One of the most used and least effective taunts in today’s political battlefield is the accusation that one side is truly ‘grassroots’ while the other is simply ‘astroturf’; suggesting that the battle is between ‘people power’ and ‘money’. While it is satisfying to taunt one’s opponent, at the end of the day the equation is all wrong. Look at the labor movement; the traditional grassroots powerhouse versus Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brother’s so-called ‘astroturf’ group.
The AFL-CIO as the federation of unions in America has chapters in every state and many municipalities. Their members pay dues, elect local, regional and national leaders and every shop floor has a steward or enforcer of the contract. Labor is relevant for those lucky enough to still work in a collectively bargained partnership with their employers. Their roots run deep and their transparent democratic principles are fundamental.
Americans for Prosperity on the other hand has chapters in 35 states, according to their website, with little if any elected leadership and certainly lacks transparency. So they must be astroturf right? I don’t think so.
I suggest a different method of framing the discussion; true believers versus activists. One of my bugaboos is seeing on so many labor job boards the need for ‘activists.’ Union members are not activists they are members of the community. Activism can take on the whiff of fashion, it was cool to oppose apartheid back in the day, but no thirty-something with a family and a career is out manning the barricades. Maybe a little Rachel Maddow show from time to time but that leads to more indignation at the opposition than inspiration to fight the good fight.
The Koch brothers bombard citizens with advertisements while Fox News and Rush Limbaugh et al. bombard them with talking points. Those talking points become dogma and are unquestioned. What they represent to many in our communities is the truth. Their ‘members’ become true believers and no amount of reasoning will sway them. There was a time when the progressive side of things felt that way and the labor movement was at the pinnacle of liberal dogma. ‘Look for the union label’, buy union, drive union and support union causes. Today D.C. based union staffers are shopping at non-union grocery stores even though the MVA is full of UFCW organized stores. Even Robert Reich in his documentary Inequality for All opens the film driving a non-union car. He is an activist, not a true believer.
I entered the labor movement in the late eighties through a now defunct AFL-CIO support group Frontlash that organized college students and young workers to support labor. Most of what I know I learned from my old-school executive officer at the local Columbus, Ohio Central Labor Council. He taught me how to be a true believer. Years later when I worked briefly for SEIU I was shocked to see an organizer drinking a Coors beer, or making a quick stop at the local Wal-Mart. There was no Frontlash for these young people, no part of our training taught the Union way it was just considered irrelevant to today’s young union leadership.
Union membership in the United States sits at about 14.5 million roughly equivalent to the number of Americans listening to and influenced by Rush Limbaugh. Half of union members work in the public sector and as we see in Wisconsin can be washed away in an election cycle. In other words the trend is not good. Limbaugh is available with the flip of the switch as are the Fox News true believer commentators.
So what does this mean for Democratic political strategists trying to build a winning coalition? First, forget about the true believers for now. Stop with the taunts and focus on common ground. Second, value your local labor movement, if it still exists in your area. Third, learn union organizing principles and build the old fashioned way, identifying leaders, nourishing and building your base.
But the real dilemma is that all that money and media power emboldens GOP politicians to essentially make unions irrelevant. Sure, it’s still legal to have a union, but just try to get one; and hope the union doesn’t send you a hipster activist. We are losing and they are winning. Admitting that is the first step in any program of recovery. We are powerless as long as we lack belief. True believers are powerful evangelists for their cause and the old phrase ‘for the Union makes us strong’ must be the banner under which we march. If not we may continue to win elections without passing meaningful legislation. In other words grass must be nurtured, astroturf can last forever so plant wisely.