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

The traditional goals of organized labor—democracy, liberty, rule of law, the economic independence of the individual citizen, and the protection of property (in the form of labor)—do not differ all that much from the dreams that animate most small business owners and most farmers. (Or, for that matter, most members of the Tea Party.) Nor do many of these same business owners and farmers (or, for that matter, most members of the Tea Party) object to the fundamental idea behind organized labor—that individual citizens, to protect themselves and their families and their communities from impoverishment and autocracy, must link arms with one another.

Yet in recent decades, as the same concentrations of power that have been used to deprive workers of their most basic rights have also been used to deprive small business owners of their economic liberties and properties, organized labor has chosen to look away, largely because these neighbors, cousins, and brothers stood beneath a red banner rather than a blue.

Organized labor, in other words, violated the first rule of solidarity. By failing to understand the powers arrayed against their fellow citizens, by failing to reach out to their own neighbors, by failing to lock arms within their own communities, labor made it easier for the powerful few to split organized workers away from their own allies.

America’s independent entrepreneurs desperately need an organized brain to help them make sense of the dangers they perceive. Labor, meanwhile, retains an institutional capacity to think, but has lost the ability to see. If organized labor learns once more to open its eyes, learns again how to talk to its own neighbors about the powers that surround and threaten us all—then who knows what new coalitions can be built, and what power can be concentrated in the name of the people.

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.