Labor’s Neoliberal Caucus

During the 2016 Democratic National Convention, four major labor unions broke from the AFL-CIO Labor Caucus and caucused separately. Few people noticed the breakaway, and those who did likely thought it insignificant or at most slightly peculiar.

Yet the move is very significant. It’s part of a broader shift in American labor — a drift away from class-conscious unionism, unionism that believes fighting corporate power and the 1 percent is an unavoidable necessity.

The caucus break represents the culmination of a long, steady trend in American trade unionism toward neoliberal unionism — a unionism that espouses collaboration with corporations instead of conflict and upholds free-market capitalism as reconcilable with labor’s interests.

If we are to prevent the breakaway from becoming the coup de grace, we must call it for what it is, denounce the split, and reverse the absurd, self-destructive trend of neoliberalism within labor. Otherwise, we will soon be left with a labor movement so feeble its only strategy is flattering and begging its enemies.

Labor typically caucuses as a whole at the DNC, providing unions a chance to collectively assess their interests and strategy vis-à-vis the rest of the Democratic Party.

This year however, according to sources within the breakaway unions themselves, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), both major teachers’ unions — the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) — and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) decided to caucus separately.

Why? The answer is multi-layered, but ultimately the secessionist caucus represents labor’s burgeoning neoliberal caucus.

On the tip of the iceberg is the markedly different approach to Hillary Clinton and the 2016 Democratic primary taken by the four breakaway unions. The AFL-CIO and most unions took a reserved approach to the primary, mindful of Sanders’s far superior labor record but also of Clinton’s superior chances to win. They either withheld their endorsement until after the primary or endorsed Sanders.

But the four breakaway unions endorsed Clinton early and enthusiastically. They invested huge sums and resources, and celebrated Clinton as a champion of workers, going all in to propel her past Sanders despite her dubious record towards the working class and unions.

On the surface then, divergent strategies towards Hillary Clinton and the Democratic primary inspired the breakaway unions to caucus on their own.

But the issue goes deeper than decisions about endorsing Hillary Clinton. Just beneath the surface lingers the more general question of organized labor’s relationship with neoliberal politicians.

Democrats have historically been the grudging partners of the labor movement, the more willing of the two major political parties to make concessions when pressured. Labor has thus often taken a more thoughtful and calculating approach to neoliberal Democrats, recognizing their distinct interests but maneuvering strategically at arm’s length to partner when possible. The AFL-CIO’s decision to wait to endorse Clinton until she defeated Bernie Sanders is an example of this more clear-eyed calculation.

By contrast, the breakaway caucus unions represent a new way of dealing with these types of politicians, shifting from strategic alliances to sycophantic servitude. In pledging allegiance to Clinton so immediately and so fervently, the four breakaway unions appear to have lost the ability to identify labor’s own interests and enemies.

The caucus split is not surprising, given the recent political behavior of the breakaway unions. SEIU, for example, poured $85 million into electing Obama in 2008, then unflinchingly handed over another $70 million in 2012 after Obama abandoned his principal campaign promise to pass the Employee Free Choice Act and repudiated SEIU’s supposed top priority of single-payer health care (all while SEIU’s president hobnobbed as one of the nation’s most frequent visitors to the White House).

The NEA and AFT, for their part, have also continued to donate profusely to Democrats (over $30 million in the 2012 election cycle alone) while much of the party leads the charge of anti-union and anti-public-education “reform.”

In the new SEIU-AFSCME-NEA-AFT model a contingent handshake from an independent labor movement becomes a full-fledged embrace of neoliberal politicians. If the strategic alliance with the Democrats is questionable, the full-fledged embrace is absurd.

Worse, the breakaway unions’ new direction is not simply a crescendo of labor embracing neoliberal politicians, but of labor embracing neoliberal capitalism itself. The “neoliberal caucus” represents the growing rejection of class-conscious unionism based on the principle that workers and owners have inevitably conflicting interests — the very principle the labor movement was built upon.

Never mind that these unions (all with large public-sector memberships) appear content to forsake their private-sector counterparts, or that they broke ranks when labor’s political solidarity against anti-worker policies like the Trans Pacific Partnership is vital, but they are also at the forefront of a larger ideological project to sap organized labor of any anticapitalist tendencies. Certainly the scourge of neoliberalism in the labor movement isn’t confined to the four unions in the caucus, but the caucus break crystallizes a worrisome trend.

The historical roots of this turn are long — from company unions in the 1930s to anticommunist purges in the 1940s and 50s — but the modern wave is rooted in SEIU and its former president Andy Stern’s push for neoliberal unionism in the 2000s.

Stern explicitly and aggressively pushed the labor movement to adopt a “collaborationist” approach towards capital; according to the Stern ideology, workers and unions don’t have to fight corporations, just build “relationships” with them and cajole them into a mutually beneficial partnership.

In this spirit, Stern and SEIU amassed a lengthy record of striking deals with corporations that sold out workers’ ability to fight in exchange for promises of union recognition (e.g., Stern’s infamous dealing with health care giant Kaiser Permanente, which agreed to stunt existing members’ contract standards and oppose patients’ rights legislation in exchange for organizing rights). SEIU expanded, but what expanded was a neutered shell of a labor movement, full of members with preposterous contracts and little ability to fight for better.

Stern is gone but his ideological legacy remains, as evidenced by the separate caucus at the DNC. From embracing free-market capitalism to embracing employers to embracing their political representatives, the political and intellectual lineage is clear.

The proliferation of this model of unionism would spell disaster for the American labor movement. Our movement’s success depends on how widely and how militantly we can organize workers to fight corporate power and the 1 percent, not embrace them.

We must constantly encourage workers to recognize their common bonds and their common enemy in greedy owners, not discourage their class analysis. A labor movement without a class analysis is one doomed to confusion and failure as a result. The neoliberal caucus at the Democratic National Convention is another step in that direction.

Unfortunately, while the cancer may be most developed in the four breakaway unions, it isn’t confined there. It infects all too much of the institutional labor movement. But militant struggle against neoliberalism within the movement can stem the tide, such as Labor For Bernie’s success in keeping the AFL-CIO at least neutral in the primary. In the past year over one hundred local unions, several internationals, and countless rank-and-file activists endorsed Sanders and coalesced as Labor For Bernie in an upstart rejection of status-quo conservative unionism.

To alter the old adage, the friend of our enemy is our enemy — labor activists must broaden the struggle to fight against not only corporations, but also corporate-minded politicians and unionists. Union members and leaders must do everything in their power to halt the march of neoliberal unionism, before they march the labor movement straight into its grave.