Labor Unions Should Back All Candidates, Says SEIU Leader

July 2005
The Associated Pressr eports on a story out of Washington D.C. in which Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (or SEIU, which represents workers such as janitors), spoke out about making sure that labor unions don't just endorse Democrats for political office.
"We can't just elect Democratic politicians and try to take back the House and take back the Senate and think that's going to change workers' lives," said Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union. During a briefing Thursday, Stern said politics is only part of labor's strategy. He said "electing Democrats and taking back the House or getting rid of (House Majority Leader) Tom Delay" are not enough to answer workers' problems. "It certainly would help, but we don't think it's the answer," Stern said.
At first glance this would seem like a radical proposal, but it's really only a subtle warning for Democrats and an olive branch for some Republicans. It's also a statement of independence, to some degree, because there are strong competing factions among national labor groups right now.
Stern was speaking as the leader of the 1.8 million-member SEIU - the largest in the federation - but the feeling that labor should approach politics differently is shared by leaders of other unions in the Change to Win Coalition. The AFL-CIO, which represents almost 60 unions with 13 million members, has substantial differences with the five dissident unions in the coalition, which represent more than 5 million of that total.
In Colorado, the AFL-CIO has always either endorsed Republicans who vote with them or at the very least has pledged to not endorse a Democratic opponent of that Republican; they don't do it often, but they do it enough. Colorado labor leaders, for example, frequently backed Republican legislator (now "retired") Ken Chlouber because he was a strong voice on labor issues. This was particularly important for the unions when Republicans had control over the legislature, because they needed to find a few Republican lawmakers who would help them kill anti-union legislation such as the "Right to Work" bill that would severely damage unions if passed. What Stern may be talking about is using this same strategy nationally that Colorado and other states have employed; they're not going to get a lot of Republicans to vote for pro-union legislation, but at least they can try to find some legislators who will not vote against them. Labor unions in Colorado don't regularly back Republicans in large numbers because there aren't many of them who would represent their interests over the concerns of business leaders and general contractors. But they also weren't happy with many Colorado Democrats in the 2005 legislative session, particularly with Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff. This gets back to one of the points that Stern was probably making nationally -- that Democrats whom they do support had better support them when they get elected. This is all just posturing on a national level, but it's a message that is intended to also get back to Colorado. The bigger story, which was lost in the headline "Labor Can't Just Back Dems," is how some labor leaders are pushing for a reorganization of resources.
The coalition wants the AFL-CIO to commit far more resources to organizing, reduce the size of the staff at central headquarters and encourage unions within certain industries to combine resources.
The emphasis on reorganizing comes as unions have played less and less of a role in recent elections. The big example in Colorado was in the 2003 Denver mayoral election, when organized labor backed Don Mares but lost big to John Hickenlooper. In Colorado, and in Denver where there are a higher concentration of members, unions are learning from those mistakes; they had success last year with their support of Mitch Morrissey, who was elected district attorney. If labor unions continue to reorganize and become more efficient in their campaigning, it could give Democrats that extra push in Colorado that will help them maintain control of the state legislature.