Wednesday, December 12, 2012

We do have a dog in the Michigan fight

The union movement built prosperity and solidarity

Membership in organized labor has been declining for years. The largest industrial unions have gone the way of rustbelt industries, declining and nearly disappearing. The public sector unions that held the line through the last part of the 20th century have suffered significant losses during the Great Recession and its aftermath, and teachers' unions in particular have suffered from right-wing attacks that have accompanied the education reform movement. The passage this week of a right-to-work law in Michigan may be part of the continuing decline, but ought to raise new alarms on the American left.

There are plenty of critiques of unions in the mainstream press, so none of those will be linked here. Readers can hunt them down easily enough. Yes, union leaders are sometimes too cozy with power, especially in states and cities. And, yes, union leaders sometimes get too comfortable with the perks of their own power.

But so do progressives who get elected to public office or settle into tenure track positions at major universities. But they do not stop being politically progressive simply because they compromise or, even, overindulge. Neither do unions. The point is that regardless of what unions and their leaderships sometimes do to deserve criticism, progressives need to recognize that to err in some of these familiar ways is both all too human and ought not be an obstacle to progressive solidarity with labor.

I've written before about the need for the left to completely embrace the union movement; twice when I was working for In These Times ("Labor's Future is Ours" and "When Mainstream Media Tells Labor Stories"), and several posts on this blog (many of which can be found here).

Now, Harold Meyerson, one of the few mainstream media columnists with a true appreciation of the value of organized labor, has written an instructive column in the Washington Post, "The Lansing-Beijing connection," on how right-to-work laws undermine prosperity and increase inequality. "[A]n exhaustive study by economist Lonnie K. Stevens of Hofstra University found states that have enacted such laws reported no increase in business start-ups or rates of employment. Wages and personal income are lower in those states...Stevens concluded, though proprietors' incomes are higher," Meyerson wrote.

Everyone who embraces the goals of reducing income and wealth inequality in the United States and globally ought to be embracing labor organizing, as well. Jobs with Justice, a national organization founded to be a bridge between non-union progressives and the labor movement, is one way to get moving on this. Also, check out labor writer David Moberg's interview with Larry Cohen, organizing director for the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and a founder of Jobs with Justice.


  1. One problem that I haven't seen addressed much, though that's probably just because I'm not reading the right folks, is the class-and-generational divide among lefties on this issue. I feel like most of the young, well-off left-wing people I speak to don't see much role in their lives for organized labor, even though they may appreciate its electoral assistance every 2-4 years.

    Patrick Ruffini, a conservative activist I hate-read on Twitter, made an interesting point recently: why aren't Democratic campaign staffs unionized? My guess is that it's because historically, unions don't organize white-collar professions as readily as blue-collar ones, and campaign staffs are low-paid but white-collar nonetheless.

    In a world of moderate income inequality, even people in the upper middle class would commonly have some connection in their personal lives to organized labor: their parents would have worked in factories, their siblings in the public sector, and so on. But today, you can't get into the upper echelons of the middle class without having been born there already, which puts a lot of yuppies like myself at a personal remove from unions. I've never been represented by one, nor have my parents (not really) and don't expect to be at any point in my life, and the same is true of most of my friends and their families.

    I think this is important insofar as it helps even people not personally a part of the labor movement realize its importance. If your friends, neighbors, loved ones are in a union, it's much easier for you to see why they're valuable. By contrast, if you associate unions only with rust-belt factory workers and sclerotic big-city teachers unions, you're not going to have a very high opinion of them, and that seems like it leads to a lot of ancillary problems.

  2. Hey, Abe. Your concerns are worth exploring at much greater length, but I don't have any quick answers and most of what I think I know comes from anecdotal experiences of my own. To really get to the heart of the matter, I think we need to begin by asking ourselves more questions, including some that I sort of glossed over when I wrote this piece in the first place.

    How big is the Left to begin with? How much of that Left, youthful, privileged or otherwise, doesn't understand how important organized labor is? What does labor do to reach out to them or to erect barriers?

    More questions: How else are we divided? Race, gender, sexual orientation and narrow issue focus come to mind, as well.

    What role might elections play in building greater unity? How much of the Left sits out elections, especially state and local elections? That number, I suspect, is huge, and could swing lots of elections that are currently won by right-wingers and fundamentalists. Increased Left participation in those elections could address tactical problems like gerrymandered districts, disproportionate conservative domination in state legislatures and their obvious consequences--like right-to-work laws, voter ID laws and more.

    I'm going to e-mail these questions around to others who might have some piece of the answers. I'll keep you in the loop.