The practice known as “union-busting” isn’t limited to goon squads cracking heads, or companies hiring public relations firms that specialize in scare tactics and intimidation. In its broadest sense, union-busting describes what congressional Democrats have been doing since the 1980s—taking labor’s money while voting against workers’ rights, giving tough speeches at union halls, then using weasel words when addressing business groups, and refusing to go on the record as unabashedly “pro-union.”
No matter how much campaign money they’ve received from organized labor, you won’t hear Democrats say publicly what Franklin Roosevelt said publicly in 1935: “If I worked in a factory, the first thing I would do is join a union.” Whatever their reason—whether they simply don’t believe in the labor movement, or they’re too scared to admit they do—very few Democrats are willing to stand on their hind legs and repeat what FDR said.
Which brings us to Grover Norquist, the notorious anti-tax, anti-government zealot. Norquist’s rhetoric has inspired supporters to compare him to Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams, and, conversely, has led detractors to suggest that he’s ever so slightly brain-damaged. But whether he’s a crusading patriot or eccentric crackpot, there’s no denying that Norquist terrifies Democrats and Republicans alike.
He terrifies Republicans because he wields enormous leverage within the conservative-libertarian wing of the Party. He wields it for two reasons: (1) by being able to raise obscene amounts of money for political campaigns, and (2) by requiring candidates to sign an oath promising never, ever to raise taxes… or risk having Norquist and his minions throw their support (money) to another candidate.
In short, you either place your signature on his “no tax increase under any circumstances” document or you get steamrolled by the well-financed, anti-tax juggernaut. While some folks might refer to such strong-arm tactics as “extortion,” Norquist and his crowd regard it as a critical test of ideological purity.
As clumsy and peremptory as Norquist’s approach is, it’s also brilliant — so brilliant that organized labor should immediately adopt it. If labor is serious about building an army of progressive Democratic foot soldiers — Democrats who not only believe that the survival of the American middle-class will be led by the labor movement but are willing to stake their careers on it — it needs to adopt a tactic as equally brutal and uncompromising as Norquist’s.
Instead of trying to convince itself that it can reap a bountiful harvest from the current crop of House and Senate Democrats, organized labor needs to sow the seeds of an entirely new strain of representative by announcing that it will no longer support any candidate unless he or she is willing to sign a Norquist-like oath — a written pledge to make unions a top domestic priority and to work diligently on a pro-labor agenda.
What would that agenda look like? Enacting stronger labor laws, strictly enforcing statutes already on the books, passing the EFCA (card check), raising the minimum wage, leveling the “free trade” playing field, and resuscitating labor’s image by flooding the media with the message that it was organized labor who invented the middle-class, and that the reason we’re in the economic mess we’re in is because the voice of the American worker has been drowned out by corporate interests.
And when Democrats smugly pose their “gotcha” question — Who would you rather have in office, an ineffective, pro-labor Democrat or an openly hostile Republican? — labor’s answer should be, “We don’t spend another dime until we have a candidate worthy of us.” To use a baseball analogy, it makes no difference whether you pop up or hit a line-drive to the centerfielder. Both result in outs.
While Grover Norquist has shown he can raise a ton of cash, the AFL-CIO and CTW (Change to Win) can raise more. Organized labor may be struggling, but one thing it’s not short of is money. And money — tactically spent — is what it will take to whip the Democrats into shape. The message: Support union labor or look for a new career.