It is widely reported that President Obama’s failure to deliver real change has left key components of the Democratic electoral base dispirited and potentially unlikely to vote in November. But what’s striking about this “enthusiasm gap” between Democrats and Republicans is how two key constituency groups – labor unions and environmentalists – have escaped any blame. Labor spent over $100 million in the fall 2008 elections (SEIU alone says it spent over $80 million), yet did not even get House or Senate votes on EFCA or immigration reform. Environmentalists won House passage of a climate change bill, but environmental issues are far off the national political radar screen – and few Republicans risk political defeat for their anti-environment stands. Obama can narrow the enthusiasm gap by aggressively campaigning, but it will be up to labor and environmental groups to rouse their disaffected supporters to the polls.
If Democrats lose control of the House in November, it will be seen as a major rebuff to President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Reid. But as comforting as it may be to blame politicians for the disaffection of the Democratic base, activist groups need to examine their own responsibility for the massive loss of enthusiasm since 2008.
Labor’s Expensive Failure
Barack Obama’s inauguration was supposed to usher in a new world for organized labor. Outdated, pro-employer labor election laws would be replaced by card-check representation, and no longer would employers find it cost effective to break laws to prevent unionization.
Labor also anticipated passage of comprehensive immigration reform, a particularly vital measure for unions with undocumented members. SEIU heavily invested in electoral work in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, three “red” states that Obama won due to high Latino voting; labor expected these victories to help build the momentum for a comprehensive immigration bill.
Yet by April 2009, SEIU President Andy Stern was already telling
the Washington Post
that labor could support alternatives to card check that would still change the current election process. He said that while it was hard to get 60 Senate votes for a strong bill, “"We need to get something that's significant done.”
Yet nothing got done on labor law reform. And many blame SEIU.
SEIU diverted resources from organizing for EFCA to battling UNITE HERE and NUHW, dividing labor at a time when unity was critical. And SEIU’s denial of employee free choice in its campaign against NUHW (through filing phony “blocking” charges to delay elections) allowed employers to argue that SEIU’s position on EFCA was contradicted by its actions.
Labor’s push for comprehensive immigration reform also never got off the ground. As with EFCA, an immigration bill never even got a high-profile public hearing, leaving union members feeling frustrated and dispirited.
And no doubt wondering what they got for the over $100 million spent on the fall 2008 elections, and why they should spend their free time encouraging others to vote this November.
Remember Global Warming?
Environmental groups entered the Obama Presidency with a broad agenda for alternative energy, “Green” jobs and combating climate change. And while the EPA has made critical administrative changes and rolled back many terrible Bush-era regulations, rank and file environmentalists are more disappointed than elated.
The problem was that after rallying voters to stop global warming in the 2008 elections, environmental groups did not create a simple, consensus measure for grassroots activists to rally behind.
As a result, the House climate bill came to resemble Proposition 128, the “Big Green” initiative on California’s 1990 ballot. As I describe in The Activist’s Handbook
, Prop 128 included a Christmas tree of environmental programs whose very complexity helped defeat it. Including widely diverse programs in a single bill broadens the coalition for passage, but it also brings in more groups whose opposition to a single provision moves them to kill the entire measure.
The climate change bill that the phenomenally effective Henry Waxman got through the House was so complicated that few non-insiders could understand it, and it never galvanized the base. Not surprisingly, the bill never even had a Senate vote.
Clearly, a simpler even if less far-reaching legislative campaign around global warming was required. Enviros should have unified behind a simpler measure that would have galvanized public support and vested grassroots activists in the outcome.
The once winning issues of alternative energy, Green jobs, and climate change are high local and state priorities, but falling off the political map nationally. When is the last time you read about a 2010 House or Senate race where environment positions are a top issue? We’ve gone from environmentalists targeting a “Dirty Dozen” in the 1970’s to a “Dirty 150” getting away politically scot-free.
So while President Obama needs to be out on the campaign trail stirring up excitement, environmental groups and labor unions need to do their own motivating. If you think the Democratic base is dispirited now, just wait until Republicans take the House in an election decided by pro-environment, pro-labor voters who stayed home.
Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century