”You know the difference between cannibals and liberals?” the president asked. “Cannibals eat only their enemies.”
LBJ’s formulation comes to mind as we ponder the recent eat-your-own behavior of the dominant, union faction of the California and National Democratic Parties, which seems, oddly, to ape that of Tea Party Republicans.
Ideological rigidity, unwillingness to compromise, incendiary rhetoric, unreasonable demands, infuriating inconsistency and scorched earth tactics: these are just some of the characteristics of Tea Party types, whose stranglehold on Congress has so enraged liberal and moderate Democrats and Republicans alike.
Yet they’re exactly the characteristics – albeit on the left not the right — that now infest the Labor Union Wing of the Democratic Party, in California and Washington.
From Elk Grove to East Rockaway, Democratic members of Congress, from Ami Bera to Kathleen Rice, who have dared to stray from Big Labor’s take-no-prisoners stance on trade, have been pilloried as traitors to working people and others. Their mortal sin: bucking organized labor’s line on just a few issues, while hewing to it on most.
Off with their heads: It’s understandable that Big Labor feels threatened, across the nation, by the decline in the influence and membership of industrial unions, as the manufacturing economy gives way to the cyber-service economy.
However, when crusading unions recently poured millions into a failed attempt to defeat Steve Glazer, a lifelong Democratic progressive who spent years working for Jerry Brown, in a special state Senate election — because he departed from party orthodoxy in opposing some public employee strikes – it seemed a bridge too far.
Likewise the nonstop attacks on another Democrat, former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, for his sponsorship of a proposed ballot measure to give cities the right to revise taxpayer-financed pension plans.
At the recent California Democratic convention, Art Pulaski, secretary-treasurer and CEO of the California Labor Federation, vilified pro-trade agreement Democratic incumbents, denouncing by name Rep. Bera, who last year eked out a GOP ex-congressman, by the underwhelming margin of 50.4 to 49.6 percent
“It’s time to call them out,” Pulaski thundered from the podium, charging that Bera “bowed to corporate interests and kneels at the altar of profits.”
“Our message is this – you’re choosing sides,” he shouted, adding that come next election, “we’ll choose sides” against Bera. “Let’s kick ass together.”
You go, Art. Sic temper tyrannis.
Why trade is good for California: Inquiring minds want to know: when did the Democrats give up the concept of a united front – wherein a variety of legislators who agree on 90% of the issues could tolerate differences on 10%?
For decades, labor union Democrats – in the building trades, for example – mostly have managed to remain allies with environmental Democrats, even though to the former, progressive policy might mean new housing development, while to the latter that might look like urban sprawl.
Throughout California, in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County, and elsewhere across the country, Democrats of different stripes – some with jobs as their first priority, like miners or autoworkers, others with protection of the environment and social services as theirs — might disagree on specific issues, but never lost sight of their common interests.
Take U.S. Rep. Sam Farr of Monterey – as reliable a liberal Democratic vote any party purist could ask for about 96% of the time, according to the National Journal. (Nancy Pelosi scored 86%, Zoe Lofgren 78%). He has fought against offshore oil drilling off the Central Coast, which would provide jobs to union workers in construction and oil field operations. But he’s always had labor union support. He’s also one of those who dared support the Democratic president of the United States on trade.
Here’s Farr’s take on trade, from a post to constituents. We quote at length because it makes great sense to us:
The strength of the Central Coast’s economy lies not in maintaining the status quo. It lies in our ability to adapt and change to meet the demands of a global community. The Central Coast is connected to that international community. We are the home of the Defense Language Institute, the Naval Postgraduate School and many other world renowned colleges and universities. And our local businesses rely on access to new markets around the globe to compete.
Trade opens up those markets. It puts the goods we produce and the crops we grow here in California into the hands of more buyers around the world. More sales abroad create more jobs here at home. Trade is good for the Central Coast.
I trust President Obama to deliver a better trade deal than Speaker Boehner and Senator McConnell. Under TPA, any deal brought to Congress by the President will be made public and reviewed for 60 days. At the end of that time period, Congress will hold a simple up or down vote. Without TPA, the Republican controlled Congress would be able to strip out any of the tougher standards put in place by the White House.
We expectorate on you from a great height: Labor unions may spit on this kind of thinking, but Farr’s logic – similar to arguments made by Bera, Scott Peters and Susan Davis of San Diego and Jim Costa of the Central Valley – is not anti-working class or even anti-union; it’s a liberal Democrat’s take on the politics and policy needs of his district and the nation.
“It’s disappointing that we had a few members vote in a way that we would say was against the interests of working people in California,” Steve Smith of the California Labor Federation, told Cathy Decker of the LA Times. “And this is something we’re going to remember.”
Oy. Again with the threats.
Can’t we all just get along? Let’s behold for a moment some members of the Senate lineup who voted to support President Obama’s fast-track authority on the trade deal: Dianne Feinstein, the reigning queen of California Democrats, plus Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Patty Murray of Washington, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
Not exactly a murderer’s row of right-to-work crusaders.
In California, labor leaders are enforcing strict discipline simply because they can, in a state where Democratic power approaches hegemony. More broadly, however, the moves come at a time when unions have lost membership and influence across the nation – most significantly in Wisconsin, where Republican Governor Scott Walker has busted unions and won approval of right-to-work legislation, despite the state’s history of progressive politics and trade unionism. All of which makes the Democrats’ labor wing appear desperate to hold on to whatever vestiges of power it can.
It is a plain fact that in California, public employee unions — teachers and prison guards, especially — long have been the Democrats’ number one special interest group, shoveling cash and other campaign resources to lawmakers in exchange for their knee-jerk obeisance.
“Mindful of the millions they spend electing Democrats, the public employee unions expect legislators to act like the old Soviet-era nomenklatura, compliant toadies who do what they are told,” said Tony Quinn, a former GOP political consultant who now co-authors “The Target Book,” a comprehensive collection of data on every district in the state. “So when one gets out of line it’s a big deal.”
We get that Big Labor is in decline, public support for unions has weakened and their leaders feel they’re fighting for survival. And to some extent, they are — the most powerful labor unions in the country are no longer industrial trade unions but public employee unions.
And where they’re wrong: the leaders see trade as a fundamental threat to unionized American manufacturing jobs, but their members increasingly view trade as consumers who benefit from lower-cost goods.
Adapt or die. Several trends in California, beyond Glazer’s convincing 10-point victory, suggest the labor Dem strategy of eating their own is, er, uh, shortsighted.
The Top Two primary system has created a friendlier political landscape for pro-business Democrats, plus incentives and openings for traditionally Republican interests, like the Chamber of Commerce, to gain favor with them through campaign backing; with the loss of partisan primaries, moderate Democrats now can succeed by courting independents and some Republicans, as Glazer proved in his successful state Senate district race.
Also, recent polling suggests widespread unhappiness with financial packages for public employees: More than eight in ten registered voters said that money spent on public pension or retirement systems is either a big problem (43 percent) of somewhat of a problem (39 percent) in a Public Policy Institute of California survey done last year.
For Democrats, this poses a huge challenge: some of their most loyal and important interests are threatening to set the big tent on fire. Sure, it’s important to draw lines from time to time. But compared to the alternative (see: Walker, Scott above) Democrats like Dianne Feinstein and Ami Bera ought to be seen as on the same side of that line.
Secret bottom-line memo to labor Dems: Stop the Tea Party purges.