We complain, we kvetch, we carry on with no end: we are disappointed in our elected officials because they let us down time and time again, because they do not truly represent the constituents that elect them despite their promises. But wait. It is possible to elect candidates that will represent us.
On the federal level there have been notable examples in the past. One was Vito Marcantonio, elected to congress in the late ’40s. Despite being hounded because of his progressive politics he served his constituency so effectively that there is a public school named after him on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Adam Clayton Powell of Harlem, Parren Mitchell of Baltimore and more recently Ronald Dellums of Berkeley, Calif., were all effective representatives of their mainly Black communities but also the public at large. Or there is Peter Rodino, ex-congressman, who represented a district in Newark, N.J., and who chaired the House committee that impeached Nixon. He was continually elected from his district even when Black voters became the majority of residents.
These and other legislators were able to resist the pressures of the establishment because they had the support of their voters, and while they too had to raise money for election campaigns they could turn their backs on the corporate lobbyists. But equally important they “kept the faith.” They couldn’t be bought and, needless to say, they were under the microscope. They all had the FBI sniffing around trying to dig up dirt.
The lesson for us is: elect representatives from our ranks. The ranks of labor and of community organizations are a source of dedicated and determined rank and filers who already are leading struggles. One of the groundbreaking programs in recent years was the Legislative Electoral Action Program (LEAP) movement in Connecticut in the mid-’90s that elected at least one statewide official. That program was duplicated around the country with some success.
More recently the AFL-CIO set a goal for the election of union members and activists of 2,000 in the year 2000 elections. The goal was more than fulfilled with 2,500 elected, and the bar is being raised for the 2004 elections with a goal of 5,000. This is realizable.
It is very common to hear stories in the trade union movement of shop floor activists who become staunch fighters for rank and file members who were fighting grievances. Many of these activists go on to study labor law, to better defend the interests of their fellow workers. In addition, the thousands of union members that accept leading positions in the union movement demonstrate the smarts, abilities and devotion to the movement that are qualities needed for elected positions in the public arena.
When a union representative knows the contract inside and out, can quote labor law, knows workers comp, and can face an employer across the bargaining table, that representative has the ability to sit on a town council and even run for the House of Representatives. Getting these members to step forward can be done because it is the logical next step for the protection of workers and their communities.
To help in recruiting and retention, central labor bodies, or federations in each state, could set up support committees for union legislators elected to all levels. These committees would offer the expertise on the myriad of legislative problems that newly elected officials are faced with the second they take office.
Such support would help a newly elected legislator get a running jump on the issues that they will be faced with. On the local level such issues would be residential and business zoning, sewage, garbage collection, all the nitty-gritty questions that a town or city council member will be expected to give leadership on. The availability of this type of support would help recruit and train members to be good legislators right from the git-go.
Finally, on the question of independence from the corporate forces that are corrupting our democratic political system. As with the legislators mentioned above, these unionists would come to the halls of public service with a solid constituency. As long as the voters are represented, the voters will raise the money needed from their own pockets and their own organizations. In addition, as is being demonstrated in electoral victories on all levels, these voters will invest the most important thing of all: shoe leather. The sign on these legislators’ doors will read “NOT FOR SALE.”
David Buxenbaum is a trade unionist. This column originally appeared in the Nov.-Dec. issue of the AFSCME District Council 1707 Voice.