If Democrats win back the House in the midterms today, they'll owe an enormous debt to organized labor, which has spent more than $40 million--and sent millions of voters to the polls--to help the party take control of Congress. The AFL-CIO alone has targeted more than 200 contests in 21 states this cycle, and unions, despite their declining power, are still acting as difference-makers in many races. Tim Walz, a Democratic challenger in a key Minnesota House race, was hardly alone when he told The Nation's David Moberg, "A good portion of our organized strategy hinges on organized labor."
Lately, though, some labor leaders have been wondering how to ensure that they get repaid for their efforts--and not get taken for granted. "There really is no accountability, particularly on the Democratic side," Andy Stern, head of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), complained to the Seattle Times last month. In order to guarantee that any new Democratic majority does stay accountable to its union allies, Stern is creating a new PAC called They Work For Us, which will punish Democrats who pledge support for SEIU's economic agenda but don't deliver. "If that happens," Stern told Fortune magazine, "we'll unelect them."
As with most innovations in labor strategy these days, SEIU has been leading the way. In 2004, the union spent $200,000 to fund a primary challenge against Helen Sommers, a Democratic state representative in Washington who balked at pay raises for health care workers. (Sommers survived--albeit narrowly--while another primary challenge against a labor-unfriendly Washington Democrat also fell short this year.) At the national level, unions still aren't trying to strong-arm those Democrats who are insufficiently pro-labor. But this may be changing. If an Illinois House race is any indication, organized labor is slowly warming to Stern's strategy.
By any measure, Melissa Bean has been a Democratic success story. In 2004, she dislodged Republican incumbent Phil Crane from his cozy perch atop Illinois's 8th congressional district, a business-friendly suburb of Chicago that hadn't elected a Democrat since the Depression era. Bean managed to out-fund-raise Crane that year--bringing in over $235,000 from labor groups.
But, when she got to Congress, Bean incensed her union backers by becoming one of 15 Democrats to cross the aisle and vote for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which passed by two votes. "We were surprised and upset," says Lee Schillinger, the president of the AFL-CIO's Central Labor Council in Northeastern Illinois, who notes that, at the time, the council had been ready to make Bean its "Person of the Year." Back in 2003, when Bean had sought out labor support for her election bid, she had signed a pledge to support "efforts to ensure that global trade ... promote[s] workers' rights, good jobs and workers' well being." Union leaders saw her CAFTA vote as a betrayal.
The CAFTA vote, combined with Bean's defections on immigration and bankruptcy bills, put some local unions in mind to unseat the freshman who, earlier this year, received the Chamber of Commerce's endorsement--a rare feat for a Democrat-. SEIU, the Teamsters, and UNITE HERE! all helped fund third-party candidate Bill Scheurer's bid to get on the ballot for the general election. Explaining the move, Chuck Harple, the Teamsters political director, told the National Journal's CongressDaily, "Even though it causes a little pain early on, we needed to send a message that said, 'Fine, you're not going to be with us, we're not going to support you.'" Scheurer is running on an antiwar platform and is currently polling at 8 percent, threatening to throw the close race to Republican challenger David McSweeney. As a result, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has sent out a mass mailing to voters that reads, "George W. Bush wants you to waste your vote on anti-choice, party-switching Bill Scheurer."
Many unions in the district have wavered between the DCCC's pragmatic approach and Harple's more confrontational stance. "Scheurer's a nice guy, but his plan is to be a spoiler," Schillinger says. "It might have been different had the Republicans nominated a moderate. But they chose an ultra-conservative wolf-at-the-door guy." The AFL-CIO's labor council simply voted not to endorse Bean--still a significant blow to a Democrat in a close race. "When we don't make an endorsement, that's a big deal," says Thea Lee, policy director for the AFL-CIO. "We're going to be going door to door, calling union members, but we're not going to be telling people to vote for Melissa Bean." Kenneth Boyd, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1546 has a similar take: "We're putting resources in other campaigns." Given that Bean won her 2004 race by a scant 9,000 votes, a lack of enthusiasm among the 3,000 UFCW members in her district could prove fatal.
But UFCW is also emblematic of labor's ambivalence. Boyd notes that his local is balancing its desire for "political accountability" with a concern that the district could "tip to Republicans"--Local 1546's political action committee, in fact, has chipped in $10,000 to Bean's campaign. Indeed, unions have donated more than $200,000 to Bean in this cycle, with much of that money coming after the CAFTA vote, and some from unions that once threatened retribution. (By contrast, unions have given Scheurer only $30,000.)
Even Teamster locals are sounding a lot more cautious note these days. Asked about his union's support for Scheurer's ballot bid, Brian Rainville, spokesman for the Teamsters Joint Council 25, sounded less strident than Harple: "Mr. Scheurer simply came to us and asked for donations. It is a democracy." On the ground, the Teamsters are no longer actively working to support Scheurer's candidacy. A pro-business Democrat who at least listens to labor leaders is still, it appears, preferable to a Republican. (For all her transgressions, Bean still compiled a 73 percent pro-labor voting record.)
In fact, with the exception of Bean, labor unions have mostly shied away from punishing any of the so-called CAFTA 15 this election cycle. The AFL-CIO supported a primary challenge against Representative Henry Cuellar, a business-friendly Democrat in Texas who narrowly held his seat in 2004, but that faltered. A more typical case was Edolphus Towns, a CAFTA Democrat from Brooklyn who managed to defuse union support for a primary challenger. Harple told CongressDaily that Towns had assuaged labor's fears: "He said, after the election, we can sit down and work together on this." Harple also hinted that the prospect of a Democratic takeover of the House had made unions less enthusiastic about retribution: "I think in any other election year, you would have seen some challenges to people who voted wrong. ... [But] this is a Cinderella year."
That makes sense. In the short term, elevating Nancy Pelosi to the speaker's slot this year will do far more for organized labor than punishing a few wayward Democrats. Over the long run, though, it's not clear that unions have developed the mindset necessary to pressure Democrats who are wobbly on labor issues. "You have to understand," says Schillinger, "under normal circumstances, if a candidate's looking for endorsement from the AFL-CIO and has a 50 percent pro-labor voting record, it's normally automatic." Lee, the AFL-CIO's policy director, concurs: "It's not common at all to mount a challenge against an incumbent--it's an upward battle. It's only in cases when people feel particularly motivated."
But the unions that left the AFL-CIO in 2005--Stern's SEIU, along with the Teamsters, UFCW, and others--did so partly because they were dissatisfied with the federation's unyielding loyalty to the Democratic Party. Stern has explicitly modeled his new PAC after the Club for Growth, a freelance group of supply-siders that has financed efforts to knock off moderate Republicans who oppose tax cuts. The results so far have been mixed: The club's vicious primary challenge against Lincoln Chafee this year my well have doomed the GOP's chances in Rhode Island. (On the other hand, the SEIU's economic agenda is more mainstream than that of the supply-siders, so the union's primary challengers would presumably be less radical than Stephen Laffey, Chafee's far-right antagonist.)
In their recent book, Off Center, political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson showed that the GOP's steady drift rightward over the past few decades has occurred, in large part, because of primary challenges--radicals have replaced moderates in Republican districts. Likewise, a labor movement that was serious about political accountability might, eventually, force Democrats leftward, toward a more populist stance on economics. In time, Stern might become the progressive Grover Norquist. But organized labor still has a long, long way to go before it reaches that point.
Bradford Plumer is an assistant editor at The New Republic.