American labor can begin the new year with thanks that 2012 is over. Not that the unions didn’t win some big victories in 2012. Their political programs in key swing states played a major role in President Obama’s re-election, both by turning out minority voters in record numbers in Ohio, Nevada, and Florida and by winning Obama a higher share of white, working-class voters in the industrial Midwest than he won in other regions. Their efforts also helped liberal Democrats hold key Senate seats in Ohio (Sherrod Brown) and Wisconsin (Tammy Baldwin), and pick up Massachusetts (Elizabeth Warren). In California, the nation’s mega-state, unions beat back a ballot measure designed to cripple their political programs by a decisive 12.5-percent margin, turning out so many voters that they also helped a key tax-hike measure pass at the polls and enabled the Democrats to win super-majorities in the state legislature.
But for labor, 2012 will chiefly be remembered for two major defeats in industrial Midwestern states that had formerly been union strongholds: Wisconsin and Michigan. In Wisconsin, a union-initiated effort to recall Republican governor Scott Walker, who had pushed through the legislature a law stripping public-sector unions of collective-bargaining rights, failed badly at the polls. In Michigan, after voters (in the same election in which they gave Obama a clear victory) decisively rejected a union-initiated ballot measure that would have enshrined collective-bargaining rights in the state constitution, the Republican legislature passed, and Republican governor Rick Snyder signed, a right-to-work law in the cradle of American industrial unionism. What makes these defeats more bitter was that both involved unforced errors—actually, the same unforced error—on labor’s part. On the evidence of polling, many union leaders and political directors believed from the start that the Wisconsin recall and the Michigan ballot measure were fights that could not be won, but their cautions went unheeded by well-intentioned unionists in both states. It’s not clear that Snyder, who had previously disavowed any interest in enacting a right-to-work law, would have changed his mind had the measure not been put on the ballot and defeated, but its defeat certainly set the stage for the Republicans’ sudden and unheralded push for right to work during the legislature’s lame-duck session.
Labor’s defeats in Michigan and Wisconsin provide one of the unions’ chief goals for 2013—keeping their ground game in place so they can oust the Republicans who swept to power across the Midwest and in other key states the elections of 2010. Michigan’s Snyder, Ohio’s John Kasich, and Florida’s Rick Scott head the list of GOP governors who have sought to diminish labor’s political power in their states and who are polling badly as their 2014 re-election campaigns draw nigh. Behind the anti-union push in Republican statehouses over the past two years has been the GOP’s concern that unless unions were dealt a body blow that diminished their numbers, the Republicans’ 2010 victories could be overturned in 2014. Despite all the rhetoric about right-to-work laws leading to an increase in jobs (they don’t), local business was absent from the campaigns to enact the legislation, and for good reason: Wages throughout the industrial Midwest have declined along with union membership to the point that they’re already much closer to wage levels in the historically right-to-work South. The push for the legislation came entirely from right-wing ideologues (Amway’s Dick DeVos and the Koch Brothers) whose businesses would be unaffected if such laws passed, and from Republican pols who’d prefer to go into 2014 with the unions’ ability to campaign against them diminished.
California will be the only major state next year where significant pro-union legislation could pass (though it’s not clear that crusty Democratic governor Jerry Brown will entertain many such measures). The state’s farm workers, excluded from coverage under the National Labor Relations Act but given the right to form unions by the the state’s own Agricultural Labor Relations Act—passed when Brown was governor in the 1970s—could win card-check elections. Several Democratic-controlled states could also raise the minimum wage and mandate better working conditions for groups such as domestic workers, who’ve been traditionally excluded from wage and hour legislation.
In a number of states and localities, though, unions are at odds with Democratic mayors and governors who are cultivating a “business Democrat” image that often entails fighting with unionized workers. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has managed not only to estrange his city’s teachers but also its janitors by contracting out janitorial work at the city’s airports, in response to which a number of major unions are gearing up media campaigns against him. New York governor Andrew Cuomo has exasperated the state’s unions by appearing to prefer to keep Republicans in control of the state Senate, and union conflicts with the governor are likely to intensify in 2013.
At the national level, unions are wary of President Obama’s apparent willingness to reduce some Social Security increases to more affluent recipients as part of a Grand Bargain with Republicans. They are certain to be at the forefront of the fight to legalize undocumented immigrants and to urge the president not to settle for half-loaf deals after an election in which Democrats in general and Obama in particular profited from heavy Latino support and Republicans paid a heavy price for their anti-immigrant demagogy. And led by Larry Cohen, president of the Communication Workers of America, unions are backing a coalition of liberal groups dedicated to a broad “democracy agenda”—ending the filibuster, overturning efforts at voter suppression, achieving citizenship for the undocumented, and reforming labor law so that workers can organize again. Cohen’s CWA is funding the current campaign to scale back the filibuster—a crusade that, for Cohen, has its roots in labor’s repeated inability to win a 60-vote supermajority for labor-law reform.
The failure of unions in 2010 to win that reform (following their earlier failures in 1965, 1978, and 1994) has brought most private-sector unions’ organizing campaigns to a near dead halt. In their stead, a number of unions are backing experimental efforts to organize communities and raise workers’ consciousness, even though it remains unclear how such efforts will translate into actual unionization. The AFL-CIO’s Working America project, a very successful door-to-door campaign that has enrolled millions of chiefly white workers in the organization’s political programs (which was one reason why Obama did comparatively better among such workers in the Midwest), began some small-scale efforts in 2012 to have its members raise issues in their workplaces. Those efforts will likely scale up somewhat in 2013. The Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) 17-city “Fight for a Fair Economy”—a community-organizing campaign in minority communities—may well be continued, though in somewhat altered shape since the initial efforts fell short of SEIU’s expectations.
Meanwhile, the innovative workplace-centered initiatives among low-wage workers, which sprung up among fast-food, carwash, taxicab, domestic, warehouse and WalMart workers in 2012, are certain to expand in 2013. To date, most of the actions in these campaigns have been symbolic—marches of small numbers of workers, one-day strikes at New York’s fast-food joints, coordinated actions by several hundred workers and more numerous supporters outside WalMarts in multiple states. The effect of these actions has been to announce the existence of these proto-organizations of workers both to the broader public and to the millions stuck in these low-wage jobs. How such actions go to scale, how they move from the theatrical to the impactful, is anybody’s guess. But there’s a growing sense among labor organizers and leaders that, with conventional private-sector organizing now all but impossible, putting resources into efforts that lay the groundwork for some kind of surge among America’s millions of underpaid workers may be the best use of unions’ dollars right now.
The challenges facing public-sector unions are more directly political, as their battles with Wisconsin’s Republican governor and Chicago’s Democratic mayor have made clear. At the national level, America’s three largest unions—the National Education Association; the SEIU; and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)—have joined forces to fund a media campaign against a budget deal that reduces Social Security or Medicare benefits. Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.4-million-member public-sector union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has recently responded to the attacks on teachers’ unions by proposing a heightened level of teacher credentialing, a “bar exam” that aspiring teachers should be required to pass in order to get a teaching job. Weingarten’s proposal builds on decades-old efforts by onetime AFT President Albert Shanker to professionalize teaching, much as it is in Scandinavian nations. Whether Weingarten’s proposal gets any purchase among the legions of education “reformers” in 2013 should clarify whether their goal is to upgrade teaching or simply to eviscerate teachers’ unions.
America’s unions have been under siege for decades—a grim fact to which the declining incomes of American workers clearly attests. The siege has not let up, but at least some unions are beginning to experiment with different agendas—most particularly, organizing not for new members (which is all but impossible) but to seed the next workers’ upsurge, whatever form that may take. We’ll see how that goes in 2013.
Harold Meyerson is Editor at Large of the American Prospect and an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post. From 1989 through 2001, he was execcutive. editor of the L.A. Weekly. He is a vice chair of Democratic Socialists of America.