|IUE-CWA Local 201 member Alex Reynoso protests a health benefit tax.|
“Jeff, you guys at the Union Hall aren’t listening to us! You’re talking out of both sides of your mouth. We’re fighting the benefits tax, and now you’re telling us to vote for someone who will tax our benefits! The guys here are voting for Scotty Brown.”
That was just one of the calls and e-mails that I received during the week before the Senate vote in Massachusetts. An AFSCME delegate to our labor council calculated the impact of the Obama tax on union plans and e-mailed us all to “Vote Brown!”
For a year and a half, we campaigned against the tax on our health care benefits. We trudged through neighboring New Hampshire with fliers explaining that Sen. John McCain wanted to fund health care expansion by a benefits tax.
Conservative members of my local Executive Board were adamant in saying the outcome of our health care campaign would be a tax on working people to extend coverage to poor people. Recognizing a classic Republican “wedge issue,” we argued that those without insurance include our own children. We could win a plan to tax the wealthiest and cut into the blood money of the health care profiteers.
Ultimately, we were wrong. In the last week of the Coakley campaign, the papers were full of the story: “Obama Supports “Cadillac Tax.” Sen. John Kerry cited an MIT economist who said the tax would increase wages for grateful working stiffs. I can usually figure out which chalkboard equation the classical economists are fondling: Absent merely life itself, they present a circular logic that proves itself. But the MIT argument escaped me.
We fought back hard. Coakley opposed the tax, but everyone figured she’d vote for it. The exemptions and improvements negotiated by AFL-CIO President Trumka and others were heroic—and they helped. We heard the outcome of the negotiations Thursday night. My local had a flier in the shop Friday afternoon, the last workday before the Tuesday election because of the King Holiday. Hardcore union activists gritted their teeth and hit the phones for 1,500 labor council calls.
Too late. Coakley won Lynn and Boston, but lost the union vote by 3 percent. At the polls, I ran into Tommy, a legendary IUE-CWA Local 201 activist who had been peeled off a scab’s windshield and arrested during a strike at the G.E. plant. Tommy’s retired. He told me:
I voted Republican once in my life, for Reagan the first time. He taxed my unemployment benefits and workers comp. Never again! But I ain’t voting for Coakley. I don’t want them to tax our benefits, and I don’t know about that government running my health care. I’m voting for the Libertarian.
There were other failures. A lousy campaign, a good candidate who lacked charisma. Everyman Scott Brown never mentioned he was a Republican. Arrogance from the Democratic Party, and we were asleep at the wheel, too. I didn’t even get the labor phone lists until Saturday. Six weeks earlier would have made a difference.
A year ago, the Democrats crowed that the Republicans were “irrelevant.” Today, the Republicans think the Democrats are mortally wounded. Both are wrong. In our non-ideological party landscape, in hard times whoever strikes the best pose of wounded underdog wins. The same anger that elected Obama was hijacked to elect Scott Brown: “We want change!”
This was a bread and butter election, not a “What’s the Matter With Kansas” election where social issues tipped working class voters against their economic interests. Only the right-wing fringe voted because Brown was against gay marriage and Coakley for it. Many working-class people who voted for Brown were voting for the blue-collar underdog against the Washington elite.
Obama’s support for the benefits tax exploded among union members just as our campaign against the tax was breaking through. The Boston Globe covered the union agreement on the tax—and on the same page carried a long article explaining that the excise tax would affect millions and was exactly the kind of “middle-class” tax that Obama had promised not to implement. This was the first time the health care campaign touched every union member personally, despite our previous efforts. And with so little time to explain it, it looked like the unions had left others to foot the bill; the improvements for all workers were lost in the final three-day push.
The tax wasn’t the only issue that demobilized Democratic support. A shrinking health care plan, Obama’s support for charter schools, the Afghanistan escalation, the Honduras coup, massive E-Verify firings of undocumented workers, the disappearance of the Employee Free Choice Act, criticisms from the black caucus for ignoring economic issues—all contributed. An angry black minister in Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood told Coakley campaigners: “We don’t know who she is. She never came here.” The weak stimulus was defended by the Goldman Sachs economic advisers who helped design the financialization fraud that brought us to the brink of a depression. How long can you live off the Lily Ledbetter Bill and the appointment of Labor Secretary Solis?
The “Kumbaya” of the Democrats wins them nothing. Months of touchy-feely from Democratic Sen. Max Baucus compromised away most of the health care reform features we wanted. Yet Democrats received further attacks from Republicans for their “partisanship”—and not a single Republican vote. If Obama supported waterboarding, the Republicans would attack him as “weak on terrorism” since he doesn’t support pulling the toenails of a suspect’s first born.
It’s as though Obama advisers crafted a systematic plan to unravel the president’s coalition. They succeeded.
There was no outpouring for a right-wing agenda in Massachusetts. Brown only received 50,000 votes more than McCain. But Coakley received 850,000 fewer votes than Obama. The Republican based remained energized. The Democratic base and independent supporters stayed home.
There are more difficult truths to consider. We need self-reflection, which is not our strength. Many local unions still can’t reach their members with a rapid, credible program. Public-sector workers are being stripped of benefits because we have been utterly unable to convince the citizenry that public-sector workers represent the public good. We are so happy to have a seat at the table that we ignore the meal being served.
Coakley spent time raising money from insurance lobbyists in Washington instead of campaigning in Mattapan because that’s the way the system works. Obama listened to an MIT economist instead of us—about our own benefit plans—because that’s often the way the Democratic Party works. Neo-liberalism reigns, money flows from and to those with power, and extremist free market ideas have permeated every corner of public life. Many national Democrats will conclude this election was lost because Democrats were—you guessed it—“too left.” The AFL-CIO election night polling shows they are wrong.
Would an aggressive labor-populist campaign have won this election? I think so. Of course, it’s hard to say. One thing is certain—you don’t build the kind of country we want by putting lipstick on a pig or by reconciling the irreconcilable. Whether the road ahead is hard or easy, we need to be blunt about the circumstances we face here in these United States, and let the chips fall where they may.