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September 01, 2014 11:36 AM Unions Today

By Ed Kilgore

If you want some stimulating reading for Labor Day, I strongly recommend the interview of labor strategist and all-around fabulous political writer and thinker Rich Yeselson, conducted by TNR’s Jonathan Cohn. The piece covers a lot of ground, from the myth of union responsibility for Detroit’s problems to the possible wave of unionization among franchise employees if the courts don’t screw that up. But I’ll just quote Rich’s big-picture observation about the anti-union culture of the United States and its irrationality:

Pretty much in every other country in Western Europe, Canada, even Australia and the U.K. (which share some labor-management features with the U.S.), the assumption is that unions are basic ingredient of liberal capitalism. Among conservatives and business owners in those countries, you’ll hear a lot about how they are inefficient, too powerful, or just pains in the ass. But pretty much everybody accepts them as a normal part of the political/economic/legal landscape. That’s simply not the case here.
What’s ironic about that is that unions are inherently conservative institutions, which historically developed parallel with the development of capitalism itself. They are as much a part of capitalism as Henry Ford or Apple. Unions use contracts—and there’s nothing more intrinsic to capitalism than the right of contract—to link their members to the fortunes of the companies they contract with. They are capable of having huge fights with capital (as in the thirties)—which raise the hopes of leftists—but, usually, over the attainment of very incremental ends—-which disappoint leftists. Marx had nothing but contempt for British trade unionists, and Trotsky saw no value in unions at all. Yet conservatives and most libertarians hate them. Weird.

‘Tis weird indeed, but a real and abiding problem.

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.

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