Solidarity has given way to liquidation over at the AFL-CIO. That’s The People, Inc. to you, and they just lost a big crop in the form of the Service Employees International Union (the largest of the member unions). This split causes a good deal of anxiety on the left, if only for the trouble of appointment books. The way that Democrats have arranged their schedules resembles a reciprocal of the Stations of the Cross. One cannot be too terribly sure of the order, but we can be certain that paying respect to Big Labor is probably the penultimate stage to the predictable electoral crucifixion. That stage has just been multiplied by three, and even if each group is more streamlined, the strength of the grand union is far less dramatic.
Which is what has their blue-ringed socks in a bunch. A year ago, SEIU president Andrew Stern expostulated in such a way that had other union officials sounding like he had just taken a position as CEO of General Electric. He had the gall to suggest that the enormous alliance of unions suffered from a concentration of power which was too elitist, and did not concern itself with the plight of the worker as much as it did great political causes. To prove that the receiving ears were indeed deaf, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney had his spokeswoman agree that those issues should be addressed — but after the Nov. 2 presidential election.
This is a problem, but not delimited at John Sweeney’s paycheck. Sweeney was a member of the SEIU, and given its secession, he is now… disorganized? Disunited? And so is a cash cow for the Democrats. The loss of the union worker for the AFL-CIO is the same as the loss of the nonradical Democrat in the party — both signify a departure for better or worse.
The union as a force for righteousness is in desperate need of change, if not dissolution — far from producing the age-old cries for justice and equality, the labor camp has largely fostered a protectionist agenda unwilling to recognize the economic importance of keeping business profitable. And as soon as a compromise has been made, the members themselves will feel compromised. Yet the strikes most in the headlines are not for the affranchisement of young boys in mineshafts, but rather the compensation of disgruntled and highly paid athletes at the expense of even higher paid owners. Something is awry.
J. Middleton Murry wrote of Shakespeare’s Othello that the tragic events leading to the social breakdown of the plot were no more the result of Iago’s meddling than how things were structured to begin with. We can blame John Sweeney’s poor management, or even John Kerry’s presidential loss, for setting off the discontent of the masses, but it was bound to happen, and this is yet only the beginning. Labor is beginning to rethink the way it make its political appeals.
The crisis for the Democrats falls under who gives them a blank check. Labor, civil rights groups, and feminist groups all turn to the Democrats as the reliable purveyor of their ideals. How those views come together in harmony is something to wonder about, given the disconnect that should exist between the dandy Ivy League queer theorist and the machinist with an associates degree. But these organizations should soon decide whether they exist for the Democrats, or the Democrats for them. Following that line of thinking, what can the Democrats accomplish for them that the Republicans cannot? What has the party of Roosevelt, Wilson, and Truman done for you recently? Or is that the party of Carter and Johnson?
This question is both a threat and a promise. If the Republicans face a weak opposition which is philosophically alveolate and inchoate, then expect party discipline to slacken (see also, Bill Frist). And if other traditionally Democratic groups go the same route, we will see a party realizing what it means to be politically accountable.
Will they? It’s doubtful. But for the time being, laughs can be shared at the visage of John Sweeney, dangling in the wind, realizing that he has no claim to the AFL-CIO presidency without a union to be a party to. In time, Ted Kennedy, Howard Dean, and yes, even Hillary Clinton, will be in the same exact position.