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June 07, 2012 1:04 PM Losing A World They Barely Knew Existed

By Ed Kilgore

Today’s must-read, depressing as it is, is Rich Yeselson’s meditation at TNR on the steady decades-long decline of the labor movement as a dominant feature of the U.S. economy, and the consequent losses—economic and political—that have ensued for working people, whether or not they belonged to unions. Rich, as some of you know, is a long-time labor activist and writer who has contributed on occasion to the Monthly (including PA). Here’s a taste:

It’s not that unions can’t win a defensive fight. Ohio proved otherwise—a resounding 23 percent rollback of an anti-collective bargaining measure for public employees similar to that enacted in Wisconsin. (Alec MacGillis has discussed some of the reasons why Ohio’s results differed from those in Wisconsin.) And it’s not as if unions don’t still have significant political strength. Barack Obama and other Democrats need the union household vote (roughly 25 percent of the electorate) to vote Democratic at its customary 60 to 65 percent in several key Midwestern states (and Nevada, too) in order to win.
No, the real underlying story is that unions are losing their institutional legitimacy in modern America. The problem isn’t that most people hate unions. The problem for unions is that most people don’t care about them, or think about them, at all.
Today…with several notable exceptions—the housekeeping workers in Las Vegas’s casinos, the UPS drivers, the hotel workers of New York City, pockets of militancy among the Latino immigrant community in Los Angeles—the sources of union strength are diminished. Membership is much smaller and declining, workers aren’t aggressively seeking to join unions. And the most famous union president today is probably the recently retired Andy Stern of SEIU. Stern has had a 60 Minutes segment dedicated to him, and has been featured in major magazine profiles; he was a frequent visitor to the Obama White House; he is smart and dynamic. But how many Americans today know who Stern is? Five percent? That many? The fact is, the SEIU, as resourceful and influential as it is, can’t make a serious claim to power over the American economy—janitors and nurse’s aides today can’t bring the economy to a halt, as autoworkers, steel workers, and truckers could claim to be able to do in the 1950s….
Several days ago, Joe Nocera, the New York Times columnist, expressed a mild astonishment that unions just might be part of the solution to income inequality in this country. Nocera acknowledged that he was from a union town, Providence, and had two parents who were unionized teachers. But, as he noted, (without even a nod to the standards of the Newspaper Guild, from which he has benefited), “….I have never been a member of a union, and I viewed them with mild disdain.”
It’s this head scratching perplexity about the very point of unions—not the corporate and rightwing anti-labor rage, which is eternal—that is snuffing unions out like the air. Decline has begot decline in an endless feedback loop—the workers don’t have familial or community links to unions anymore and, thus, do not think unions are, even potentially central to their lives; the middle class professionals and writers aren’t, via the genuine power of a Hoffa or Reuther and their membership, exposed to a culture of union power anymore; and the politicians aren’t nearly as dependent on the money and votes of union members.

This take on the increasing psychological invisibility of unions resonates with me a great deal, since I’m from the Deep South, where at least during my adult lifetime unions were exceptionally weak (I attended public schools that began classes each year on Labor Day as an expression of contempt for unions) except for a few pockets of support, and were not (at least in Georgia) much of a factor even in Democratic politics. The Wisconsin struggle remains mysterious, no doubt, to many southerners, since with a few exceptions public employees have never had collective bargaining rights to begin with. And the hateful anti-union politics of, say, South Carolina’s Nikki Haley are only an exaggeration of a traditional political culture where working-class people were forever told their jobs depended on their communities’ ability to undercut “overpriced” yankee unionized busineses.

There once was a time, and not that long ago, when progressive southerners viewed such attitudes as vestiges of a soon-to-be-transcended past, instead of a possible wave of the future in which a feudal deference to “job creators” becomes the norm everywhere. Despite the trends Yeselson outlines, it’s not impossible to change directions and outcomes. But he’s right that Americans who have benefitted from the labor movement—whether they are aware of it or not—“may grow to regret losing a world they barely knew existed.”

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • martin on June 07, 2012 1:22 PM:

    I think the most depressing and obnoxious thing I hear from upper middle class liberals is "Unions have outlived their purpose."

    If it were just something I hear in Alabama, I could ignore it, but too often "yankees" who should know better spout it despite what they can see around them everyday.

    I grew up in an anti-union household but joined a union when I was 18. I got to see the good and bad sides. And though I moved on decades ago, and the union I belonged to is all but dead, I still believe the Union does make us stronger.

  • Ron Byers on June 07, 2012 1:23 PM:

    What America needs right now is the 32 hour work week and a higher minimum wage. We won't get either because the Unions have been lead for over a generation by people who cared only about themselves. My experiences with labor unions early in my career were uniformly bad. I never encountered a single union leader who wasn't mostly worried about feathering his own nest. That kind of nonsense shows hence unions have been in a long decline. There have been no great labor leaders in the last several decades. That is the problem.

    Unions are going to have to prove their relevance again. Too bad they still don't have the leadership at the top to pull it off. They could be an important force behind curing the economey.

  • c u n d gulag on June 07, 2012 1:29 PM:

    If I were a union leader, I'd target the ONE business left today that's as important as the steel, auto, and RR industries were - if not more so.

    I'd work in increasing the number of union Telecommunications workers, nationwide - on the phones, and in the field.

    Can you imagine a strike by phone and field Telecommunications workers, and the effects on phones, cable TV, and the internet?

    Let management try to answer the phones, climb poles and get in bucket trucks, while the workers strike.

    You can't train a CSR in a day - except maybe to answer the phone and tell people to hold-on, take a message, or hang-up.
    With today's complicated billing systems, it takes WEEKS, if not a month, plus, for them to be more than adequate!

    And as for Field Technicians, the only thing you can teach them in a day is how to fall off a ladder or a roof, or how best to electrocute themselves, and anyone near them.
    To fully train a tech on voice, cable, and internet, MONTHS.

    Now, imagine pressure from TEN'S OF MILLIONS of households, screaming at the politicians locally and in DC to stop the strike?

    It would make any nationwide steel, auto, or RR strike, look like a vacation day at the beach.

    You want to make a statement by and for unions?
    Have solidarity if Verizon workers strike again.

    Telecommunications, like steel and RR's, are a NATIONAL security concern.

    I know, I worked in Cable TV and the Telecommunications fields as a trainer for almost two decades.

    There's NOTHING, not even the competition, that scares those companies more than unionization.
    And the spend millions of dollars, EACH, to teach management how to identify if a union has talked to employees, and how to stop the talk of unionization from spreading.

  • c u n d gulag on June 07, 2012 1:35 PM:

    Oh, and not just households - but EVERY business from a Mom & Pop shop to every Mega-Engulf-and-Devour Corporation, would feel the pain, and be screaming for someone to DO SOMETHING!
    Including Bain Capital!

    Concentrate on Telecmmunications.
    Get increases to salaries, benefits, and pensions.
    Or, STRIKE!

    Other people will quickly see how fast people and government will respond, and what a union CAN do!

  • stormskies on June 07, 2012 1:46 PM:

    The issue within this is very simple: the corporations and the repiglicans want to create a reality in which the worker has zero rights, and is at the mercy of the corporations or business's that hire them. Within that of course is the issue of the 99% having zero financial capacity to compete with all the corporate/ oligarchy money that is being used via the Citizens United to buy our country in order to make it a plutocracy and a fascist state American style.

  • Ron Byers on June 07, 2012 1:57 PM:

    stormskies, the problem is if Republicans get their way there will be too few people with the purchasing power needed to buy the stuff corporations produce.

    The Republican vision you correctly outline is a lose, lose for everybody including the 1%.

  • danimal on June 07, 2012 2:00 PM:

    Unions have been a ballast, a strong, silent support for workers throughout the nation, even in non-unionized workplaces. As labor unions continue to get picked off, run over and legislated out of existence, workers will have less and less institutional support for fair and just labor relations. Eventually the excesses and overreach of corporate America will tip the balance and the American workforce will re-embrace unionism, but I fear therewill be a lot of damage done in the interim.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on June 07, 2012 2:06 PM:

    This is what you get with 30+ years of refusing to stand up to bullies. Democrats everywhere should be ashamed and chastised.

  • TCinLA on June 07, 2012 3:22 PM:

    Sorry to say, the American labor movement brought this on themselves when they adopted the conservative Gompers strategy of concentrating on pay levels only, which resulted in the AFL being a crafts organization that limited membership. Then the CIO came along and they managed to become part of the problem right after passage of the Wagner Act, when they began using the Gompers strategy of being concerned with their members only. During World War 2, most of the unions opposed the Fair Employment Act and Roosevelt's executive order desegreating the war factories, not to mention opposing the entry of women into the labor force. After the war, in return for getting jobs for their returning members, they got stabbed in the back by their "allies" in management back during the war, when they got hit with Taft-Hartley Act and then Right-to-Work movement, which they never really fought back against. They spent the 50s and 60s sitting on their hands when it came to expanding unions into previously unionized fields (they hated Cesar Chavez). I recall an argument I had in 1967 with my cousin, a union official in the California International Association of Machinists, when he told me I shouldn't be opposed to the war because it was "creating lots of jobs" for his members. He didn't like it when I asked if the members were OK with sacrificing their sons to the Vietnam War to get all those jobs. I remember in 1973, when my then-boss, member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and then-chairman of the new California Coastal Commission, was poised to be the deciding vote that would have killed the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant on environmental damage grounds (since all proven by experience to have been right). He got a call from the head of the California AFL-CIO and was told that if he "killed all those jobs" he wouldn't get their support for the upcoming statewide race he was planning for State Controller.

    The American labor movement never looked beyond the end of its nose and has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity to do something that would actually promote the interests of the whole working class. This is entirely due to their lack of political education and political focus. The fact is the leadership of the AFL-CIO has been primarily ignorant political neanderthal morons, with few and far between exceptions to the rule like the Reuthers. Once they started "hating the hippies" and their members started voting Republican for "values", they were on the road to the destruction and irrelevance they have done to themselves.

    Anybody in the American labor movement who wants to look at where to place the blame for the current state of the American labor movement need look no further than the nearest mirror.

    I wish to hell it was otherwise. I'm a union member myself, and we had to remove the morons from our leadership just to get to a place where we could recognize reality in what kind of environment we are in.

  • jjm on June 07, 2012 3:33 PM:

    I say let's have a debtors' union that could go on strike re payments--say no one pays for just the amount of time that it wouldn't hurt their credit scores...

    One of the tricks used by big businesses is to quickly move people in menial jobs into being 'managers' -- more or less in name only. Then that person has to be anti-union.

  • c u n d gulag on June 07, 2012 3:39 PM:

    TCinLA,
    Nice history lesson, there.
    Thanks!

  • gdb on June 07, 2012 3:41 PM:

    Kilgore and TC are both right. I grew up in the 40's-50's in what was effectively South Georgia (aka Jacksonville, FL). Unions have had Gompers and other problems with policies and leadership (Google: Teamsters) for decades -- and need reform themselves if thay are to survive. However, Progressive and Liberal values, policies, and effective leadership is independent of unions and their problems.

    if BHO wins, it really is four more years of Blue Dog policies prevailing , at best, unless Dems have veto-proof majorities in both houses [Highly unlikely-- and not a goal of BHO to date. BHO's goal to date has been about getting BHO re-elected, policies and house majorities are much more minor considerations.] Galston or Kilgore the other day opined that a BHO win would begin major debate/turmoil among Dems. I think that's backward-- A BHO win once again quelches debate among Dems. Progressives will be told to shut up-- and almost all will. Just as some as you advocate above.

    If BHO loses, a quite-real possibility, that is what will really produce a debate among Dems who will form a circular firing squad. I'd bet heavily on Progressives prevailing in 2014 and especially 2016.

    I see no way for Progessives to prevail in 2014 and for years beyond with a BHO win in 2012. What are your winning scenarios??

  • 2Manchu on June 07, 2012 3:42 PM:

    LIstening to right-wing politicians and pundits, you'd think that every single problem in this country can be traced to the actions of four groups:

    "Liberals";
    "Unions";
    "Welfare recipients";
    and of course
    "Illegals".

  • Daniel Kim on June 07, 2012 3:54 PM:

    When I read about how American workers consider unions (as a concept, at least) as an irrelevancy, I sometimes hear an echo of the wealthy talking about how they made it for themselves, without help from the government. There is a similar amnesia that causes us to think that weekends, lunch breaks and reliable wages to be part of the natural order of things, just as the wealthy feel that enforceable contracts, roads and ports and an educated workforce are just part of the environment.

  • emjayay on June 07, 2012 6:09 PM:

    TCinLA: Yup. The inexcusable bad stuff you discussed constitutes the main image of unions to most people.

    The image of union leaders is that they are as thuggish as their uneducated members. Walker ads in Ohio talked about "union bosses", not workers. Union boss = fat cigar chomping expensive suit wearing Jimmy Hoffa/Mafioso jerk.

    When do you see unions in the news? When they organize a protest in favor of building some high rise where it doesn't belong because it would make jobs for their members. I've seen that sort of thing for decades. When unionized plants in Michigan close and reopen in Tenessee.

    When people (me anyway) see hotel workers striking for better pay and working conditions they think "great". There's nothing about them insisting on one maid to make the bed and one to vacuum and one to replace the towels, or insisting on full staffing of empty hotels or building more empty hotels so they have jobs.

    I think every worker deserves to be in a union. But not one that extracts high dues and acts the way they have too often in the past.

  • Doug on June 07, 2012 8:54 PM:

    I do have to agree with one word of PO,B's rant, although I don't think it was MEANT to be self-descriptive - the word "slob".
    Public union contract negotions may not be always open to the public, but the public CAN vote for (or against) any elected official who agrees to that contract. What pressure point does the public have over private companies that is in any way comparable? Boycotts? Perhaps if the workers are already striking for a union, but otherwise a boycott will simply further hurt those employed by the targeted company.
    For every misdeed by ANY union official, automatically trumpeted to the skies, by the way, one can find dozens of actions just as reprehensible, if not more so, by company management. Of course, as long as nobody DIES, it's not news. And really, unions are ONLY for those stuck in mind- and soul-killing manual jobs anyway. Certainly not someone who wears a tie to work and has to THINK! As if factory workers don't!
    Honestly, the snobbery billowing out of my monitor...

  • James M on June 08, 2012 6:17 AM:

    Great Posts (especially from cundgulag and TC as usual....)

    I was never a union member so I can not comment based on direct experience. However, I do have a decades old MBA. If you think unions are unimportant, spend some time in business school!

    I remember occasionally asking my classmates, "What about the workers?" regarding various hypothetical or case study situations. Without exception, my classmates looked at me like I was nuts. I might as well have been asking about the state of life on Mars.

    It occurred to me then that my fellow MBAs and future execs simply had no concern for welfare of the worker.