Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 17, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

LEFTIES, LIBERALS, AND UNIONS....Comrade Max explains the difference between leftists and liberals over at his place. I mostly agree with him, and I am, of course, a liberal, not a leftist, both by his definition and my own. There are, in my view, simply too many parts of leftist orthodoxy that have been tried in various countries and found wanting. They may sound good, but if they don't work, they don't work. Time to move on.

On one subject, though, I'm perhaps more left than liberal, and it's an important one: unions. As Max puts it, "For liberals, labor is just another 'interest group,'" and I think he's right. I'm frequently disheartened by the number of liberals I know who actively dislike unions and think of them as obstructive, militant, and unnecessary. Strikes are usually perceived often unfairly as the union's fault, rather than equally the fault of management intransigence.

The reality, as Max says, is that "Unionization is an anti-poverty program," and while I don't elevate labor to a "central place in social transformation," I do think unions are a vital part of raising people out of poverty and creating both a fairer society and a thriving middle class.

Sure, unions can go too far. So can corporations. So can everyone. But obsessing solely on their weaknesses misses the larger point: the best way to raise people out of poverty is for them to work together to insist on higher wages in the first place, not to pay them starvation wages and then have the government make up the difference in food stamps and earned income credits.

Unfortunately, current federal law is so hostile to unionization activities that the entire movement seems stuck in time. Old unions are still around teachers, government workers, etc. even though they've mostly served their purpose and often seem reduced to a dogged and unpopular insistence that no one ever be fired no matter what the cause. At the same time, desperately needed new unions retail, janitors, service industries are hellishly hard to get organized. So the public view of unions is largely one of coddled workers who make a pretty good living and continue to demand ever more, while the genuinely poor who need unions are shut out.

I don't have any answers for this, unfortunately. Maybe Max can chime in.

Kevin Drum 10:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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