Organized labor has many enemies in this country. Unfortunately, we also need to start worrying about our friends.
Vocal conservatives continue to increase their influence and hijack the debate about restoring our economy, putting the focus on cutting deficits and not creating jobs. Their attempt to shrink government and hurt the middle class is unfortunate but not surprising. While Tea Party Republicans have awakened a newfound passion for fiscal conservatism, the party has always been the cloak the powerful use to conceal their self-interest.
Sadly, however, this belief is finding a toehold in the Democratic Party, the once strong ally of labor unions. While Democrats and unions have stood together and fought valiantly in pockets of the country — most notably in Wisconsin — there are too many Democratic politicians embracing the supposed popular support of conservative policies.
To be a true ally means more than lending support when times are good. You must be able to stand with your allies during the worst of times. The strength that you gain from each other’s support is essential to mutual survival. The Democratic Party, however, has been less than a stalwart ally.
Around the country and in our nation’s capital, we are seeing more Democrats willing to place the burden of fixing the country on the backs of public workers and the middle class in general. Even more alarming, we have seen a willingness to attack some of our most important institutions, including pensions, Medicare and Social Security.
One thing that can be said for Republicans: they stand by and fight fiercely for their allies. Those allies are corporate interests, oil companies and the super rich, but Republicans stand up for them unabashedly, killing tax increases of even one penny. They don’t play fair; they fight dirty; and they refuse to concede any ground. They are on the wrong side, but they know how to play the game.
Where is that same passion from our Democratic supporters? Many are all too willing to abandon our partnership in the name of “reform” or “compromise,” instead of standing and holding the line. Compromise has its place, but we cannot buckle too easily. We must not surrender to the Nixon-era passivity of a silent majority. The cries of debt and smaller government are coming from a minority of the extremely rich and misguided middle-class conservatives. Democrats and unions have always gained their power from numbers, and regardless of what political polls may say, we still have the numbers on our side.
Democrats and labor unions have a long history together, rooted in their common values that government protects the common man from abuses by the rich and powerful. As America was built, Democratic and union leaders stood shoulder to shoulder and fought for the rights and reforms that created a strong middle class. In New York and nationally, unions are the biggest supporters, both financially and politically, of the Democratic Party. We cannot afford to put that shared respect and experience in jeopardy, especially when we are both at such risk.
In response to this trend of rising conservatism, I’m sorry to say that labor leaders must start to be more selective with our choice of friends and allies. Already, some unions have begun to withhold support from the National Democratic Party over unhappiness with their stances on some major issues.
Many battles, such as the dismantling of collective bargaining rights and pensions, are mostly being waged at the state level. For example, New York pension funds have regained almost all their value since the economic collapse, and yet some Democratic leaders want to make pension cuts their main objectives for next year. To balance the budget, wages and benefits for state workers were cut, but taxes on the rich were abandoned. According to census surveys, there have never been more Democrats in New York, and yet it appears the state has never had a more Republican agenda.
It would be a great shame if the strong alliance between labor unions and Democrats were broken. We must do what we have to do to survive, and we will never give up our efforts to help middle-class people make a decent living and have some peace of mind in retirement. Democrats need to recommit themselves to these values to show their union supporters they have not forgotten them. Otherwise, labor unions should be asking: Is there still room in the Democratic Party for us? If not, should we start our own party and run for office ourselves?