For decades, the labor-Democrat alliance has been part of conventional political wisdom. But one small yet influential union is doing some soul-searching on that score.
On Feb. 23, the 2,700 member Teaching Assistants' Association (TAA) at UW-Madison, the nation's oldest graduate student union, passed a resolution that set strict criteria for endorsing a candidate in the upcoming gubernatorial recall election.
The resolution demanded that candidates pledge to reinstate collective bargaining rights, reverse all state budget cuts passed through Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill, and restore wages and benefits for all public-sector workers. It was controversial, and TAA members revisited it on March 20.
Members rescinded the resolution but -- in a show of independence from party politics in the upcoming recall election -- also voted down a proposal to endorse former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk. Falk has thus far been the union-favored candidate in the Democratic primary, winning endorsements from WEAC, AFSCME, SEIU and the TAA's parent union, AFT-Wisconsin. By refusing to endorse her, the TAA situated itself to the left of most union leadership and the field of Democratic candidates.
Despite the resolution's defeat, the proposed criteria figured prominently in the discussion of Falk's record. Supporters took the lead in arguing that the TAA should not endorse her. They believe they can leverage the TAA's reputation to challenge a "rubber-stamp" culture of approving endorsements for Democrats within the labor movement.
The debate split the opinion of the union's co-presidents, Alex Hanna and Adrienne Pagac.
"Falk is the only candidate who has pledged to veto any budget that does not restore collective bargaining," says Hanna. He argues that Falk is the best option for TAA members and that getting a candidate to take a strong stance against cuts "seems unlikely."
Falk's supporters in the union worry that by setting the bar for endorsement so high the TAA won't have a candidate to endorse and work to elect in the recall. "Our best chance for change is to get the right people in there," says TAA member Mike Amato, the chair of the union's political education committee. "I'm as mad as anybody about the pay cuts, but if we sit this out, Walker is going to win."
Pagac argues that there are broader issues at stake. "This fight went beyond just collective bargaining rights. It's a recognition that Walker and the legislature have wreaked havoc on working people. There are severe cuts to programs that working people rely on, and we need to undo that damage."
Pagac places the blame for austerity budgeting on both Democrats and Republicans, not just Walker. "This can't be laid at the feet of just one party," she says. "I'm less confident there is a political party that represents the interests of working people."
She notes that at the same time Walker was facing mass protests in Wisconsin for repealing collective bargaining rights and cutting wages and benefits for most public workers, Democrats in New York, Massachusetts and California were passing similar measures.
Pagac says that rather than spending union resources on electoral politics, the labor movement needs to evaluate "whether electoral politics is an effective tactic at all. In the 1930s, Democrats were forced to make concessions because of working people's organizing and agitation within their unions."
Despite the analogy to the mass strikes and militancy of the Depression-era labor movement, Pagac takes a modest view of the immediate tasks ahead for her union. While she is open to endorsing a third-party candidate in the recall election should one emerge, Pagac says that the union should instead focus on "reorganizing from the inside out" to win concrete gains on members' issues.
This rethinking of priorities comes after the TAA took on a leadership role during the 2011 Capitol protests that also served as the launching pad for efforts to recall Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four Republican state senators. TAA activists organized a 1,000-strong protest on Valentine's Day in 2011 and made the call to keep the Capitol open overnight with constant testimony against Walker's controversial legislation. Alongside a four-day sickout led by members of Madison Teachers Inc., the actions by the TAA set off a month of demonstrations attended by tens of thousands of Wisconsinites.
Despite their union's small size, TAA members hope to use the credibility and goodwill established during the protests to influence the political debate. "People listen to what the TAA says," said Amato. "We can bring publicity [for Falk]."
At the Feb. 23 meeting where members initially took up the resolution, Falk attended and was sharply challenged by members on her record of contract negotiations as Dane County executive, in which she negotiated $10 million in concessions on wages and benefits from public workers.
In an op-ed, Michael Billeaux and other resolution co-authors charged that Falk's willingness to shave off worker wages and benefits demonstrates that "she agrees with the political consensus between the two major parties: Debt crises must be solved by making working people pay."
The Falk campaign stands by its candidate's record, arguing that the cuts and union concessions were necessary in the face of severe budget deficits brought on by the recession. "When the market collapsed [Falk] respectfully sat down with the unions and asked for their help, unlike Scott Walker, who just wanted it his way," says Scot Ross, Falk's campaign spokesman.
Inspired by the mass demonstrations it helped lead, the left wing of the TAA is attempting to revive a tradition of political independence and militancy within the labor movement that hasn't been seen in decades.
"I want my union to keep itself committed to the goals and principles that helped define the Capitol occupation," says Billeaux. "Labor unions should oppose all attacks on working people rather than focus on the narrow goal of collective bargaining, and they should not accept the argument that budget deficits must be solved by slashing wages."