Who is to blame for organized labor’s descent into political irrelevancy? Ronald Reagan? The Koch brothers? Good answers, but maybe we need to look at labor leaders themselves.
Consider the case of this year’s mayoral race in New York City, one of the last bastions of union political power. There are three candidates in the Democratic Party primary who are considered progressive — former comptroller and previous mayoral nominee William Thompson, current Comptroller John Liu and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. The frontrunner is City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who over the years has curried favor with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the real estate sector. She also angered labor activists by blocking a measure that would grant paid sick days to low-wage retail workers.
The New York Times reported that the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) has endorsed Quinn because she is the most electable candidate in a year when the Democrat will likely face a strong Republican in the general election. United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1500 spokesperson Pat Purcell defended his union’s endorsement of Quinn to City & State, saying, “Nowhere has Speaker Quinn said that she opposes paid sick days. She says she supports the concept, but there is a very real conversation to be had about, especially now in light of [Hurricane] Sandy, when do you do a paid sick bill and how do you do it in a way that does not put a burden on an already fragile economy? We’re very supportive of paid sick days, but we also have to look at the big picture.”
Quinn’s campaign is already awash with union money, including donations from the two largest Service Employees International Union (SEIU) locals in New York City, 1199 (healthcare workers) and 32BJ (building workers, security guards and custodians).
Was the outrage over Quinn’s allegiance to Bloomberg and the business lobby on the sick days bill all for show? Now Quinn can sleep soundly at night knowing that shoving her thumb in the eyes of low-wage workers has caused no political consequence. According to the RWDSU, she is the “electable” candidate, meaning the one who has raised the most money and is closest to the incumbent.
Purcell’s argument that Quinn supports the bill’s concept is a tad naïve. Anyone who has played the political game long enough knows that when you ask a politician “when?” and she says “later,” she really means “never.” Purcell also makes two arguments on behalf of the bosses: the “shock doctrine” method of invoking an unprecedented catastrophe to subvert any reform efforts, and the implication that worker protections are antithetical to prosperity, a myth that labor activists have gone to great lengths to refute with regard to this legislation.
It makes one wonder why unions bother with political endorsements at all. If they’re just going to wait to see which Democrat raises the most cash and then offer support to that candidate, what incentive does the candidate have to return the political favor after he or she is elected? It’s a bit like the insecure kid on the playground who wants to join the in-crowd. He waits to see what dominant opinion is and then registers his agreement. It’ll make him feel accepted — but none of the cool kids are really that interested.
Political risk aversion is deeply rooted. RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum drew a salary of just under $250,000 in 2011 (2012 data is not yet available), as did UFCW Local 1500 President Bruce Both. Unless rank-and-filers mount an opposition campaign based on these issues, these leaders have little reason to choose principle over closeness with Democratic leaders. In 2014, a single mom working at a fast-food joint may fall behind in her rent because of missing work due to an illness, but these two men will be unscathed in a faraway tax bracket.
Here’s the kicker: The city is making progress in passing the sick-days bill, although it now includes a new line allowing managers to offer shift-swapping as an alternative to sick days. Rahul Saksena, the policy director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, said that the organization was “concerned about the so-called ‘shift-
swapping’ provision, which our members tell us will give restaurant owners and managers the green light to continue pressuring their workers to swap shifts instead of taking a paid sick day. Shift-swapping is the current practice in the restaurant industry. It is a broken practice that should not be legitimized by the law.”
So maybe Quinn will oversee a sick-days bill after all. If so, it will be one weakened by the political process — sort of like the labor movement.
An earlier version of this article was published on CounterPunch.org.