itself split. Pataki has amassed endorsements from unions representing about 800,000 of New York's 2 million unionized workers, while McCall -- the first African-American gubernatorial nominee in New York's history, who combines a business background with a record of fidelity to liberal causes -- can claim support from unions representing roughly 600,000 workers. For McCall, the unkindest cut of all isn't Pataki's support from the trades or the bagpipe locals; it's the governor's endorsement by the state's 210,000-member hospital-workers union, the lamentably named 1199/SEIU. The hospital union may be New York's largest, with the most effective get-out-the-vote program in the state, but that's not what's notable about this endorsement. It's the politics: 1199 is the union that Martin Luther King Jr. once described as his "favorite" -- historically, the most active on behalf of civil rights, civil liberties, peace causes and just about the most socially conscious union in the land. Its president, Dennis Rivera, is known throughout the movement and the state for combining a radical commitment to social justice with a keen strategic sense of how to achieve real-world political gains. So when 1199 endorsed Pataki in March of this year, after striking a deal with the governor that gave its members a lovely 13 percent raise, it changed the entire dynamic of the race. In the words of one SEIU official who was less than thrilled with the move, "It made it easier for every other union -- the Teamsters, the trades, whoever -- to say, 'Hey, this isn't about self-interest. We're with Dennis.' It was the goddamned Seal of Good Housekeeping."
II. The Big Shift (or is it?)
The turn of New York's unions toward George Pataki in this year's election is just one in a series of developments that seem to call into question one of the most fundamental and longstanding alignments in American politics: that of labor with the Democratic Party. James Hoffa Jr.'s Teamsters declined to vote for the AFL-CIO's political program this year, vowing instead to earmark 30 percent of its political action committee (PAC) war chest for Republicans. The Carpenters, a union of 538,000 workers whose maverick president, Doug McCarron, has led it out of the AFL-CIO altogether, is doubling its GOP contributions in this election cycle to 29 percent of its political cash (up from 14 percent in 2000). George W. Bush has now attended two successive Labor Day picnics with the Carpenters, and McCarron participated in Bush's "no discouraging words" economic summit in Waco, Texas, earlier this summer. Less publicized but more important are the shifting endorsement priorities of some of the most progressive and dynamic unions in American labor -- the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) in particular. If there are two exemplars of social unionism in America today, it's surely these two unions, both for the range of their concerns and for their unparalleled success at organizing new members at a time when most other unions have been shrinking, when the percentage of unionized workers has declined to a scant 13.5 percent of the workforce.
SEIU President Andy Stern and HERE President John Wilhelm are new-model union leaders -- ascending to the top spot in their unions because of their successes at organizing new members. While most union leaders today pay lip service to the need for organizing, Stern, Wilhelm, Bruce Raynor of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and a handful of others have created unions devoted primarily to that task. Which has meant that their endorsements, too, tend to flow to those politicos -- regardless of party -- who've stepped forward to help out in organizing drives.
Take a step or two back, of course, and this picture still doesn't look right. Has there ever been a moment when the Republican Party was more anti-union than today? The Bush administration wants a new cabinet department, Homeland Security, which will have no unionized employees. Its Labor Department has scrapped health-and-safety standards for America's workers. The number of liberal Republicans -- committed, say, to a higher minimum wage or worker rights on the job -- is miniscule. If ever labor had an obscure object of desire, it's pro-union Republicans.
Still, there's a change afoot, though the extent and nature of the change is not widely understood. The Teamsters and the Carpenters are moving money to Republicans, but not as much as advertised and almost none of it to Republicans who have contested races with Democrats. Progressive unions such as the SEIU and HERE really are giving some backing to selected Republicans as both wrestle with the question of whether support for organizing should be the primary political concern of a socially conscious union.
III. The Faux Republicanism of the Old Guard
My first sighting of the Carpenters on the 2002 campaign trail didn't suggest that they had fully morphed into Republicans. The setting was mid-August's Minnesota Game Fair (for hunters and their dogs), and the Carpenters were there to serve as incumbent Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone's cheering section (and, perhaps, cultural buffers).
Such sightings are the rule, not the exception. "Operationally," says one AFL-CIO official, "the Carpenters are plugged into our political field program everywhere. The Teamsters are supporting more Republicans for Congress, but they're all safe incumbents. We've seen no evidence of their doing this in a swing district."
Indeed, when you ask the political operatives from either the Carpenters or the Teamsters to name the Republicans they're campaigning for, their answers are necessarily short. At Battery Park, I asked Saroli to name other Republicans the Teamsters are backing in New York. "We're friendly with Peter King," he says, naming a rare pro-labor Republican congressman who has no serious opposition this November. "Who else? I'm not sure." Move across the country to the Carpenters and you get essentially the same answer. "I don't know of any Republicans we're supporting in California," says Dan Curtin, director of the California State Council of Carpenters. "There haven't been moderate Republicans out here for years. There are fewer now -- if any."
To be sure, both the Teamsters and the Carpenters are sending more money to Republicans this year -- but in the case of the Teamsters, not nearly as much as advertised. Despite having targeted 30 percent of their political funds to the GOP in this campaign cycle, the Teamsters have given just 14 percent of their funds to Republican candidates as of mid-September. But these contributions are for incumbents with safe seats. The Carpenters have maxed out their contributions (that is, sent $10,000 checks) to such stalwart GOP senators as Iowa's Charles Grassley and Arizona's John McCain, neither of whom is running for office this year. The Senate candidates actually embroiled in races who've received sizable Carpenter and Teamster checks are all Democrats: Wellstone, Colorado's Tom Strickland, Arkansas' Mark Pryor, Maine's Chellie Pingree and South Dakota's Tim Johnson.
Still, Teamsters and Carpenters -- and other unions, too -- are picking Republicans to support by some presumably nonrandom criteria. This year, in fact, it's the position of mainstream labor that pro-union Republicans in noncompetitive districts merit unions' support. "The country is as evenly divided politically as it's ever been," says AFL-CIO Political Director Steve Rosenthal. "No matter who wins Congress, it will be by a very small number of seats. If a tsunami sweeps the Democrats in, it will be by, say, seven seats. Unions that want to make gains for workers, then, will still have to cobble together majorities out of Democrats -- not all of whom will be pro-worker -- and a handful of Republicans. So we encourage support for pro-union Republicans. The only problem is, they're real hard to find."
What distinguishes the Teamsters and Carpenters, then, is their support for Republicans who aren't pro-worker. Of the 33 Republican House members who received Teamster funds as of Sept. 9, for instance, 25 -- that's 76 percent -- voted for the administration's fast-track proposal in December of last year. The Teamsters had campaigned long, hard and militantly against fast track, but voting for it was apparently no impediment to Teamster support in this fall's election. Even more revealing is the Teamsters' backing of Rep. Peter Hoekstra (D-Mich.), whose average yearly pro-labor voting record stands at 5.8 percent since he took his seat in 1993. But Hoekstra was the subcommittee chair who investigated Ron Carey, whom Hoffa unseated as Teamster president in 1998.
Hoffa's real agenda, of course, is to have the Bush administration lift the federal supervision of the Teamsters that the Department of Justice imposed in the early 1990s after decades of Teamster corruption. If that requires helping Republicans, particularly those Republicans who don't really need help, Hoffa figures that's not a huge price to pay.
While Hoffa tends toward the transparent, the enigma wrapped in a riddle when it comes to courting Bush is the Carpenters' McCarron. The maverick president is nobody's conservative. (I met McCarron in 1986 when I was managing the retention campaign for three very liberal California Supreme Court justices. At McCarron's direction, the Carpenters provided more financial support to the campaign than any other California union, many of them putatively far to the left of the Carpenters.)
What McCarron can show for his courtship of Bush, however, is not at all apparent. Despite the Carpenters' lobbying, the Bush version of the homeland-security bill, for instance, eliminates the Davis-Bacon -- that is, prevailing-wage -- guarantees for building-trades workers doing nonemergency construction for the new department. Similarly, if Karl Rove thinks that Bush can win the Carpenters' support in 2004 because he's flown McCarron around on Air Force One, he too may be in for a bumpy landing. "The president will have to reverse himself in a way that's extraordinary for us to end up with him," one Carpenters' official says. "The Democrats would have to implode."
IV. The Boss Is Ready to Deal
George Pataki, on the other hand, has indeed reversed himself in extraordinary ways. Ousting Mario Cuomo in the Gingrich landslide year of 1994, he came to office as a down-the-line right-winger, slashing $4 billion from the state's Medicaid program. A righteously indignant 1199 ran an ad campaign against Pataki and his cuts that raised the new governor's negatives into the 60 percentiles.
That was then. In the intervening years, New York's Republican base dwindled toward the negligible and Pataki decided he would -- and could -- woo longtime Democratic unions, even 1199. Over the past year, he has signed legislation promoted by the SEIU that bans state funds from going to businesses that employ union-busting consultants. He has signed a bill enabling employees of American Indian casinos to win union recognition by obtaining the signatures of a majority of their co-workers (rather than having to go through elections that management could manipulate). This bill was a major priority for HERE, which is endeavoring to organize these casinos nationally. New York is now the only state to have such legislation.
Above all, Pataki cut a deal with the hospital workers' Dennis Rivera in January that was greatly to the advantage of Rivera's members. At the time, the state was obtaining a billion dollars from the privatization of Empire Blue Cross-Blue Shield, and a group of 150 low-income health providers understood that the money would go to expand health care for the uninsured. Instead, the funding was moved into the state's Medicaid system, where it improved existing facilities and got 1199 members a hefty raise. Two months later, 1199 endorsed Pataki, with Rivera proclaiming that no other governor "has been so responsive to the needs of the workers, the patients and the entire health-care industry."
It's hard to find a union leader who doesn't understand the logic of 1199's position but it's not hard to find leaders who think Rivera oversold the merits of George Pataki. "Dennis makes a deal sound like it's an ideological breakthrough, which it's not," one New York labor leader said. Speaking to me in Battery Park, Mike Fishman, president of the SEIU's second-largest New York local -- 32-B-J, the city's janitor and doorman union -- said, "Pataki did a great thing for 1199. But that contract was just one issue. You can't deal with the needs of working people with just one issue, just one fight. Our members [in 32-B-J] are some of the newest citizens, with a wide range of needs. They need someone with a consistent record on all issues, who's consistently pro-union and pro-working people." The next day, citing McCall's record of support for increased education funding and a higher minimum wage, 32-B-J endorsed McCall.
Indeed, much in the manner of California's Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, Pataki has shown himself far more willing to champion the causes of particular unions whose support he needs than to do anything that would help workers in general (who, after all, lack a PAC that could reward him for his good deeds). This summer, Pataki scuttled a deal to raise the state minimum wage above the paltry federal figure of $5.15 per hour for fear of losing conservative support to Tom Golisano, a right-wing gazillionaire who is funding his own third-party challenge to Pataki this November. Similarly, Pataki has done nothing to raise New York's worker-compensation rates, which are among the lowest of any state.
This is not the first election in which 1199 and 32-B-J have found themselves supporting opposed candidates; indeed, it falls within a well-established pattern. The SEIU is an unusual union in that it is split down the middle between public-sector and private-sector locals, and in recent elections in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere, unions with similar progressive histories have found themselves consistently divided along the public-private line. "1199 acts as if it's a maverick private-sector union," says one New York labor leader, "but it's not. It depends on public-sector money. And that means it's often on an incumbent-protection kick, if the incumbent can cut it a good deal."
The problem, of course, is not confined to 1199. The endorsement decisions of public-sector (or public-sector-dependent) unions often reflect the immediate state of employer-employee relations rather than a more catholic set of concerns. The rise of such particularistic concerns in the electoral strategies of otherwise progressive unions may portend a growing rift between -- and within -- some of America's best unions. And it portends some things worse than that. "The problem I have with 1199's endorsement," says one union official, "is that they won't be there to fight hard on the issues that Pataki isn't good on -- on the minimum wage, say -- once they've made their deal with him."
V. Social Unionism in an Almost De-unionized Age
The ultimate conundrum for progressive unions, however, isn't the deal that Pataki cut with 1199. It's his ban of state funds to companies resisting unionization and his granting of "card-check" provisions -- which give automatic union recognition once a majority of workers have signed union cards -- to casino employees. This would seem to contradict Pataki's general disdain for the unorganized, but on closer inspection these measures are directed at particular unions whose support the governor has sought. And such policies aren't a matter of sweetening contracts; these are actually laws that can help workers organize, that can enable unions to grow. If the Wagner Act was labor's Magna Carta, these are Micro Cartas. And with the labor movement struggling for its very survival, even small-scale legislation that promotes organizing can be a big deal.
"Pataki is the only governor who's been willing to include card check in tribal gaming compacts; that's extraordinarily important," says HERE's Wilhelm. "It's indicative of the fact that the Democrats as a whole don't understand that it would be in their best interest to have more union members and that they ought to be in the forefront of the right to organize. Many individual Democrats are great on this issue, but not the party as a whole."
No one can accuse Wilhelm of being insensible to other "noninstitutional" issues. It was Wilhelm more than any other leader who turned the AFL-CIO away from its long-standing apprehensions about immigrant workers and toward its current stance as the nation's chief advocate for immigrant rights. But if unions grow weaker, he fears that there will be no force to advocate for these larger issues. "I don't believe that a strong labor movement by itself guarantees a more progressive America," he argues, "but I do believe that you can't have a more progressive America if you don't have a strong labor movement."
In a number of unions -- but most especially in such organizing unions as HERE and SEIU and UNITE -- the organizing bona fides of a political candidate offer the clearest and most important way to sort out candidates. The recent Wisconsin Democratic gubernatorial primary had many candidates who "sounded alike," says the SEIU's Stern. "But we were the one union to side with [Dane County Executive] Kathleen Falk because she had helped give home-care workers the right to organize." Falk didn't win, but supporting such officials at election time -- and making clear that support for organizing is the union's primary criterion for support -- has become a crucial way these unions can use their political programs to enhance their organizing. In Los Angeles, a city where the SEIU and HERE are dominant forces within the local AFL-CIO, labor's very effective campaigns for such ardently pro-union officials as Democratic Congresswoman Hilda Solis (who unseated labor-lukewarm Democratic incumbent Mary Martinez in the 2000 primary) have helped change the city's organizing landscape. In the past several years, L.A.-area elected officials have intervened routinely and successfully to help the organizing drives of supermarket, airport, retail and janitorial workers.
It's achievements such as these that have led the unions most committed to organizing to support a small but growing number of Republicans. Recently, in Las Vegas -- the city that, thanks to HERE, boasts the most unionized service sector in the nation -- the union intervened in a heavily Republican district to support state Sen. Mark James, a moderate and pro-labor Republican, over a very right-wing opponent for the position of Clark County commissioner, a post with considerable power over Vegas labor issues. HERE's goal was an election-day takeover of a Republican primary. "We mobilized our 3,900 Republican members in the district," says Wilhelm. "We persuaded 400 of our Democratic members to switch party registrations for the week as well. The guy won by 218 votes."
For the organizing unions, this Vegas fling with Republicans is not a one-night stand. As of mid-September, HERE had directed 19 percent of its congressional dollars in the current election cycle to Republicans; the SEIU had given GOP candidates 10 percent. By contrast, other progressive unions with less of a strategic focus on organizing had stuck more closely to the Democrats. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees had spent 3 percent of its funding on Republicans; the Machinists, 2 percent; the United Auto Workers, 1 percent. Among unions that share a commitment to a broad social unionism, then, two distinct electoral strategies are emerging.
But how do leaders such as Stern and Wilhelm reconcile their own social unionism, which puts a premium on organizing the unorganized through such things as card check, with -- well, their own social unionism, which also puts a premium on helping the unorganized through such things as a higher minimum wage? How do they navigate the shoals of Patakism? Which social imperative is the most urgent? "Look, this isn't a science," says Stern. "People who are wonderful on health-care issues may be terrible on giving workers the right to join unions, and vice versa. In the end, this just comes down to judgments, and you need to make those judgments consistent with the goals of the union."
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)