Attempts in Britain to break the connection between the trade unions and their offspring, the Labour Party, have a strong resonance in the United States, where relations are strained between the unions and the Democratic Party.
There are always tensions. The narrower interests of the unions do not always coincide with the greater good of the society at large. In the US, prison unions lobbied along with private prison providers against the decriminalisation of drugs. Police and warders’ unions have lobbied successfully for sweetheart deals on pensions and pay that are far too costly for local governments. It reminds me of Liverpool in the old days of Militant where the infiltrators gave the municipal unions all they could want in return for support in the district Labour Party.
However, even that was infinitely preferable to the current, much more successful crop of infiltrators in both the Labour Party and the US Democratic Party, whose strategy since Tony Blair and Bill Clinton has been to slough off the unions so they can give sweetheart deals to financiers. I am all in favour of accepting corporate donations for parties, as long as all they get in return is a receipt and a respectfully sceptical hearing.
But what makes unions different, certainly in Britain and even in the US, is their ideological commitment to the greater public welfare. The much-reviled Auto Workers Union in the US did win better wages, pensions and healthcare than many other weaker groups of workers. But it did so only after failing to get a better national pension and healthcare system. They helped with cash and workers to end segregation in the South, and even now are strong supporters of protecting state-run Social Security and Medicare benefits and support a single payer healthcare system.
For such endeavours, and in reward for their efforts to help Democratic Party elections with volunteers and cash, Clinton dismissed them as “special interests” – to be distinguished, of course, from the Wall Street bankers who also filled his coffers, in return for the deregulation that George W Bush built on and led to the crisis and slump of the past two years.
In the wake of that crisis, on both sides of the Atlantic, unions have rediscovered a new combative spirit. Their members are more responsive to calls for action fuelled by the ever-potent mix of self-interest – after all, they are under attack – and moral indignation at the callow, selfish ideologies propounded by governments.
In Wisconsin, the public unions rallied unprecedented thousands of ordinary citizens against what they correctly saw as the right-wing governor’s ideologically motivated attack on the rights of all workers and the entitlements of all ordinary citizens.
Sadly, Barack Obama’s response was to offer even more than the pound of flesh the Republicans in Washington had asked for. He threw in social security and Medicare and more spending cuts. His motivation is a mystery. Until then, the one sure thing the Democrats had to beat the Republicans was their attack on programmes most Americans hold sacred. Even the Tea Partiers carried placards demanding: “Keep the government’s hands off my Social Security”.
Social Security was always regarded as the “third rail” of American politics, but the Republican budget attacking Medicare added an overhead wire as well. Now Obama has firmly grasped both – and short-circuited the most energetic Democrat campaign item. The President persists in trying to compromise
with ideologues who are, well, uncompromising.
What he needs, like the Labour Party, is an ideology to combat theirs. The unions, on both sides of the Atlantic, are at the core of a communal concern that led to 30 years of unprecedented growth and prosperity in the US, and nearly 60 years in Europe. Some union leaders may be almost as power hungry and greedy as their corporate opponents – but then some business leaders, such as Warren Buffet, are more progressive than New Labour and New Democrats. However, the effort to cut the union ties is on both sides of the Atlantic not only an unprincipled effort to mute the voices of working people in the political process, it is also a self-defeating move that will alienate the very voters and activists the parties need to be elected. Those New Labour apparatchiks might get selected without the unions. They won’t be elected.