Op Ed: Why Labor Should Attack Democrats on Trade


trumkaBy Steve Smith
Special to Calbuzz

A recent Calbuzz post took unions to task for having the audacity to call out Democratic elected officials when they take stands or cast votes that are not in the best interest of working people. The fundamental flaw of this argument is that it assumes that labor is an arm of the Democratic Party and, as such, we should never criticize Democrats because doing so is harmful to the party.

While we strongly support many Democrats – we’re talking about the party of FDR, after all – we don’t do so blindly. Ultimately, our support or opposition of any candidate is based on what he or she does in office or what they promise they will do. And when someone like U.S. Rep. Ami Bera, who promised that he would protect middle-class jobs, votes for a trade deal that labor, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and the vast majority of his fellow Congressional Dems say would be harmful to those jobs, we have the duty to hold him accountable. It’s that simple. We don’t apologize for it. We don’t backtrack from it.

beraWhy We Attacked Bera Bera’s own constituents, according to a poll by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake were against the fast track deal by a 2-to-1 margin. He, along with only four other California congressional Dems, cast votes that were in conflict with just about the entire Democratic coalition including environmentalists, human rights organizations and many others. California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton also criticized the deal. Somehow I doubt if Burton thought speaking out against it was harmful to his party’s electoral chances, he would have taken the strong stand that he did.

Yes, labor ran some ads ensuring that voters in Bera’s district knew where he stood on an issue that could affect their jobs. For that, Calbuzz compares us to the Tea Party? C’mon.

The truth is, we work hard to help elect candidates based on their support of issues of economic security. Trade is a core issue for us. Many economists link flawed trade deals to our growing inequality in America. So yes, we held Democrats who support flawed trade accountable for their votes in an effort to make these deals better for workers going forward.

Why We Attacked Glazer Then there are Democrats like Calbuzz favorite, state Sen. Steve Glazer, who, by his own admission, is not a progressive on economic issues. During the campaign, we argued that his support by the Chamber of Commerce was legitimate reason for concern. Should labor have just sat back and ignored his attacks on unions? Of course not.

steveglazer1In the first major test on an economic issue as a legislator, he took a walk on raising the minimum wage. Even the San Francisco Chronicle, which endorsed Glazer, blasted him for failing to have the courage to stand up and cast a vote on this core issue for Democrats. We hold out hope that unions and other groups fighting for economic justice will be able to find some common ground with him on some issues. We’ll see.

As for pensions, while voters have expressed their concern, polls show they reject the draconian measures to eliminate retirement security that have been put forth in statewide ballot measure attempts. This year’s measure, being spearheaded by Tea Party favorite Carl DeMaio, is being touted by the Koch Brothers-funded Reason Institute and other right-wing groups as a way to undermine unions. No surprise there.

Why We’ll Keep Attacking Labor is the last line of defense for working people in a world increasingly dominated by corporate interests. When we see Democrats drifting away from working people and toward corporate special interests, we’re going to act. We could have responded by shrugging our shoulders when Bera announced in an op-ed – lifting language directly from the Business Roundtable – that he was going to vote for fast track. Instead, we took him to task.

stevesmithAs corporations get more powerful – and they do with each passing year – it becomes increasingly important that activists and constituencies like labor remind Democratic elected officials about the core values that got them elected. Being a progressive means more than being good on social issues. It means fighting for working women and men, sometimes against enormous odds.

That’s what labor has always done. And that’s what we’ll continue to do because if we don’t hold folks accountable, pretty soon there’ll be little difference between Dems and Republicans on economic issues. And that’s exactly what the all-powerful corporate special interests want.

Steve Smith is Communications Director of the California Labor Federation

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There are 4 comments for this post

  1. avatar tonyseton says:

    Why do you provide a forum for such a rant? We heard plenty of this in the last few months. Proud to attack, attack, attack. No elucidation. No reason. No search for solutions. No common decency. Just propaganda, mis-information, and threats. The leadership is over-mouthed, over-paid, and under-serving of both their membership and the cause of truth.

  2. Calbuzz operates under the theory that labor is hurting Democrats like the Tea Party is hurting Republicans. But let’s take a look at how California Democrats are doing: they swept constitutional offices in the last election, have nearly 2/3 majorities in the Legislature (with zero threat of losing the majority), and hold a commanding lead in our Congressional delegation + have both US Senate seats. If labor’s influence is so damaging and D’s are becoming “endangered species,” what’s the basis for their attacks? One special election loss where R’s had a disproportionate share of the vote? Steve’s op-ed is on the money.

    As for the comments of Mr. Seton, labor’s agenda is solution-oriented and positive: eliminating income inequality, higher wages, retirement security, health care, and more better educational opportunities.

  3. avatar patwater says:

    Hmmmmm this whole “rage, rage, rage against the dying of the light” attitude may make a few ideologues feel better but I don’t see how it actually helps you know actual Californians. There’s more to the economic trends shaping inequality than “evil corporations.” Cue the Economist:

    “One important factor in the decline of private-sector unions is the increasing automation of heavily-unionised manufacturing jobs. American manufacturing output has grown robustly while the portion of the workforce employed in manufacturing has plummeted. Thanks robots! Now, this strikes me as sort of obvious, but I rarely see it mentioned, so I am going to mention it. The difference between making stuff with workers and making stuff with machines has profound distributive implications! Moreover, these implications are entirely independent of questions of union power.”

    Just look at the world around you. The digital revolution has transformed how not only manufacturing but increasingly underpins essentially every facet of America’s economy from media to professional services to finance to retail etc etc etc.

    So how exactly does FIGHTING all the trends pushing towards a more connected world really help actual Californians? We need creative ideas to surf the waves that are transforming the economy for the benefit of all Californians — not ham fisted protectionism of existing jobs by killing trade.

    And regarding the minimum wage, it’s pretty clear that A) much more needs to be done (like Jerry’s EITC that you know actually works according to research) and B) that this ham fisted politburo style thinking collapses under the weight of its own contradictions:

    “Labor leaders, who were among the strongest supporters of the citywide minimum wage increase approved last week by the Los Angeles City Council, are advocating last-minute changes to the law that could create an exemption for companies with unionized workforces.

    The push to include an exception to the mandated wage increase for companies that let their employees collectively bargain was the latest unexpected detour as the city nears approval of its landmark legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020.”
    – See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2015/05/enough-said.html#sthash.2WpnFGgG.dpuf

    Then there’s the minor fact that labor runs LA but you know the city hasn’t exactly been doing great for the working class — lags down near Detroit these past few decades when you look at job growth numbers: https://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/LOSA106NA

    A progressivism focused on actual results for working Californians > symbolic gestures aimed at keeping spin doctors in power.

  4. avatar stevesmith says:

    Ah, the “robots are taking our jobs” argument. While it’s true that many factors, including automation, contribute to the decline of manufacturing jobs in the US, the robots argument has been roundly rejected as the primary reason US manufacturing has plummeted. The math simply doesn’t add up.

    The US has lost manufacturing jobs at a rate much higher than other advanced economies in large part because our government has enabled, even encouraged, corporations to move jobs offshore through flawed trade policy. Robots aren’t making iPhones. People are. People in Chinese factories. Enduring horrible working conditions for pennies on the dollar of what they’d make here in the US.

    The problem with US trade policy isn’t that we allow for global trade. It’s that we do it in a way that benefits very few at the expense of very many. Look no further than the staggering trade deficit we have with trading partners. Trade is supposed to be beneficial for us and our partners. Instead, it’s a boon for multinational corporations and a bust for workers…here and abroad. When we open the floodgates to cheap imports while not inducing similar benefits to US manufacturers attempting to export, we create a lot of losers and very few winners. Past trade agreements have included inadequate and largely unenforceable labor and environmental standards. Lost jobs and environmental degradation were the direct result. We’re not against trade. But it has to be done right. The playing field is uneven and if we think doing exactly the same thing is going to create a different result…well you know the old adage about the definition of insanity. So we advocate for trade policy that’s more equitable. And yes, we do so vehemently because, let’s be honest, there’s no other force in American politics that even has a chance of giving workers a seat at the table when major policy that will likely affecting millions of jobs is considered.

    And your comments about labor being anti-technology are as baffling as they are misguided. We are not. In fact, we are working closely with tech to improve the conditions for workers while at the same time expanding technology to more Americans. The Communications Workers of America has a whole campaign devoted to expanding broadband access so that more people are connected.

    Finally, on the minimum wage, nearly every city minimum wage ordinance includes the exemption you mention to give workers the option of bargaining for a total compensation package that is above the minimum wage, wherever it is set. If workers have the ability to stand together and bargain with employers, they have control over their own destinies. If they don’t, there left to the mercy of employers that will pay them as a little as possible.

    As for your comment on LA and the working class, it ignores the multitude of dynamics at play with that economy. Lots of low-wage industries, high-cost of living, wage theft capital of the nation etc. Not to mention that LA used to be a hub of manufacturing before it was hollowed out by NAFTA and those jobs were transported to maquiladoras across the border. A study released last week concluded that Fresno is the sixth most economically distressed city in America (LA, BTW, didn’t make the list). A city with a longstanding tradition of Republican control and fewer opportunities for workers to stand together in a union. By your logic, that is resounding proof that GOP policies are to blame. The truth is obviously more complicated than that.

    The bottom line is that our economy is heavily tilted, and not toward unions, which represent about 11 percent of the workforce. The economy is dominated by corporate interests whose primary goal is to look for way to cut costs (ie workers) and maximize profits for executives. That’s why we have the highest inequality in nearly 100 years. There’s no balance. And if that trend continues, there’s no conceivable way the US remains the global economic power it is today. because when consumers run out money and banks stop extending credit, what’s left of the middle class collapses. So maybe we ought to all work together to retain the good jobs we have left and give more workers the opportunity to carve out some economic security by having the ability to bargain for better wages and benefits

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