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Can unions and Democrats beat the oligarchs?

Labor’s interest in the 2018 election is, to put it mildly, justified. Unions have already seen a drastic deterioration of their power, especially in the private sector.

Wy Spano
Wy Spano

In mid-February Minnesota’s union community held a two-day “start the 2018 elections” conference. Well organized. Seminars on finding candidates, getting the message out, etc., etc. Capped by a forum with the four current DFL candidates for governor of Minnesota who were well received and able to periodically excite the hundreds in the audience. There was a genuine feeling of empowerment. “If there’s enough effort, enough money, enough smarts, labor can help win 2018 for Democrats,” seemed to be the feeling.

Labor’s interest in the 2018 election is, to put it mildly, justified. Unions have already seen a drastic deterioration of their power, especially in the private sector, where managements are able to fight unionization with ease and with the support of conservative national and state governments. In 1983 16.8 percent of private sector wage and salary employees were in unions; in 2015 it was down to 6.7 percent.  

The percentage of public sector employees in unions remained, during the same three-decade period, about 35 percent. But the very idea of public sector unions is now under attack. Republicans in Minnesota talk openly and gleefully of matching Wisconsin’s public employee union busting under Gov. Scott Walker. All that Republicans have to do in Minnesota is win the governorship and keep control of the House and the Senate and they can put unions into permanent nonentity status.  

Action at the Supreme Court

On Monday of this week the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the “bust public employee unions” case Janus v American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31.  Swing vote Anthony Kennedy sounded like he was ready to join the four dependable conservatives in seriously hobbling public employee unions all over the country, waiting for state legislatures to finish the job.  

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So can unions, and their allies in the DFL party, win in Minnesota in 2018?

It’s going to be tough. Labor union impact on elections is traditionally an organizational, not just a monetary activity. Unions agree on whom to support and then methodically convince members, families and neighbors. There’s some money involved, but it’s the people outreach that’s important.  Till 2000, Minnesota had effective limits on campaign spending, so people power in campaigns was important. Then the federal courts blew the lid off campaign spending controls. Money got to be more important.

Enter the oligarchs, both Russian and American. Russian oligarchs, with no one to stop them, will keep on meddling. American oligarchs (Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, et al.) have been dominating U.S. elections for some time. Until now, Minnesota hasn’t had much oligarchic action because our state wasn’t “in play.” Now we’re the leading national political battleground, with more congressional seats in question than in any other state (four), an appointed Democratic senator  (Tina Smith) on the ballot for the first time, and an expected Republican candidate for governor (Tim Pawlenty) whose candidacy will be freighted with presidential talk from the beginning. (As to calling Americans like the Kochs and Adelson oligarchs, they seem to fit the dictionary definition: “a very rich business leader with a great deal of political influence.” Whether the U.S. is becoming or has become an oligarchy is a subject for a longer discussion.)

Pawlenty and the presidency

Will former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty run for president if he’s elected again as Minnesota’s governor? Does water run downhill? Pawlenty ran for president through most of his eight years of gubernatorial service. For the last nearly six years, Pawlenty has been near the heart of the political money beast, running the lobbying/political arm of the nation’s very largest financial institutions. Now he’s ready to become the establishment Republicans’ anti-Trump, poised to be the presidential candidate conservatives don’t have to apologize for.

Can unions and their DFL allies prevail while swimming against the overwhelming current of the oligarchs’ money river, dedicated mostly to Republicans? If you’re a hardcore realist, you’ll say, “No way.” If you’re an optimist like me you’ll wonder if voters might stop trusting the flood of ads and brochures money can buy, especially when the messages could be coming straight from Moscow.  Could campaign messages from friends and neighbors re-take the value they once had?  

Maybe. But we’re going to have to return to a practice we used to have in Minnesota: trustfully talking politics with each other.  That won’t be easy.

Wy Spano has been involved in Minnesota political life for over 40 years, as a newsletter editor, commentator, lobbyist, grad school teacher, and citizen activist.

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