The Fight for a Working Democracy

This was article was originally posted on the OnLabor blog.

Written by Miles Rapoport, Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy, the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School and Wendy Fields, Executive Director, Democracy Initiative

For the last forty years, a determined attack on our democracy has been funded by a small cadre of right-wing billionaires. The leaders of this effort are determined to ensure that the decisions of government benefit the corporations and the wealthy, and they have recognized that in order to win on the substance — taxation, deregulation, shrinking government, preventing redistribution — they have to undercut the very structures of our democracy.

This assault has had four key elements: the attack on voting rights; the undermining of any controls on big money in our elections; the gerrymandering of districts for partisan domination; and — critically –the attack on the labor movement. The attack on labor has been central to the right wing strategy because the Labor movement has always been the anchor of progressive social change work and to efforts, like Dr. King’s, to expand voting rights and democracy as well. The understanding of the deeply intertwined relationship between fighting for labor and fighting for democracy is critical for the success of both.

After the Tea Party wave election of 2010, the anti-democracy campaign had the opportunity to go into overdrive.

*On voting rights, numerous states enacted stringent voter identification and other laws designed to make it more difficult for poor people, people of color, the elderly, and students to vote. When the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby decision by eliminating the preclearance provision, it was open season.

*On campaign finance, the Supreme Court ¾ in the Citizens United decision in 2010 and others ¾ virtually eliminated restrictions on the flood of big money into campaigns. Corporations could give unlimited money, Super PACs were born, and unlimited ‘dark money’ poured into party committees and campaigns. The super-rich took more control than ever. There was no way for the labor movement to keep up in purely financial terms.

*Many states also used new legislative majorities won in 2010 to fundamentally redraw district maps in favor of Republicans. In North Carolina, a 50–50 state, the congressional delegation is ten to three; in Pennsylvania, Republicans have 13 of 18 US House seats.

Successes of 20th century unions and labor advocates are being undone.

*Lastly, the right wing understood that the labor movement has been the bulwark of countervailing power against domination by the corporate and individual rich. In state after state, laws and decisions were passed and made undercutting unions, limiting or eliminating collective bargaining, and instituting ‘right to work’ regimes. It was very clear to the masterminds of these strategies that attacks on voting and attacks on unions were core parts of the anti-democratic agenda.

But the news is not all bad. There has also been the development of an intersectional, broad based grassroots movement to defend and expand democracy. This movement has used organizing, mobilizing, lobbying, public education, litigation, and political action with significant effect. In many of these fights, labor unions have been centrally involved.

*A number of voter suppression laws were defeated or successfully challenged in court. Recently, the “Commission on Election Integrity” created by Trump and chaired by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, met fierce resistance and was disbanded. And on the proactive side, fifteen states and the District of Columbia have enacted same day voter registration, and several states have recently adopted automatic voter registration at state agencies. Many states have expanded the use of early voting mail-in ballots.

*Extreme partisan gerrymandering has been successfully challenged in court in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Texas. The Supreme Court has heard oral arguments, and will rule on the Gill v. Whitford and Benisek v. Lamone cases during this term. In California and Arizona, advocates won citizen redistricting commissions that have drawn fair maps.

* Even on campaign financing, strong transparency and innovative small donor public financing laws have been passed in Connecticut, Maine, Seattle, Maryland, Tallahassee, New York City, Massachusetts, and other places.

It is heartening to see the development of this movement, and yet we now confront significant challenges. How do we take these issues from the margins of political debate to front and center? How can we build a class-based and diverse coalition for reform? How do we make sure labor plays a leading role on these issues, and that democracy advocates understand the central role that labor must play in any successful movement?

One encouraging development has been the creation of the Democracy Initiative. In 2013, leaders of the CWA, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the NAACP decided that it was imperative, for the sake of winning on their primary issues, to also work to protect and expand our democracy. The four organizations were joined by Common Cause and the AFL-CIO, and a total of 64 organizations now comprise the DI, representing 40 million people. A number of other unions are DI members as well.

The DI recognizes that the combined strength of these organizations is much greater if each sees the others as allies, that the assault on labor is a fundamental part on the attack on democracy, and that a strong labor movement is key to a strong pro-democracy movement.

The DI emphasizes bringing the grassroots strength of membership organizations to bear on democracy issues. The emphasis is on educating and mobilizing the membership, so that it isn’t only a handful of policymakers, advocates, and litigators who are engaging on them.

In Illinois, DI member organizations — especially labor– made thousands of phone calls and attended rallies in support of automatic voter registration, which was vetoed by Governor Rauner in 2016, but passed unanimously in 2017 and was signed into law. In Howard County, Maryland in 2016, the DI, lent powerful mobilization support to a campaign for publicly financed elections. Defying early polling, the referendum passed. Observers noted that there were more people at the polls for the referendum than for the Presidential campaigns. A number of unions, including AFL-CIO central labor bodies, put real muscle into the campaign.

Looking ahead, the DI and other organizations will make sure that democracy issues are discussed and debated in the elections of 2018. They will provide information to any candidates who want to embrace these democracy issues, and will press all candidates to support fundamental democratic values, and hold candidates accountable for the statements they make during the campaign. Since labor is still the most powerful and effective force in progressive electoral politics, it is imperative that unions include these issues in the election-related work they do.

No one can be sure what the results of the 2018 elections will be. But in the event that there is a wave election, organizations and coalitions committed to a vibrant and inclusive democracy will work to be as prepared with legislative proposals to strengthen democracy as the coalition to undermine democracy was at the beginning of 2011. That democracy agenda needs to include support for union organizing, support for collective bargaining, and opposition to anti-labor legislation as a key element, and the non-labor parts of these coalitions have to be front and center on those issues as well.

Miles Rapoport, a longtime organizer, policy advocate, and elected official, is a Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School. Prior to his appointment to the Ash Center, Rapoport was most recently president of the independent grassroots organization Common Cause. For 13 years, he headed the public policy center Demos. Rapoport previously served as Connecticut’s Secretary of the State and a state legislator for ten years in Hartford. He has written, spoken, and organized widely on issues of American democracy.

Wendy Fields is the Executive Director of the Democracy Initiative (DI). She brings over 25 years of experience as a trainer, organizer, and strategists to the DI with a special focus on economic and racial equality. Prior, she was the Vice President of Strategic Campaigns and Partnerships at Common Cause. She also spent 17 years at United Automobile Workers (UAW) as both Executive Administrative Assistant and Chief of State to President Bob King. Her work within the labor and good government movements has always focused on building collective power among everyday workers and citizens. Today, as many voters face existential threats to voting rights, workers’ and environmental protections, and the corrupting influence of corporate money in politics, Wendy is mobilizing millions of DI Partner groups to advance pro-democracy reforms at all levels of government.



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Research center and think tank at Harvard Kennedy School. Here to talk about democracy, government innovation, and Asia public policy.