Monday, August 01, 2011

Looking At The Debt Ceiling Deal And Why Liberals Are Such Terrible Negotiators


During the1970’s I worked as a labor union business agent and organizer for a large union that represented white-collar employees. One of the responsibilities of the job was to negotiate contracts for members who were represented by the union. When I was preparing to negotiate a contract I would hold a series of meetings with employees to formulate a union contract proposal.

The initial proposal by union members usually ended up being a wish list. I knew from the beginning that many of items in the proposal would eventually be changed through negotiations, paired down, compromise or eliminated. Before I began negotiations it was important to identify the items in the union’s proposal that were sacred cows, or items that the union and its membership felt were important enough to strike over. I knew that in the end the sacred cow items in the union proposal would not be acceptable to the company without a fight. It was imperative that if I wanted to be successful it would be necessary to make it known to the company that the union members were willing to strike to get the items they believed were sacrosanct and therefore absolutely necessary if we were to reach a final agreement without a work stoppage.

Ultimately the union’s success in negotiations was determined by the willingness of the membership, not the negotiator, to draw a line in the sand. I knew that the company’s fear of a shutdown of their business was the nuclear option in any negotiations. If the playing field is level and there is a credible threat that employees will strike, the employer will usually take the union’s demands seriously.  If there is no real threat of a strike they will not.

The problem often was that employees were not willing to strike. Employees would fain the idea of striking, but when the time came to exercise that power they would become fearful because of barrage of company propaganda about being replaced with scabs and the general lack of solidarity within the bargaining unit. It was every man or woman for himself or herself syndrome. The members would eventually cave in such situations and have to accept a union contract that often did not contain many of the important conditions they were demanding at the beginning of the negotiations. 

Two examples: There was a group of employees I represented who were not willing to strike for any reason to get what they wanted. When I began negotiations with the company the company knew this. The union’s position was weak and the company acted accordingly. Instead of collective bargaining the negotiations were reduced to collective begging and long-winded philosophical arguments.

In another negotiations the employees were quite militant and more than willing to strike to get what they considered important improvements in their wages and working conditions. Add to this the fact that the company, a container cargo shipping multinational, knew that if the union of clerks I represented stuck that the Long Shore Union and Teamsters would honor the picket line our union members set up. This would mean the loss of the ability of the company to do business and the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollar for each day the shutdown continued. The company was more then willing to be reasonable in negotiations, a labor stoppage was averted and the employees ended up with a contract that contained some of the best wages and working conditions for office workers on the West Coast. The company was not reasonable out of a kindness of heart. 

Liberals don’t exercise power very well. They hate conflict and love compromise. They shy away from anything that appears to require a knock down drag out fight. They want to get along to go along. Although these are honorable traits they do not impress greedy self interested men. Liberals are often not willing to stick their necks out when the going gets tough. They expect the other side to be reasonable. The other side, in this case Republicans and the tea party, are the polar opposite. They know that in order to get what you want you have to exercise, not just talk about power. Liberals often don't have the stomach for the fight or are too compromised by political correctness to be effective.

The real question is who really has the power in the given situation. An old union official I mentored under called it “the bullets”. “ You can’t get anything without the bullets” he would say.  I defined that as the ability to severely disable or destroy your opponent if necessary in order to get what you want. Exercising the real power you have effectively is the bottom line in any politically based negotiations, not using reasonableness or factual philosophical arguments that support your position.

You will not gain anything politically unless you are actually willing to exercise the real power you have as a union, political party or as an individual. Fear and an unwillingness to take action are not going to lead to change or favorable agreements. This is a basic tenet of politics and for some reason liberals for the most part seemed to have missed this fact somewhere along the line. Liberals are often more interested in electing personalities than people tough and principled enough to get the job done. LBJ didn’t have a pretty personality, but he understood how to use power. He also demanded party loyalty and solidarity.

Today, although the Democratic Party has a majority in the US Senate and a President in the white house they are really a splintered party. Progressives constantly talk about the weakness of Obama, meanwhile centrist and blue dog Democrats that are not really liberals vote with conservatives when the going gets tough. More interested in being reelected then being conceived as being liberal or progressive. Add to this the money it takes to get elected and the corporate control that it brings over politicians and you have turned the government and elections into a toxic cesspool. Although it would appear that Democrats control much, they don’t really have “the bullets”. It’s a mistake for Progressives to really think the Democratic Party will have the power and willingness to exercise it in the foreseeable future.

The President is certainly a centrist, conciliatory and a compromiser more then he is not and it would appear whether he has the power or not. But the real question is has he failed to exercise power when he has actually had it. It could be said that he has never had real power because he has always been dealing with a party that has been splintered and factional.  Frankly I believe that many so called Progressives don’t often understand the legislative processes as they are now constituted or the arcane rules that make it more difficult to really control the ultimate outcome and success of legislation, especially with a weakened and disorganized party without much discipline and where many Democrats are really moderate Republicans.

In retrospect, it probably is true that Democrats would've had a better chance of passing a budget and raising the debt ceiling in the lame duck session of 2010 when they numerically controlled majorities in both the House and Senate. They did not do this apparently because they were afraid of the fight, and the perceived controversy that such a fight would've caused in the minds of the voters. In the end it didn’t matter, because their fear of using the power they presumably had versus their desire to appear reasonable and uncontroversial ended up bringing about the electoral debacle of 2010 that strengthened the Republicans and the radical tea party's power over the Congress we find ourselves stuck with today.

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