Even as our country is in desperate need of stronger collective bargaining to protect the interest of workers in a rebounding but fledgling economy that too often gives all the bargaining chips to big corporate conglomerates, union membership keeps falling. Outside government, union membership is at an all time low at 6.7% today.
A big part of the reason is open right-wing hostility to organized labor and union busting. But if progressives are going to be honest with ourselves, we also have to admit that entrenched interests pulling stunts like this is also a part of the reason:
A national, union-funded political action committee is paying for two mailers, one attacking Democratic congressional candidate Ro Khanna and the other supporting Republican Vanila Singh, both in order to help Rep. Mike Honda.
Here's a taste of one of the mailers:
The "Working for Us PAC" is the political action committee in question here. Their goal is apparently to reduce Khanna's vote share or even have the Republican win one of the two spots in California's open primary on Tuesday (the top 2 candidates get to face off in the general, regardless of party). Their run by veteran Democratic strategist Steve Rosenthal, who has personally donated to Mike Honda's campaign, and is funded by the UAW, the SEIU, AFSCME and UFCW. All good unions in their own right, but apparently none with the strategic foresight to see that they shouldn't go to bed with Republicans to defeat a Democrat.
This hits a little close to home, since these candidates are running in my Congressional district, California's 17th. For full disclosure, Ro Khanna has my full support.
But this move should count as reprehensible for any Democrat or progressive, whether they are supporting Ro Khanna or Mike Honda.
PACs and campaigns aren't legally allowed to coordinate, of course, but Rosenthal made no bones about what the olive branch to the Republican candidate in the race really is about.
“Our primary goal here is to try to ensure the re-election of Mike Honda … who has fought every day of his career to improve the lives of working people,” Rosenthal said Thursday.
Honda's campaign has denied involvement, but tellingly, refused to condemn the PAC's actions. That's not exactly surprising, given the fact that Mike Honda takes PAC money himself and has refused to speak out against Citizens-United-style "independent expenditure" politics.
Khanna asked Honda in January to join him in signing a “People’s Pledge” to shun any independent expenditure committee or super PAC support in this race; Honda, who as an incumbent stood to lose more potential support by signing such a pledge, refused.
It is painfully disappointing to see Mike Honda's failure to lead. For someone who has been a staple in the Silicon Valley and a national leader in Democratic politics, I expected better.
But this type of crass politics and blind loyalty ultimately hurts the very unions that are funding these dirty tricks. It is rather dubious whether there will be any short term gain for them from this short-sighted trickery, but it is clear that it is a long term loser.
Ro Khanna as a Congressman will not waver in his commitment to working people's right to collective bargaining. But the damage to the union movement will be done. If you prop up people who are vehemently against union rights just so you can score points against someone who is for organized labor but may not be your chosen candidate in a given election, don't complain when people buy into right wing propaganda that big unions are just as dirty as big oil. Don't complain if working people - especially young people - increasingly see unions as just a political blowhorn rather than the voice of the working people in the halls of power. If you make a deal with the Devil, don't expect to escape with your soul intact.
That is what is so tragic about this situation. These dirty political tricks are less effective at garnering for their favored candidate - hell, they are trying to help Mike Honda, and the mailer that's missing is the one with Mike Honda's name on it - and far more effective in painting into the minds of the public an image of unions just as the Right wing would want it painted.
This tells people that unions are more interested in playing politics than working for the middle class. This tells people that winning a campaign is more important to them than winning for working people.
Want proof? Last year, unions broke a national trend, slightly increasing the percentage of Americans who belong to a union from 2012. But in California - one of the country's most labor-friendly states where Republicans have been relegated to irrelevancy in state politics - union membership dropped almost a full percentage point.
Republican anti-union politicians' success, in far too many instances, is unfortunately aided by the damage unions do to themselves. Until the modern day union movement is willing to face that truth, the decline in union membership and union power will continue. Until big unions are willing to stop shooting themselves in the foot, just blaming Republicans won't be of much help.
If we want to build a 21st century version of the labor movement that is responsible for the American middle class, the weekend, overtime and the 8-hour workday, then the leaders of today's union movement will have to do a lot more than trying to hang onto politicians they have built relationships with. It is not acceptable to substitute the voice of a few union-supported elected officials for the much larger voice of working America. The union movement needs to stop thinking about whom they can call in the corridors of Congress and start investing in whom they can enlist on Main Street.
There is nothing wrong with unions supporting their favorite candidate. But if unions want Americans to see them in a light different from their distaste in dirty politics of unlimited cash, then they must lead by example. They can support who they want, but they must abstain from playing dirty tricks to tear down other candidates who are at least ideologically aligned with labor's core objective: giving every working American a fair wage, good working condition, and the right to organize.
Politically speaking, unions need to focus on beating Republicans and electing more Democrats, not waste their money helping out a Republican in the name of hurting a Democrat.
If they don't, they will have a progressively expansive stronghold on a progressively shrinking group of politicians, and an even faster shrinking segment of working America. That is not a strategy for success. That is a recipe for disaster.
When I added my support for Ro Khanna, I said that we need new leadership. Today, I am even more convinced of that.