May/June 2011 The Real Enemy of Unions

Why organized labor should join with entrepreneurs to bust the corporate monopolies threatening them both.

By Barry C. Lynn

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.

Barry C. Lynn directs the Markets, Enterprise, and Resiliency Initiative at the New America Foundation.


  • Lou Siegel on May 13, 2011 10:23 AM:

    Great ideas Barry, but your piece lacks sensitivity about the enormous pressure unions face every day just to survive.

    Look, for example, at the Communications Workers of America active support for the AT&T / Team-Mobile merger, hoping that the anti-union Team-Mobile can be organized as a result.

    It's not that labor leaders don't understand the consequences of concentrated corporate power, it's just that, in the face of extinction, they're compelled to take expedient action.

    So please don't accuse us of failing to connect the dots.

    Make your case persuasively without condescension and you'll find a tremendously receptive audience at all levels of the labor movement.

  • fig8jam on May 17, 2011 4:05 PM:

    Great article Barry.

    Wondering if it will be pulled however, since Susan Chambers the ExecVP of WalMart sits on the Leadership Council of the New America Foundation.

    I think you did a good job of explaining how the monied interests/oligarchs in the country have successfully aligned and split the common laborer into two different camps so that they are opposing themselves to the benefit of big business.

    Reminds, me of the Southern Strategy.

    If we agree that this is about money and power we also know that the unions have an uphill battle convincing white collar they need to align with blue collar workers and that small businesses need to align with labor to ensure an open and competitive market.

    However, Governor Scott Walker and Governor Daniels have done a lot to take off the blinders in their states and show the teachers, nurses, and others just what side their bread is buttered on. This should make the unions job easier in 2012.

    Obama would be an individual who would sign a new low against these major conglomerates usurping the free market.

    Capitalism can't thrive with monopolies.

    Let's hope that 2012 is the beginning of major legislative acts that redesign and align the America market place in favor of labor and small businesses.

  • Robert Searle on May 18, 2011 11:56 AM:

    I think my project maybe of interest in connection with all this.


  • Norma Rae on June 12, 2011 1:38 PM:

    The ongoing travesty of this country is that too many people are too stupid to vote their own economic interests. What we need is a law to help union organizers encourage people to vote for unions. One good idea would be to give people a union card and ask them to sign it. Anybody who refuses to sign it, we will know immediately is a scab. We can then bring all kinds of encouragement for the scabs to vote for the union, like "gee, it would be a shame if something should fall on your head while you're working". Or we could visit their homes at night and talk to their children about it. Or we could just beat the crap out of them. Whatever. And if any of those filthy Republicans accuse us of intimadation, we can just say "who, us? we would never do that!" This is the kind of stuff our national unions need to favor.

  • John on June 23, 2011 6:04 PM:

    Many economists believe that a strong economy has a large middle class. In the modern society, that is skilled labor and small to medium business. They are the biggest contributor to a strong economy because of the number of them and because of their disposeable income. Without their spending, the economy suffers. An intelligent economy, indirectly managed by big business leaders and government leaders recognizes the economic sustainability of these two groups and control their own greed to maintain the financial balance of power. Of course, big labor must do the same. With capitalism, business can price themselves out of business and labor can price themselve out of a job.

  • Jessica Zembala on June 23, 2011 8:15 PM:

    John on June 23, 2011 6:04 PM:

    "Many economists believe that a strong economy has a large middle class."

    You know, Joe, you are so right. Your point reminds me of a story. During WWII, Americans built airstrips in the jungles of many aboriginal South Sea islands and brought in wealth beyond imagination of many of the South Sea islanders they encountered. When the war ended, these islanders wondered what went wrong when the Americans went home and the flow of wealth stopped. To address the issue of the missing wealth, they built airstrips of their own, and just waited for the planes to land. When they didn't land, they even constructed mockups of airplanes out of bamboo and palm fronds, kind of to attract airplanes. Your economic theories, would be much admired by these South Sea islanders.