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Op Ed: Why Labor Should Attack Democrats on Trade

Friday, July 10th, 2015

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