Much has been said and much has been written about the disastrous effects of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, rendered on January 21, 2010. That decision, which allows unlimited contributions by corporations and the wealthy to political campaigns, has become a powerful weapon utilized by the far right to buy elections and has raised questions as to how labor can possibly compete to advance its own political agenda.
Specifically, the court voted 5-4 to expand First Amendment free speech rights of corporations, unions and wealthy individuals by permitting unlimited funds to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. While corporations or unions may not give money directly to campaigns, they may seek to persuade the voting public through other means, including by ads on TV, radio, and in the commercial media.
So welcome to the world of the Super PACs. Welcome also to the world of large corporations trying to influence campaigns by donating money to tax-exempt organizations that can spend millions of dollars without being subject to the disclosure requirements that apply to candidates, parties and PACs.
Many have assumed that the relation of money to politics is like a law of nature: the more money one has, the more political power one can wield.
But that is an over simplification. History is full of examples of labor’s waging critical struggles against the corporate class and prevailing, despite being vastly outspent. Here are two such examples, both involving Ohio:
In 1958, the Ohio General Assembly enacted a right-to-work law. Labor organized a referendum campaign to repeal the law. Together with its allies, the unions won by avote of2,007,291 to 1,080,266, with a margin of victory for labor of 927,025. This was the biggest margin ever recorded on an issue on the ballot in Ohio‘s history. This despite the fact that anti-labor forces spent many more times what labor spent on the campaign.
In 1997, the Ohio General Assembly approved legislation gutting Workers Compensation. Once again, the unions took the referendum route to repeal the measure. Although they were outspent 7-1, the unions won by a vote of 1,711,701 to 1,286,188 ─ a 57% to 43% victory for labor and a crushing defeat for the bankers and corporations who thought they had labor on the run.
[Note: In the 2011 referendum vote organized by unions to rescind repressive anti-labor legislation passed by the Ohio General Assembly directed primarily against public service unions, labor prevailed by a vote of 2,145,042 to 1,352,366 ─ a 61% to 37% margin. To nearly everyone’s surprise, labor spent more on the campaign than did the opposition.]
One thing all of these campaigns had in common: labor’s campaigns were run by the unions independently of the Democratic and Republican Parties. In each case, labor took on the National Association of Manufacturers, Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable and the other fat cats. In each, labor went all-out to educate, organize and mobilize, reaching out to its allies and the public, and winning large majorities to its cause.
What About Wisconsin?
Many in organized labor attributed the recent defeat in the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election to the fact that Governor Walker was able to raise far more money than labor and its allies could muster. But that does not explain what happened.
To its great credit, the Wisconsin labor movement mobilized hundreds of thousands of workers in the streets, which inspired the working class not only across this country but throughout the world. A decisive victory could have been won if the labor movement had mobilized nationally ─ with a Solidarity Day 3 March on Madison to begin with ─ to support Wisconsin‘s workers and if the focus on mass action in the streets had not only been continued but escalated.
But it was the turn to electoral channels in the form of supporting a Democratic candidate for governor, Tom Barrett, whom labor opposed in that Party’s primary because of his antilabor record, that proved fatal.
Many Democrats have consistently supported concessions by workers, as Barrett did in this case, even though the inequalities in wealth are soaring, the rich have accumulated historic amounts of wealth, and the taxes on the rich have steadily declined for decades, thanks to both Democrats and Republicans.
Working people will not energetically support candidates who do not support them. And it was the granting of massive concessions in Wisconsin even before the fightback struggle had a chance to get off the ground, combined with Barrett’s weak platform and campaign, and the power and effectiveness of the right wing’s propaganda machine, that resulted in the alienation of so many union members and the tragic division in the Wisconsin working class as a whole. These factors enabled Walker to seal his victory at labor’s expense.
Looking to the Future
From time immemorial, the U.S. electoral system has been corrupt because the Big Money gang has always had a significant advantage. It’s no accident that the majority of U.S. Senators are millionaires, as are 281 members of Congress. Critics of the system have long advocated the public financing of elections to help level the playing field but all their efforts have been blocked to date.
Citizens United did not create this system, it just made it qualitatively worse. However, while the barriers to electing progressive minded low and medium income people ─ as well as prevailing in initiatives and referenda ─ are indeed high, they are not insurmountable, as the Ohio experiences cited above and many others prove.
Incidentally, the U.S. Supreme Court had an opportunity recently to reconsider and overturn its Citizens United holding, but in a Montana case it declined to do so. While the campaign to amend the Constitution to prohibit corporations and the wealthy from spending unlimited sums to buy elections ─ and this means denying them the rights of “personhood” ─ warrants the support of all democratic minded people, the labor movement will have to face the continued reality of being grossly outspent in election campaigns.
Some have concluded from this funding disparity that labor electoral activity should be eschewed in favor of other means of making our voices heard, such as workplace struggles, petition campaigns, initiatives and referenda, civil disobedience, and mass marches and rallies. But the fundamental question will still remain: Who controls the government? In our opinion, the answer must be a working class party which governs in the interests of the great majority, not a corporate-run party that speaks for big business and the wealthy. Accordingly, we believe that labor should prioritize work in the political arena, along with the other forms of protest, and not cede total control of government to our enemies. As starters, this means running independent labor candidates for office on the local level.
That old and time honored labor maxim still applies: “They have the money, we have the people!”
The challenge is to organize the people to help build an alternative to the monopoly control of government by the Democratic and Republican Parties. Polls show that a large segment of the population is anxious to see this happen. What is needed is leadership by the labor movement to make it a reality.