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When Democrats Break Right (to Wall Street), Unions Break Left

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A movement is forming in American politics whereby labor organizations having trouble finding common ground with members of the Democratic party break away from their traditional alliances. The need to push for policy over party led to socialist candidate Kshama Sawant winning a seat on the Seattle City Council this year. She used a pro-labor platform, fulfilling a need that has people yearning for candidates to better represent unions and in turn the middle class.

A recent example of a labor organization acting on this desire to achieve real-world political results through strong positions comes from Lorain, Ohio, where In These Times writer Amien Essif tells the story of local unions successfully backing independent candidates after a newly elected Democratic mayor opposed labor on several issues.  

We covered the story, which resulted in Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer scrapping a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) on a schools issue. But Essif’s in-depth look at how the situation panned out provokes the question: Is now the time for an alternative labor party in American politics?

From his article:

Lorain’s rebellion began in April 2013, following a major clash with Democrats that March, according to Jim Slone, former UAW Local 2192 president who now serves as president of Lorain’s UAW Community Action Program Council, the social justice arm of the union. For nearly three years, local unions had worked with the Lorain City Council and former mayor Anthony Krasienko to establish a project labor agreement (PLA), which finally passed in 2011, mandating that the city negotiate the terms of labor with the local Building and Construction Trades Council before taking bids from contractors to carry out public construction projects.

But in March 2013, newly elected Democratic Mayor Chase Ritenauer decided to scrap the PLA—a move that received praise from the National Right to Work Committee.

To make matters worse, in April, as Russell Saltamontes notes, the city helped break a week-long strike of around 200 garbage collectors represented by the Teamsters, with Mayor Ritenauer himself riding around in a truck with scabbing workers brought in from outside Ohio.

Ritenauer tells In These Times that for him, ditching the PLA was a practical decision, not an ideological one, and he sees himself as anything but anti-union. “Some people will back you, some people will back your opponent...I’ve got a lot of friends who are in a union, whether they’re rank-and-file or whether they’re part of leadership. I’ve got support in labor.”

Slone sees it differently. “It was very clear that the mayor had his agenda, that he was going to try to tear labor apart, that he was going to try to destroy everything that we had worked to put into place,” the UAW staffer says.

There was no question in labor leaders’ minds that they needed to take action on behalf of their members and the community at large. It was not as if one rogue union wanted to break away The effort to hold Lorain’s leaders accountable was coordinated and complete, which is vital to making an impact:

The repeal of the PLA and the failure of the garbage collectors’ strike were the last two straws for labor. In April, union leaders Jim Slone; Harry Williamson, president of the Lorain County AFL-CIO; and Joe Thayer, the local federation’s former president; decided to end their cooperation with the Democratic Party and find favorable independent candidates to back in Lorain County elections. And fast — City Council and County Commission races were only six months away.

Over a series of meetings and innumerable phone calls, the “core group,” as Williamson puts it, helped launch the campaign of Joshua Thornsberry, a school teacher, who would run as an independent for Lorain City Council. Greg Argenti, the owner of an auto body shop who had already decided to run as independent would soon get the full backing of labor to claim a seat on the same council. And Mark F. Craig, independent city councilor in Elyria, Ohio, would get a similar endorsement (though he had been serving as an independent since 2008). They drew support from over a dozen union locals in addition to those associated with the Lorain County AFL-CIO, which took the helm of the operation.

Although labor still pledged to endorse three of the Democratic city councilors up for election in Lorain, the independent campaigns angered many in the party. In September, Williamson and Thayer received an unexpected letter, signed by Paul Adams, chairman of the City Democratic Party of Lorain, Ohio, stating that if they did not rescind their support for independents and back only Democratic candidates within 10 days, they would not be allowed to attend party meetings.

Williamson, the Lorain AFL-CIO president, knew he had fallen out of favor with party leadership for launching the independent political initiative. Although he hadn’t anticipated disciplinary action from local Democratic leadership, he says that he refused to be “discouraged from following my beliefs.” In the end, both Williamson and Thayer let the 10-day ultimatum expire and were summarily stripped of their duties in the city party and banned from future meetings.

But one year into this great experiment labor has a voice on the city council. The overwhelmingly union town is seeing its demands met. 

One town in Northern Ohio does not necessarily reflect the ability to recreate this across the country, but it shows that it is possible for labor to back candidates outside of the traditional party structure and achieve success, especially in smaller, local elections. 

When neither party can reliably find solutions for gridlock, it is only natural that an anti-party sentiment will form. Perhaps labor taking the lead is a way to ensure this sentiment can become a movement, one that is of the people who are willing to fight for the great majority of American who have received the fewest of the recovery’s spoils and the lion’s share of it shortcoming.

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