By Robert A. Vella
Republicans’ pipe dream of a 2016 presidential election campaign against a Democratic Party at war with itself might just become a reality after all. In an insightful report from Politico titled Democrats recount labor’s pressure tactics, chasm-like fracture lines have opened up between the party’s corporatist establishment and its populist, progressive wing spearheaded by organized labor. The bone of contention is trade, specifically President Obama’s atypical and irrational obsession with passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
America’s labor unions, largely marginalized after decades of assault from neoliberal economic policies as well as direct attacks from conservative politicians, have been backed into a corner. There’s nothing left for them to do now except make a last stand on trade. Politico revealed their desperation:
The AFL-CIO was blunt in the call that went out to Rep. Scott Peters, a Democrat who represents San Diego: Vote yes on fast-track authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, people familiar with the conversation recall, and they’d spend a million dollars to knock him out in next year’s primary. If he managed to win, they’d drop another million against him in the general election.
The real fight over the trade agenda has always been in the House, and that’s where organized labor has been focusing for months. The aggressive effort has left even members who’ll be voting labor’s way bruised, and others who’ll be supporting President Barack Obama anxious enough that many won’t discuss their experiences publicly, instead dispatching staffers to speak on their behalf.
Congressional Democrats, longtime beneficiaries of labor’s support, have been stunned by the ferocity of their tactics:
… many unions believe the trade debate is an existential moment for organized labor, with numbers shrinking, influence waning and local and national organizers making stopping TPA [Trade Promotion Authority, a.k.a. fast track] and TPP their mortal cause. Their tactics aren’t radically different from standard union organizing, and unions certainly aren’t the only groups to play hardball in seeking to get their way in Washington. What Democrats aren’t used to is having labor’s exertions turned on them.
As for what will be unleashed next fall, [AFL-CIO spokesperson Amaya] Smith said, it’s “premature to be talking about this. Members’ votes on TPA will be a huge issue, though, and, more importantly, it will be relevant to voters.”
One Democratic member said labor’s intensity on the issue is telling: “I haven’t seen this look in their eyes in a long time.” [clarification and emphasis added by TSJ]
Nevertheless, pro-trade Dems are not backing down on their support for the President and are echoing his dismissive and – at times – disrespectful rhetoric aimed at anti-trade populists:
Unions may try to show their political muscle here, say Democrats who are supporting the president, but instead end up showing just how much it’s atrophied, like in labor’s failed effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker [which President Obama did not strongly support]. Members complain that trade has become a litmus test for being pro- or anti-labor when they’ve been with labor on every issue from minimum wage to worker protections to immigration and infrastructure.
“I don’t understand why the labor movement is falling on its sword on this issue, and if we lose this issue, somehow the labor movement is no longer relevant,” said [Rep. Brad] Ashford [D-Neb.], arguing that he’d like to see the unions involved pour their energy into organizing new workers and pushing for higher wages. “I think unions have a significant opportunity.”
Democrats backing TPA wonder: Will unions really choose to target Democrats who are otherwise their allies instead of fighting to flip Republican districts or organizing against people like Gov. Bruce Rauner, who is threatening to turn Illinois into a right-to-work state? And for every $2 million threat labor makes, won’t Obama, now that he’s turned trade into the great political cause of his term, be able to raise $4 million in response? [clarification and emphasis added by TSJ]
The reason why these corporatist establishment Democrats are so perplexed by this populist angst over trade relates to their inability to value principle over pragmatism. Like Obama, they have sold out their ethical souls to the allure and power of big money. However, they may have cause for regret next year if this new internal civil war splits the Democratic Party like the Vietnam War did in 1968.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist George Santayana