Netroots Nation Dispatch: Organizing Organized Labor

You'd think progressives would be natural allies of labor. Not necessarily, as the lede-up to the liberal confab reveals.


The sixth annual Netroots Nation (nee Yearly Kos) is being held in suddenly swampy downtown Minneapolis, Minn. The pre-conference events Wednesday consisted of two all-day marathon strategy sessions for two largely separate groups who both just so happen to have breaking news this week: the LGBT community and the labor movement.

In California on Tuesday a federal judge dismissed the challenge of a ruling made by Judge Vaughn Walker on Proposition 8. The appeal was based on the known fact that the judge is in a long-term homosexual relationship and therefore, according to the challenge, is unable to rule on the merits of the case. Judge Walker's ruling against Prop 8 now stands. And in New York, the state legislature is debating making gay marriage legal in the state. A final vote could happen as soon as Friday.

In adjacent generic conference rooms at the Hilton were these progressive powwows. The (closed to the media but bloggers were invited) LGBT session was boisterous. Loud. It spilled over and through the partition into the open whisper-level labor meeting. They weren't celebratory -- they were energized.

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Labor, however, is not having as good a time ... really at anything. High unemployment makes unions easy targets. The under-employed resent those with pensions and health plans. And management is by definition not in line with the unions. Ditto owners and Republicans. And a higher court ruled this week that Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's law to strip public unions of collective bargaining now stands.

So, where does labor stand with progressives?

The AFL-CIO has always participated in Netroots Nation. It shows up every year with a booth and hands out spiffy union-made swag. But this year it's different. Labor has taken some hard hits under a wave of new Republican governors in Michigan and Ohio. Union membership in the private sector is down below seven percent. To everyone's surprise, it's down even in the last two years with a labor-backed Democrat in the White House. "This is our chance to get out of the booth at the exhibit hall and have a deeper conversation," said Joseph Geevarghese, Deputy Director at Change to Win, a coalition of American labor unions.

The labor movement now talks about Wisconsin in the same way people talk of 9/11: It changed things. Geevarghese notes Wisconsin where the labor movement was born -- and now it's seen as the best place to kill it.

But now, like 9/11, it's also become a rallying cry. Progressives and liberals (the distinctions and differences have never been clearly explained to me) have largely not paid attention to organized labor. They weren't out supporting unions and union interests, notes Geevarghese, "Before Wisconsin from progressives it was largely indifference." Communications Director at Change to Win Paco Fabian uses the word "ambivalence" to describe progressives' attitude toward labor. "They have no familial relationship with unions. They don't know what unions do," he said.

"It's not that progressives forgot about labor until Wisconsin," said Firedoglake blogger David Dayen, who was invited to the session. "Everybody did."

So that was the goal of the all-Wednesday cabal -- remembering why labor used to be important. The solemn group of organizers, activists and bloggers aired their grievances with labor being "demonized." They talked about messaging. They discussed strategy. They in short: They communicated.

Is this going to make a difference? Will this save organized labor? Did the hosts of the event feel like they got out of this what they were hoping for? Did something start here in the Marquette III room today?

Fabian seemed optimistic in his resolve, "It's really all about the follow-up."

Image credit: REUTERS/Allen Fredrickson