One last round on Jack Lew and labor (which means my awful puns on Lew’s name are mostly done…mostly).
As I mentioned before, Shawn Gude, Ned Resnikoff, and Erik Loomis thought I was wrong to dismiss the appointment of Jack Lew as Treasury secretary as a significant betrayal of liberals on the president’s part. Gude and Loomis took to their blogs to explain in further detail; and the common thread uniting both posts is that I’m compartmentalizing the left-of-center coalition too much and misunderstanding the essential role organized labor must play in the liberal movement.
To me, what’s troubling is the clear delineation Isquith posits between cabinet positions which affect labor and positions which are immaterial to labor. In his mind, one can easily classify the duties of the treasury secretary as outside those narrowly defined boundaries; Lew, you see, would be advising the president on economic policy and negotiating over the debt ceiling—not say, enforcing labor law or conferring with Richard Trumka. (Lew’s role would also be quite different than his predecessor, Tim Geithner, even if they’d be occupying the same position.) Thus, whether Lew’s actions as an NYU administrator amounted to union busting…isn’t germane to his possible ascension to treasury secretary.
For those who put workers’ rights and economic justice at the center of their political project, however, Lew’s views and actions vis-a-vis organizing struggles are absolutely relevant.
I’m going to quibble with the implication that I don’t particularly care for “worker’s rights and economic justice” simply because I’m skeptical of how worthwhile it is for lefties to pull out their hair over Jack Lew. Similarly, Loomis’s response focuses a lot on whether or not what Lew did makes him a shitty guy, and whether or not support for organized labor should be something of a moral litmus test for Democrats. My answers would be: yes (although people are complicated and I don’t know the guy, etc., etc.) and yes, after the revolution (meaning that I agree but it is also beside the point with things as they are today).
And how are things today? Tackling the question of whether or not labor is an interest group might be a good way to get a glimpse. In his response, Gude claims, rather definitively, that “labor isn’t just another interest group.” But there’s a difference between is and should be; and for someone as aware of the past 30 years of Western economic history as Shawn is, I’m surprised this is a distinction he either rejects or ignores. Organized labor in America today is an interest group because it is weak; and not only is it weak, but it overwhelmingly conducts itself as if it were simply one of many tentpoles that compose the Democratic Party. If the AFL-CIO is not an interest group, then somebody better tell Richard Trumka.
One of the benefits of it taking me so long (relative to blog/Twitter time, that is) to get this response online is that David Kaib, in a response to us all, has done a good pretty of making the same point, more lucidly:
I’m not suggesting that Lew would be worse than Geithner, who I’d categorize as disastrous. I don’t think progressives can stop this nomination, and I don’t think a really good candidate is even possible in the present climate. But the real question is : how do you change that climate? I think mobilizing against someone like Lew is a good start – or at least, something like that. Making involvement in union busting toxic in the Democratic Party seems like a worthy goal.
So here’s the heart of the matter. Kaib asks “how do you change that climate?” which is really the question that’s dogged labor-friendly folks for decades and decades and decades. And just as the question is stubbornly resilient, so is the idea that kvetching about Democratic insiders who are hostile or ambivalent when it comes to organized labor is an effective maneuver to counter the West’s neoliberal drift. Every year that passes, it seems to me, results in organized labor being that much less powerful; and consequently the outrage of its sympathizers that much less potent as a real political tool.
Kaib gets into some other stuff about whether Lew is a good negotiator and whether he should care — he makes a comparison to Rahm Emanuel that I don’t think is really 1:1, since we’ve been given the examples on which Lew’s reputation is based (shielding programs for the poor from cuts) that present him in a better light than anyone could ever reasonably depict Emanuel. But that’s all secondary to this bigger issue, this vexing question over what the labor-minded are supposed to do in a political sphere that frequently renders them powerless.
I think kicking up a dust cloud over Lew is ineffective, the kind of thing the Administration expects (and sometimes welcomes). I also think it’s something that the media more or less tunes out — unless they really, really need to fill time on The Cycle or whatever. So if the president doesn’t care, and the media doesn’t care, then I’m at a loss to figure out how the raise-hell strategy actually does…anything.