It is one of the ironies of the contemporary political moment that as the old working class recedes ever further into the rear-view mirror of history, we ended yet another presidential election cycle obsessing largely over which direction their votes would swing the handful of states where they seem inevitably to cluster. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin: the Rust Belt rarely finds itself so front-and-center in the public mind as during the quadrennial national temperature-taking, when election prognosticators in the media and pollsterati get working-class fever as they so rarely do at other times of year.
It was surely such a brain-clouding flush of excitement that produced a line of pre–Election Day punditry that I kept thinking about all day and night on Tuesday, as the Democrats held their ground against the storm surges of Tea Party ressentiment, Fox News nuttiness, and Koch Brother campaign checks.
Molly Ball, a staff writer with the Atlantic, went to Columbus, Ohio, to talk to AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka about the labor federation’s massive voter turnout efforts, which Ball rightly understood to be key to President Obama’s chances in that most critical of swing states. The line I kept returning to on Tuesday—which I spent engaged in a similar labor-backed turnout effort in Connecticut—was nothing more than Ball’s passing reference to “Trumka and his minions.” By “minions,” Ball meant those union workers who, along with their family members, neighbors, friends, and other volunteers, helped Obama to a 2 percent margin of victory in Ohio while sending the labor-friendly Sherrod Brown back to the Senate to boot.
Even looking past—though it is hard to—the dripping condescension of referring as “minions” to the hundreds of thousands of working people who rightly recognized that a governing majority composed of the current Republican Party would likely mean the end of the American labor movement as we know it, Ball’s choice of words revealed a fundamental lack of understanding. Of the several hundred fellow union canvassers with whom I knocked doors in New Haven on Tuesday—custodians, cooks, secretaries, librarians, research technicians, graduate students, and many, many more—I would make a conservative estimate that no more than 10 percent of them had any idea who Richard Trumka was. I’m sure a smaller number still would recognize themselves as his minions.
But in Ohio, that mobilization kept the election cycle’s bellwether state solidly in the Democratic camp. In a swing state like Nevada, home to casino magnate and Republican sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson, labor’s political efforts, especially those of the powerful Culinary Workers Local 226, were critical to Obama’s victory-clinching 15 percent margin in Las Vegas. In Connecticut, where former wrestling executive Linda McMahon has now spent $97 million of her own money—$97 million!—in two failed efforts to purchase a Senate seat, weeks of voter registration drives and door-to-door canvassing coordinated by the state’s labor movement ultimately pushed Democrat Chris Murphy to a resounding victory, after the polls had had them virtually tied in mid-October. In Massachusetts and Wisconsin, concerted union campaigns helped elect quite possibly the two most progressive members of the incoming Senate in Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin. And in Idaho, Michigan, and California, unions fought successful campaigns against ballot initiatives that would have weakened teachers’ unions, abrogated public sector union contracts, and severely hobbled labor’s ability to engage in future political activity.
As the last four years have made abundantly clear, this Democratic Party, even in those rare moments when it is able to effectively govern, is not and will not be labor’s salvation. Labor’s victories on Tuesday—and despite the defeat on a Michigan ballot initiative that would have enshrined collective bargaining rights in the state constitution, the results should be understood as a decisive victory—were more tactical than ideological. By keeping at bay a Republican Party whose platform this year included the passage of a national right-to-work law, the abolition of dues check-off for all public sector unions, and the legal invalidation of voluntary card check recognition procedures, the labor movement was quite simply fighting for its survival. What it won was the political space to keep on fighting.
Which gets us back to “Trumka and his minions,” and two of the more critical lessons to be taken from Tuesday’s elections. To be sure, Ball had one thing right: the union movement’s ability to mobilize its members to provide grassroots support in the closest races, labor’s vaunted “ground game,” remains the most effective voter turnout mechanism in politics. In the six states where the AFL-CIO targeted the lion’s share of its organizing resources in the home stretch of the campaigns—Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—it seems to have been victorious in all of them (Florida being undecided but leaning Democratic at this writing). That is an important number to remember in our post–Citizens United moment, when we have gotten so used to speaking of the power of money in politics as if it were monolithic.
But that grassroots mobilization did not come to pass just because Richard Trumka and the AFL-CIO brass issued some marching orders. Organizing does not happen automatically; there are no readymade minions out there, even if we wanted there to be. Outcomes like Tuesday’s—and potential outcomes on a much grander scale—happen only when unions make an ongoing investment in communicating with their members and the broader community about the relationship between policymaking and economic conditions, about the absolute necessity of organizing new groups of workers and finding new allies at the workplace and in the community. It is hard work, often disdained by establishment liberals who are quick to write off working people’s political activity as that of mindless drones; and still willfully ignored by far too many within the labor movement itself, where a mixture of complacency and blind panic has left too many unions paralyzed in the face of the vicious employer counterattack of the last thirty years.
In other words, victories like Tuesday are important not only for their immediate spoils but for what they demonstrate to be possible. Money will only get the Republicans so far; even a diminished union movement can swing elections if it devotes its energies to organizing. When it does, the working class—whether white, male, and blue-collar in the Rust Belt swing states, or mostly black and brown, female, and service sector–based as it is in my hometown—is still a potent electoral coalition.
Max Fraser is a journalist and doctoral student in American history.