The Democratic party is astride the same awkward straddle it has managed (not too successfully) for more than 25 years. The party tries to serve two masters with opposite interests. It takes care of business for business, while it also speaks for labor and working people. Guess who has gotten the short end of this arrangement. What is different this year is that Dems have lost their best excuses. Tthe party has the White House and robust majorities in both House and Senate. No longer gets to blame Bush.
Yet the party of the working class appears to be taking a slow-motion dive on organized labor's primary objective -- new labor rights legislation that would significantly help workers organize collective voices and representation in their workplaces. Tom Frank provided a bleak diagnosis in the Wall Street Journal. Jane Hamsher sharpened the political critique on Firedoglake,com http://firedoglake.com/2009/04/23/democrats-fail-on-efca-is-it-time-for-blanche-lincolns-arkansas-to-go-green/. This may seem premature, but I think they are right to ring the alarm bells.
Once again, despite heady momentum, Democrats seem to be slipping out the door on working people. The Employees Free Choice Act involves rather modest reforms for the deeply-compromised law meant to protect workers' right to organize, but the business lobby makes it sound like Stalinist oppression. Dems have 59 senators but several are now announcing second thoughts. Why risk the retaliation of corporations and financiers?
This has become a "money vote" for Democrats, but it's not labor money they are worried about losing. If the bill dies, there will be the usual lamentations. "We just didn't have the votes." Yet Democrats still count on getting labor's money in the next election cycle.
If Democrats were more serious about governing, they would have started this year by disabling the Senate ilibuster rule, reducing the threshold to 55 votes or even a simple majority. See my Nation piece http://www.thenation.com/doc/20081229/greider. But Democrats like the filibuster rule because it gives them a convenient place to hide from responsibility. They are the majority party yet Republicans get say "no" on anything that involves a risky vote. Then righteous Dems blame the GOP for thwarting public will. This is called having it both ways.
Business as usual. The game has gone on for 30 years. It will not change until unions and union members decide to change it. Hamsher suggests Arkansas might a good starting place. Senator Blanche Lincoln is a Wal-Mart Democrat who could be made into an object lesson on the unreliability of her party. Labor opposition would first cut off funds for her and others but, more to the point, labor could field a well-funded primary opponent who at least weakens Lincoln and sets her up for failure in the general election. Yes, the strategy would probably produce a Republican senator in her place. So what? What has labor won with the Democratic majorities it helped finance and elect?
This is the test the Democratic party would like to avoid. If the party fails on essential matters, its loyal constiutuencies should revolt and respond aggressively. Their message ought to declare an end to the convenient straddle. Rank-and-file Democrats and others could organize to challenge Democratic incumbents in opportunistic ways, picking off weak ones and supporting only faithful representatives. The therapeutic objective is to induce pain and insecurity among complacent and comfortable incumbents.
Democratic leaders probably wouldn't take this seriously at first (though maybe the president will). If labor leaders refuse to step up to the challenge, then other voters might fill the void. My new book -- Come Home, America -- describes "independent formations" as a promising way for born-again citizens to mobilize their political power -- free of Washington's confining relationships -- in order to destabilize the existing power structure. The road to genuine reform will be very difficult, as we always knew. It may also require a detour through fratricidal combat.