Election 2004

by Dave Riehle


This article is addressed mainly to readers in the Minnesota labor movement. The author is active as a trade unionist in St. Paul , Minnesota . The general point of the article, however, is applicable nationwide—that is, where unions are weak, Bush won out; where unions are stronger, Bush went down. Conclusion: make unions stronger; organize the unorganized.—The Editors

The just-concluded presidential election is now grist for the mill of the pundits and professors who are happy to tell us what it really meant. As if the nearly two-year-long presidential campaign wasn’t punishment enough!

The dominant theme of the editorial page wiseguys is that “moral values” were the touchstone of the voters, and that “social conservatives” prevailed. An important, and ominous, underlying message (let us assume that in this case the wish is father to the thought) is that organized labor has lost its ability to influence its constituency.

According to this version, the old blue-collar Democratic Party of FDR and Harry Truman has been replaced by an effete cadre of peace-mongering, gun-hating, and gay-marriage-promoting urban liberals. The union leaders, the pundits say, are out of touch with their members. The union leaders supported John Kerry, the losing candidate, and the banner carrier for such irrelevant concerns, which equals, in this analysis, four political flat tires for labor. The fact that Kerry’s positions on these and other issues were virtually indistinguishable from those associated with President Bush does not deflect these “analysts” from their appointed conclusions.

A closer review of election statistics now and in the past, I believe, presents another picture with far different, and far more optimistic, implications and possibilities for labor.

The larger assumption in the pundits’ pundificating is that in every election the voting (and nonvoting) public presents a clean slate to the candidates, to be filled in with “moral values,” or some other slippery category. This is a gross oversimplification, not to say an outright distortion of the actual dynamics of voting in the U.S. In this election, at least according to official results, the popular vote was 51% for Bush and 48% for Kerry. The undeniable statistical conclusion is that a 2–3% shift in the vote would have changed the outcome of the election, almost as though the final decision were to be made by a toss of the coin. This hardly adds up to a decisive referendum on “moral values” or anything else.

First, the truth is that both major parties have large and relatively stable blocs of voting supporters. That is why they are “major parties.” In recent decades the outcome of presidential elections has been determined by a shifting “center” of 5–10%, often less, with the major parties retaining their core support election after election. Most of these generalizations about what the election “meant,” then, concern the preoccupations and moods of an unstable and numerically marginal “center” group whose votes are influenced by factors like “moral concerns,” mostly manufactured out of whole cloth by the media, the politicians, and the big money behind them. Of course the size of this “center” vote fluctuates up and down by degrees along with whatever portion of the eligible electorate actually turns out to vote, usually between 50–60% nationally. The “center” could easily be outvoted if one of the Big Two got another 3–5% of their regular supporters out to vote. That was obviously organized labor’s strategy. The AFL-CIO reports that 24% of the electorate this time around were union members—double the representation in the population at large—while the Republicans sought to sandbag those they saw as potential Kerry voters, and to whip up their latent “moralists” to get out and vote down gay marriage.

The big engines in elections, however, remain the two major parties and their permanent supporters. Underlying this rather obvious factor are others, more related to economics and class that should especially concern the labor movement.

Let’s look at Minnesota. Six counties tallied votes of about 60% or more for Kerry. Ranked in percentile order of their Kerry vote totals, they are: (1) St Louis County, (2) Ramsey, (3) Carlton, (4) Mower, (5) Lake and (6) Hennepin.

What do these counties have in common, other than that they are all in Minnesota? Two adjacent counties, Hennepin and Ramsey, of course make up the core of the Twin Cities metro area, which contains an absolute majority of the state’s population. Three others are also contiguous to one another, St. Louis, Lake, and Carlton counties. The state’s third largest city, Duluth, is in St. Louis County. And then there is Mower County, all by itself down by the Iowa border.

Let’s try putting on a labor filter and taking another look. Each of these six counties has an exceptionally strong union base among its population, and, more than that, they have generations-old traditions of labor political action.

Carlton, St. Louis, and Lake are overwhelmingly rural counties that essentially encompass the heavily unionized Minnesota Iron Range and the industrial cities of Duluth and Cloquet. Cloquet unions have celebrated Labor Day with a picnic and parade for some 80 years, a longer unbroken stretch than any other Minnesota location. This should not be minimized as simply the persistence of some quaint and charming tradition from a different time. Fundamentally what underlies this is the undoubted fact that the labor movement there has continuously intervened in public life in these northeastern counties in a demonstrative way for most of the past century.

The Twin Cities urban areas, besides having the state’s largest concentration of union membership, also contain by far the largest minority groups, both in terms of percentage and absolute numbers. Among African Americans, the proportion of union membership is nearly double that of the majority population, and the mass institutions that enroll African Americans—union, civil rights, religious—are usually closely aligned on social and political issues.

Then there is Mower County. Do Geo. A Hormel and Local P-9 ring a bell? The mighty struggles of the Hormel workers, from their original sit-down strike in 1933 to the landmark strike in 1985-86, have done their work over generations in forging an indelible labor political consciousness in that mostly rural county. Next door, in Freeborn County, packinghouse workers at the Wilson Co. built a sister union in Albert Lea, beginning in the 1930s. That county went for Kerry with 55%.

Other counties with a similar pattern are Winona and Blue Earth counties, anchored by the regional centers of Winona and Mankato, also with strong and active labor movements.

Western Minnesota counties such as Norman, Lac Qui Parle, Swift, and Stevens, with traditions imbedded in the struggles of militant farmers, from the Non-Partisan League, to the Farm Holiday to the National Farmers Organization in the 1960s, also delivered majorities for Kerry.

Surely these counties, both heavily urbanized and rural, did not vote in their majorities the way they did because of some harmony of outlook on “moral values,” religion, the Second Amendment, or, it is probably safe to say, the war in Iraq.

What these votes expressed is the impact of those sectors of the population most influenced by the recommendations of the labor movement (and certain farm and agricultural organizations as well), and the broader sections of the population that they in turn affect. This is not to say that other factors did not impinge on the outcome of the election, too. A large and active stratum of urban liberals weighed in heavily for the Democrats, especially in the Twin Cities. And a substantial number of workers and union members voted for Bush.

The AFL-CIO reported, for example, that Kerry lost nationally among white men by 61–38%, yet among white male union members he carried by 21%. In the Black metropolis of Washington, DC, Bush lost by 89–90%.

The Minnesota regional and county voting pattern has persisted for many generations. It is not ephemeral and it is not fundamentally disrupted by changing political winds. And it has analogs in every state.

Much has been made, for example, of the remarkable conformity of a map of the pre-Civil War free and slave states to an overlay map of 2004 voting patterns—the states that went for Kerry are almost an exact duplication of the free states and territories of 1860, and the old South and the territories that were open to slavery went to Bush. This is in fact quite a striking juxtaposition of images, and, further, one that is not accidental. But what does it mean? That the South is more “backward”? That it is less educated?

Not really. It reflects the more circumscribed influence of the labor movement in the former Confederacy. Looking at a national map of 2004 election patterns in the deep South, it is obvious that a majority vote for Kerry—that is, the vote the unions campaigned for—is focused primarily in two areas: along both banks of the Mississippi River as it flows between Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Mississippi, where petro-chemical and other unionized industries are concentrated, and through the industrial and mining belt in central Alabama, again an area with a history of industrial unionism extending back through the last century. Kerry’s counties in Louisiana lay almost entirely along the banks of the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, a dense concentration of refineries and shipyards.

The problem in the South is not that they are dumber than we are.  The continuing oppression of Black and white labor (the South is uniformly “Right-to-Work”) is expressed vividly in the statistics for union density (the percentage of union members among the employed nonagricultural population). In Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina the numbers are 6.1%, 9.8%, 3.7% and 3.7%. Yet North Carolina has the highest proportion of industrial workers to the general population of any state.

By contrast, in Minnesota, which had the highest voter turnout in the country (77%), union density was 18.4% in year 2000. In national ranking of union density Minnesota is in a three-way tie for fourth place among industrialized states.

In terms of labor strategy it is crucial to realize that the working class voting pattern discussed here is only superficially a “”Democrat” vote—rather it is a class and trade union vote, that is, a vote that follows the recommendations of organized labor. What has diminished it in terms of exacting electoral majorities is not the weakening of the ability of organized labor to influence its constituency, but de-industrialization. Minnesota’s union density in 1964 was more than double what it was in 2000. It went from 37% in 1964 to 18.4% in 2000. Michigan went from 44.8% to 21%. Alabama went from 21% to 9%. The message is unmistakable—we have to organize the unorganized to strengthen labor. Anything else is putting the cart before the horse.

The class nature of 20th century voting by workers (and working farmers) is very clear especially when viewed through the lenses of Minnesota’s unique political history, because the dominant party among workers in this state for 25 years during the middle 20th century was not the Democratic Party—it was the Farmer Labor Party (FLP). Only after the unions participated in the merger of the Farmer Labor Party into the state Democratic Party during World War II did workers shift their political support.

In 1932, when the FLP’s Floyd B. Olson swept to victory in the governor’s race (the same year Franklin Roosevelt was first elected), the Democratic gubernatorial candidate got only 16.1% of the vote cast. This was the consistent pattern from 1919, when the Minnesota State Federation of Labor struck out on the third party path by creating the Working People’s Non-Partisan League. For the next quarter century the Democrats were a feeble third-place party, rarely getting over 10% of the vote in statewide elections.

So which is the tail and which is the dog? Who is the wagger and who is the waggee? It should be quite clear, to borrow another animal metaphor, that without organized labor the Democratic Party would be a dead donkey. Yet, although labor is formally independent of the Dems, most in labor are convinced that labor can only prosper if its political “friends” (Democrats mostly) are in public office. “Reward your friends and punish your enemies,” recommended Samuel Gompers, the master of a pungent phrase.

But the problem is, our enemies are punishing us, and our “friends” are standing by with folded arms, as we hope, pray, mobilize, and vote for a savior to lead us out of the wilderness. If there is one thing that ought to be clear from the election, it is that is not going to happen.

Labor’s fate has always been decided on the picket lines and in the streets, by workers muscling in on the prerogatives of the bosses. Back in the late 1930s the New Yorker magazine ran a famous, and often reprinted cartoon, as a wave of worksite occupations rolled across the country after the great victory by the autoworkers at Flint, Michigan. It shows a fat capitalist in his nightgown at his bedside, kneeling down for his evening prayer and imploring, “Please don’t let them sit down in my factories!”

What we need more than ever is a movement, confrontational, aggressive, and inspirational. History, properly understood, should teach us that course of action won’t isolate us, which is what they want us to think—it will bring the unorganized to their feet. And the outlines of it are right there on the election map, if looked at through the right prism. The best-kept secret of Election 2004 is not that “America” is moving to the right, but that workers are stickin’ with the union.