Whom Will The Unions Take Out Next?

by Alec MacGillis | April 25, 2012

With Mitt Romney sweeping the table against the sad remnants of the sorriest presidential field in years, the real action last night was in the Pennsylvania congressional primaries, where much of Washington's political press was caught completely off guard. Democratic primary voters knocked out two incumbent congressmen—Tim Holden, who’s represented his district between Harrisburg and Allentown for 20 years, and Jason Altmire, who won his district north of Pittsburgh in the 2006 Democratic wave. Both men found themselves in districts sharply redrawn by Pennsylvania Republicans. More notably, both men had voted against President Obama’s health care law. Their defeat leaves only four of the 34 House Democrats who voted against the law still in the House—a remarkable comment on the calculation many of those members surely made that voting against Obamacare was the politically safer route to take.

Holden was soundly beaten by Matt Cartwright, a Scranton attorney who ran on a progressive platform and benefited from the addition of more liberal Democrats into the newly drawn district (the result of Republicans’ attempts to make adjacent districts more reliably red.) More striking was Altmire’s narrow loss to Mark Critz, who took over Jack Murtha’s district around Johnstown after the earmarking king’s death; redistricting had smushed Altimire and Critz into the same district, but far more than half of the new district was Altmire territory. Yet Critz won out, in a victory that’s being attributed both to his endorsement by Bill Clinton and to the get out the vote efforts by labor unions, who backed Critz over Altmire. It was a stinging loss for Altmire, who was seen at his 2006 arrival as a star on the rise, and who had made clear his interests in preserving his own prospects when he decided to vote against Obamacare, unlike other promising young Democrats in tough districts like Ohio’s John Boccieri and Steve Driehaus and Virginia’s Tom Perriello.

Labor’s success on Critz’s behalf seems to have startled many in the Beltway loop—how can it be that a movement so diminished can still pack that sort of punch? And if it can, then who might labor next decide to help or hurt? As it happens, my piece in the new issue of the magazine addresses this very topic. The piece focuses on the battle within the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees over who will succeed longtime union chief Jerry McEntee—his anointed successor Lee Saunders is facing a vigorous challenge from Danny Donohue, leader of the largest public employee union in New York, who argues that McEntee and Saunders have been focused too much on Beltway politics and not enough on fighting for the union at the local and state level, a contention that the Saunders camp furiously rejects. But my piece also gets into the broader shift within organized labor when it comes to political activism, a move away from reflexively supporting Democratic candidates, even the ones who are cool to unions, and toward focusing labor’s support far more narrowly on its staunchest allies:

Union contributions to Democratic candidates at the national level are down sharply, a reflection of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s vow to withhold support from candidates unresponsive to labor’s concerns. Unions have made plain their displeasure with Democrats for failing to push card-check legislation—which would have made it easier to organize workers—through Congress in 2009 and 2010. They have also expressed ire with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) for holding its 2012 convention in a non-union town, Charlotte. They are cutting back on the number of people (and dollars) they send to the event and planning a “counter convention” beforehand in Philadelphia. And a meeting a few months ago between DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Ed Hill, head of the electrical workers union, ended on bad terms, according to one union source who heard Hill’s angry account of the meeting at a recent AFL-CIO summit: “He went in to express his concerns and she said, ‘No one cares about you.’”

This doesn’t necessarily mean that unions are going to be funding primary challenges against incumbent Democrats who let them down, as they did, to little ultimate effect, in supporting Bill Halter against Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln in 2010. (After all, Altmire-Critz was not a true primary challenge but a clash between incumbents forced by redistricting.) But it means that unions will be holding Democrats much more accountable for their votes—on everything from labor law reform to health care to the recent legislation to reduce regulation on public offerings for smaller companies, which unions opposed. “The labor movement campaigns for issues and not for politicians and parties,” said AFL-CIO political director Mike Podhorzer. “We’ve been much more committed to looking at things through the prism of how action on Capitol Hill and the White House will affect workers, rather than how it will affect people’s chances of getting elected.” 

Organized labor may be a wounded animal—private sector union membership is down to 7 percent, and public employee unions are under fierce assault across the country. But as Jason Altmire found out—and should’ve known, hailing as he does from hunting country—a wounded animal can also be dangerous.

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