Why organized labor should join with entrepreneurs to bust the corporate monopolies threatening them both.
Last August, on a blazing-hot Nebraska evening, I sat in a cool hotel bar in downtown Omaha and listened as a team of Dockers-clad union organizers joked, drank, and argued their way into an alliance with a group of southern and western ranchers. The organizers, from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), made a simple argument: Meat-packing houses like JBS and Smithfield— their already immense power swelled from years of mergers—are using their dominance of cattle markets to hammer down what they pay for beef and for in-house unionized meatcutters. So rather than “scrap over nickels,” perhaps the ranchers and workers should lock arms and fight for bigger stakes.
Cowboys and labor? Plotting together? Polo shirt and bolo tie? In recent years, the two groups have, on occasion, signed the same statements against foreign trade. But closer to home, ranchers and unions have tended to view one another as rivals for the same wafer-thin slice of the retail dollar— and as parties on opposite ends of a gaping cultural divide. “It wasn’t easy,” one union organizer summed it up recently. “In recent years, we have not been friends.”
Yet half a year on, it’s evident that the alliance was no momentary fling, no mere “enemy of my enemy” excuse to clink a few beer bottles before stumbling back to opposite ends of the political corral. When the Justice Department held a series of hearings last year on concentration in agriculture markets, including cattle, the UFCW helped to pack the room for the cattlemen’s testimony, one of the only times in recent decades that an American labor union has promoted stronger enforcement of anti-monopoly law.
And in exchange? While in that room, the UFCW got a chance to make the case that the trustbusters should take on Walmart. The union views the retailing goliath as the main force smashing down the wages and benefits of the retail workers the union represents. More to the point, the union has also come to view Walmart as the real power driving the big meatpackers’ assault on both cattlemen and packinghouse workers. (The basic thinking here is that Walmart now controls such a giant swath of the U.S. marketplace that it can dictate prices even to the biggest of suppliers, which leaves less money in the system for the people who actually produce goods and provide labor.)
Ever since Scott Walker and the Republican Party of Wisconsin set out to bust the public-sector unions in that state, one of the biggest questions in American politics has been whether organized labor, seventy-five years after winning a seat at the mahogany table, is about to get the bum’s rush. And if so, what does this mean for the Democratic Party and for popular politics in general?
Yet the future may be brighter than even the most optimistic of union members hope. If, that is, the UFCW’s example inspires the rest of organized labor to open its eyes to the political and economic dangers posed by the radical consolidation evident in most sectors of America’s political economy over the last generation. Doing so would give organized labor a far more complete and sophisticated grasp of how the few exert power over the many in America today. And it would arm organized workers with a message that enables them to reach out to all sorts of economic groups that now tend to oppose labor politically—not least America’s independent entrepreneurs.
In a recent editorial, the Wall Street Journal urged GOP operatives to attack the “monopoly power” of unions to win votes and undermine popular political structures. If organized workers respond in kind, and attack the monopoly power of actual monopolists—the people who pose real threats to the economic and political well-being of the great majority of Americans—maybe they too would win some votes. Better yet, maybe they could begin to undermine the ideological and institutional foundations of the very groups that are now using both major parties to organize the assault against labor.
The idea that labor is doomed to imminent irrelevance has become an accepted truth of American politics. The story of labor’s long decline has been told and retold so often that the blunt numbers—unionization has fallen from about a third of all non-farm workers to less than 10 percent—have lost much of their power to shock.
This story of decline and fall is built on two main arguments. First, that labor began to lose political clout long ago. At the level of the party, this is certainly true. Organized labor’s relationship with the GOP was tenuous even at the best of times, and Ronald Reagan all but drove unions from the party in 1981. Labor’s problems with Democrats, meanwhile, date to the 1960s, when younger activists began to break ranks with workers. The usual take here focuses on the rise of the New Left and political fights over the Vietnam War. But the breach was also philosophical. In the 1970s, a number of left-leaning economists and a new breed of consumer activists associated with groups like the Consumers Union tended to view the wages of organized labor as a cost to drive down, rather than an achievement to prop up.
The second argument is simply that times have changed— that immense and irresistible forces have destroyed the economic environment that first gave birth to big labor. According to this theory, unionism requires great assembly lines and industrial campuses to grow and thrive. But globalization and technological advance have done away with these forever. As a reporter for that bastion of left liberalism, Mother Jones, put it recently, “Unions, for better or worse, are history.”
But is this really so?
For starters, the idea that popular support for collective bargaining has dropped dramatically is simply not true. Perhaps the most fascinating fact to emerge from the battle in Wisconsin is that support for unions was far stronger and more widespread than party leaders have assumed. This is true even when unions represent public-sector workers, and even among citizens who identify themselves as Republicans.
Meanwhile, the idea that globalization and technology have scoured away the soil in which unions grow is even harder to defend. On the contrary, millions of American citizens continue to labor in highly commodified jobs—as teachers, nurses, bus drivers, maids, janitors, home care workers— largely untouched by either of these factors. If anything, entirely new pockets of the American workforce—ones that don’t necessarily enjoy collective bargaining rights, narrowly defined—now stand in desperate need of collective bargaining power. As the cattlemen can attest, when a single packer captures control over an entire market, even the most self-reliant of ranchers can become just as subject to the arbitrary whims of a local boss as any salaried worker.
The American people, in other words, still want unions. And the American people still stand to benefit from unions.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.