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Labor Convention Separates Wheat from Chaff Among Democrats

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), said one union leader, is one of the few folks in Washington who “shares our economic priorities.” (Photo: AP)The AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles drew to a close yesterday after four days of speeches, resolutions, and votes.  At the convention, delegates voted to broaden the labor movement by forming stronger partnerships with non-union organizations (such as worker centers and advocacy groups).  We can hope that this step will help reinvigorate the kind of mass social movement we saw in the 1930s, when a broad coalition of Americans rallied in support of the labor and employment policies that became the heart of the New Deal.  As the AFL-CIO embarks on this new path, the appearance – and absence – of key political figures at the convention signals how this populist labor agenda will intersect with today’s Democratic Party. 

Valerie Jarrett was the first political figure to address union leaders at the gathering. Jarrett received a disconcertingly warm welcome from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka before she reassured the audience that despite the President’s decision to skip the convention in order to drum up support for military action in Syria, he remained fully committed to advancing the interests of working people. 

As someone who lives on Chicago’s Southside, I found it difficult to stomach.  While the AFL-CIO seeks to fight the rise of income inequality and the rapid privatization of the commons with renewed vigor, it is hard to think of a more duplicitous speaker to reassure the audience that the President shares their priorities.

Jarrett, the President’s most trusted advisor, spent years privatizing public housing on the Southside.  As she told the Boston Globe: “Government is just not as good at owning and managing as the private sector because the incentives are not there.”  

Yet, despite the huge sums of taxpayer money spent on private housing developments in Chicago, Jarrett’s outfit, Habitat Company, was widely criticized by community groups for providing substandard services to their clients.  Apparently, once your company is on the corporate welfare gravy train, your incentives also dry up.  (If you want the full story, check out Allison Kilkenny’s impeccable article on the neoliberal agenda that Jarrett and Obama pursued in Chicago.)

So, Jarrett’s promise that the President stood firmly on the side of working Americans sounded hollow.  You don’t send a viper as a peace offering.

Fortunately, the Rev. James Lawson addressed the gathering after Jarrett.  As Josh Eidelson reported, Rev. Lawson had strong words for union delegates, decrying turncoat Democrats who accept labor money before taking a hard turn to the right.  I have a feeling Jarrett should be glad she rushed back to Washington immediately after speaking.  Otherwise, Rev. Lawson may well have led the union delegates in a non-violent direct action then and there.

Fortunately, the reception of Valerie Jarrett by convention delegates paled in comparison to the full regaling of Senator Elizabeth Warren.  When Warren repeatedly affirmed to the unionists “our agenda is America’s agenda,” the crowd became electric. Senator Warren, a highly placed union leader told me, is one of the few folks in Washington who “shares our economic priorities”. 

The difference between Senator Warren’s speech and the remarks delivered by Jarrett (and later by President Obama via video) was striking, but so was the tone and approach.  Jarrett and the President spoke in a calm, professorial manner, while Senator Warren spoke to rally the troops.  Citing a host of numbers showing that the American people actually agree with labor’s priorities on most major economic issues, Warren made a pointed jab at the President’s disastrous habit of preemptive capitulation for the sake of bipartisan compromise.  “If you don’t fight, you can’t win,” she exhorted, “But if you do fight, you will win!”  Folks went wild. 

Let’s just say it was refreshing to see the crowd welcome Senator Warren home.  President Trumka joked that they had better clone her so that there’d be another 60 or 70 like her in the Senate.

Apart from the new Secretary of Labor, Tom Perez, whose appointment and speech show that the President hasn’t completely forsaken the labor agenda, those were the main political representatives at the convention.  Yet, it seems worth noting who was missing.  I would argue that President Obama’s failure to appear in person at the convention wasn’t the most significant non-appearance.  Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was either not invited or did not attend.  And her ears shouldn’t be burning back home. 

 In a series of recent articles (see here and here), it is been reported that Clinton’s potential 2016 candidacy is growing on some “liberal” groups.  Perhaps collective amnesia prevents them from recalling that she stood by as her husband deregulated the housing market and dismantled the Glass-Stegall Act, paving the way for the crash of 2008.  Or, perhaps, they hold out the irrational hope (as many have on Obama) that she’s a closet progressive who plans to take precisely the opposite tack as her husband if she reaches office.  In that case, they should take a look at the financial backers for her 2008 Senate race, a virtual who’s who of Wall Street.

I am reassured that union leaders do not seem to be jumping on the Hillary 2016 bandwagon.  The movement cannot afford to spend money electing yet another Democrat in name only.  A broad swath of the Democratic Party has become a poor investment for the labor movement, since it is in the pocket of the same banker barons who control the Republican Party. 

For example, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) gave $1.5 million to Priorities USA in order to reelect the President. And yet, this has only ensured that Arne Duncan’s abhorrent tenure as Secretary of Education.  While I can understand the fear of a Romney led education agenda, I suspect the returns on such a hefty sum were minimal.  With that amount of money, the AFT could have made a sizable investment in broad community organizing and alt-labor efforts to build the kind of popular movement that the Chicago Teacher’s Union built around their strike last year.  In the absence of a viable progressive candidate, like Senator Warren, labor unions can and should find better places to invest their limited funds. 

So, as the AFL-CIO begins to implement their pledge to build a broader, stronger American labor movement, we can only hope that they will separate the wheat from the chaff in American politics.  So long as the enemies of working control Democratic politicians, labor’s best hope is to earnestly invest in community partnerships to grow the movement beyond current union members.  Only when there is a candidate worth her weight in salt should they throw their hat into the ring.