Excited for Democracy: Iowa Caucuses, Philly Teachers Election, and Friedrichs

I’ve got to admit, I’m excited. The Iowa Caucuses a I am in full political geek mode. As messed up as our political system is, I still get super excited about the REAL beginning of the presidential election cycle – when people, not pundits get to cast their votes, take part in the political process.

No matter how cynical or critical I can get, democracy – the possibility of democracy – actually recharges my batteries. But this year, it’s not just the Iowa Caucuses that have got me excited. Take the fight going on within the Democratic Party right now; you couldn’t ask for a better example of machine politics v. grassroots politics; the establishment wing of the Democratic Party v. part of its populist base; big money v. small money…we could extend this list all night.

In an interview with Chris Hayes last night, Bernie Sanders was pretty straight forward about what it will take for him to win Iowa tonight: turnout. Sanders told Hayes, “if there is a large voter turnout, you know what, I think we will win. If there’s not a large voter turnout, probably not.” Sanders’s prospects truly depend upon how many people can be mobilized to get out to caucus for him. Coverage of Hillary’s campaign strategy focused less on the ability to turn out people to vote (although, it would be foolish to suggest that her campaign is not aggressively working to mobilize her supporters) and more the kind of expert driven, political machine tactics borrowed from the Obama presidential campaign: an app. As Wired Magazine reported, Clinton’s app is specially designed to do quick calculations about how to “realign” caucus-goers to improve Clinton’s chance of besting Sanders. And, as BuzzFeed reported, “Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president is instructing its Iowa caucus leaders to — in certain cases — throw support to former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, with the goal blocking her main opponent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, from securing additional delegates.” So we have, literally, people v. the machine.

So, tonight’s Iowa caucuses have got me excited for official presidential election season. But, as I said on the Rick Smith Show earlier today, my excitement goes much deeper than official politics.

Last week I wrote about an intensifying election happening down the road in Philadelphia. Members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers will begin voting to elect their leaders. On the one side is the current leadership group headed by Jerry Jordan – the “Collective Bargaining Team.” That’s the group that has been in power for the past 30 years. On the other side we have the recently formed Caucus of Working Educators – WE for short – who have waged a tech-infused, grassroots campaign to change the direction of their union. WE is calling for a more activist, rank-and-file, democratic union. Like the Clinton/Sanders match-up, we have an experienced, establishment union leadership v. an energetic, grassroots, activist-oriented caucus on the other. This is fantastic.

What is especially exciting about both the arrival of the Iowa Caucuses and the PFT elections is that there is energy back in the movements. The fact is, both stories are not about “good v. bad” (Yes, I know, that’s an arguable point for many Raging Chicken readers). Rather, it’s about making a choice about a political direction and which political direction can best meet the struggles ahead. What’s going to do it? Will we continue to put our faith in experts and insiders? Or, will we invest in building a movement that will reestablish the power of organized people?

This choice is especially important for organized labor in Pennsylvania and around the country. I think it’s fair to say that organized labor proved woefully under-prepared for the full-frontal assault on working families and unions ushered in with the Tea Party victories in the 2010 election. It’s true that unions mobilized impressively in Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, and some other states around the country in response to some of the worst attacks in 2011. John Nichols made the case that following the Wisconsin Uprising of 2011 in opposition to Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union, anti-worker, anti-public budget, “Wisconsin” was not just the name of his home state, but “the reference point for a renewal of labor militancy, mass protest, and radical politics.” Nichols may prove to be right, but others in the labor movement were pretty clear that the labor movement had a decision to make: business as usual was not going to cut it. A new labor militancy was going to require shaking union leadership out of their comfort zones.

Bill Fletcher, the long-time labor and racial justice, nailed situation perfectly writing for The Progressive in March 2013. Fletcher argued that if labor was going to be able to rise to the challenges of the assault against workers, it was going to need a full-blown “reformation.” “The seeds of renewal can be seen, both with organized labor and outside of the formal structures of the labor union movement,” Fletcher noted. There is no guarantee that these seeds will grow. Fletcher argued that unions were going to have to become more activist, more social movement oriented, more willing to work as full partners in coalition with community-based organizations. And, unions will have to come to grips with some hard truths.

Taking such steps will mean recognizing that our strategies have largely failed and that our forms of organization are, at best, antiquated. For too many leaders of our movement, this is a very scary proposition. Nevertheless, either they will have to come to grips with the reality of the brave new neoliberal world or they must be encouraged to retire. Time is of the essence.

In the face of a Supreme Court decision coming this summer the Freidrichs v. California Teachers Associationwhich will effectively gut public sector unions nationwide, time is certainly of the essence. If the Supreme Court looks like it will decide in favor of the plaintiffs (and that looks quite likely), public sector unions will no longer be able to collect “agency fees” from non-members to cover costs of legal representation, contract negotiations, and other service work (work that the union is legally required to provide to members and non-members alike). Essentially, a decision in favor of the plaintiffs has the potential to create a large new class of free-riders who will not have to pay anything to the union even as they reap all the benefits. The only thing that can prevent an enormous drop-off in union membership will be a significant investment in organizing. Unions will be forced to change themselves from a service-oriented, business mode to a much more rank-and-file oriented, organizing model.

As the Caucuses get underway in Iowa and as the PFT elections begin at the end of this week, we are all faced with a choice of sorts. Yes, Iowans will decide what happens in Iowa and PFT members will decide who will lead their union for the next several years. But the establishment v. grassroots choice sits before all of us both in upcoming presidential primaries, in our own local and statewide unions, and in our own communities. The grassroots energy throughout the country is infectious right now. The real challenge will be to keep it burning bright regardless who wins the nomination of a political party or who wins a union vote.

For now, I’m going back to geeking out on the Iowa caucus returns!



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