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In Colorado, Labor Reform Has Created a Huge Rift on the Left

Sharp divisions between labor unions and reformers threaten to tear apart the Democratic Party in the Centennial State.

For quite a few years now, there's been a conflict simmering within the Democratic Party on the subject of public education. That conflict boiled over at the recent Democratic state assembly in Colorado, revealing sharp divisions between labor unions and reformers. How deep is this rift, and does it threaten to tear apart the Democratic Party?

Generally speaking, "labor" and "reform" have been strong and competing factions within the Democratic coalition for decades. Many of the party's major primary battles since the 1950s have been between urban political machines of one form or another, who often rely upon labor unions for election day activity, and suburban reform movements designed to undermine those machines. Unions are not as powerful a political force as they once were, but they remain influential within many state Democratic parties. In particular, while many unionized manufacturing jobs have disappeared over the decades, teachers unions have become increasingly prominent.

Jonathan Ladd penned an important post on this topic at Mischiefs of Faction a few years back. As he noted, teachers' union members are an unusually active and vital component of the Democratic coalition, comprising substantial percentages of party activists and convention delegates. They also had, as of a few years ago, more reason to be dissatisfied with the Democratic Party than most other unions did given the Obama administration's embrace of more traditionally conservative education goals such as expanding charter schools, limiting teacher tenure, and using student test scores to evaluate teachers. (See this excellent piece by Christina Wolbrecht and Michael Hartney on the major parties' recent shifts on educational priorities.)

Those shifts have been championed by a number of reform organizations, which compete with teachers unions both for influence in policymaking and for control of Democratic nominations. One of the more powerful education reform organizations in recent years is Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a well-funded national organization with a strong chapter in Colorado. (Two of its nine national advisory board members are recent leaders of Colorado state legislative chambers, and another is a former statewide elected official there.)

Within Colorado's Democratic Party, the labor reform split has grown particularly deep, and candidates often have a difficult time winning the support of one group if they have support from the other. Colorado's current Democratic gubernatorial nomination race has been defined by competing education factions.

So the eruption of these issues at the recent Colorado Democratic State Assembly was perhaps inevitable. At that convention, a group of Denver political activists introduced a platform plank proposal saying the following: "We oppose making Colorado's public schools private or run by private corporations or becoming segregated again through lobbying and campaigning efforts of the organization called Democrats for Education Reform and demand that they immediately stop using the party's name Democrat in their name."

This is a pretty classic example of party factions arguing over just what it means to be a member of that party. Here, union activists are claiming that DFER is not truly a Democratic organization and cannot use the "D" part of its name.

Jennifer Walmer, the director of Colorado's DFER chapter, took to the stage to defend herself and her organization, saying that she's only ever voted and campaigned for Democrats. The delegates nonetheless voted for the plank, which is now part of the state Democratic platform. It is difficult to know just how much legal power this platform plank contains or whether the party is prepared to enter courtrooms to defend it, but as a symbolic statement it could not be much clearer. DFER has pushed back, claiming that they "aren't going anywhere."

Does this rift threaten to split apart the Democratic Party? It's useful to remember that the activists who attend a state party convention represent only a sliver of the people who will vote in the primary, no less those that will vote in the general election. But these activists are the ones who make the key decisions about what the party does and does not stand for.

The real test, in Colorado at least, will come during and after the June gubernatorial primary. Will the party nominate a candidate who is aligned with the teachers unions, one aligned with DFER, or someone else? And what will happen to the losing faction? Will they continue to organize and vote for their party's nominee, or will they bolt, or stay home in the fall?

The key lesson here is that the Democratic Party is not simply unified by its opposition to Donald Trump. Democrats are arguing among themselves about real policy issues that stand to have a significant impact on the way teaching is done in the states. In the process, they're defining what it means to be a Democrat.