Let’s get a few things straight. Labor is not a special interest. Unions are not anachronisms. The modern economy has not made worker’s organizations obsolete. One would think that these would be uncontestable principles among progressives in the United States. Unfortunately, waning union strength, years of effective conservative propaganda, and the predominance of middle-class professionals in Democratic circles have conspired to make us somewhat forgetful of these basic truths.Organized labor is a cornerstone of modern democracy.
Imagine a government in which unelected officials had complete power to make decisions about the environment, about our economy, even about our civil liberties. Few in the United States would tolerate such a situation, but that’s the natural state of affairs in our workplaces. Employers decide how much we get paid, what our working conditions will be, how many hours we will work, and what we get to do on the job. Given that most adults spent the vast majority of their lives at work, this is a profound democratic deficit in our society. Just as people should have a say in government, so, too should they have a say in their workplace.
We don’t have to look too far to see what employers do without this check on their power. Sweatshops in Central America, Africa, Eastern Europe and South East Asia operate with impunity, paying abysmal wages and subjecting their workers to deadly environmental conditions. People who speak up are fired, beaten, even killed. Lest one would think that this is a question of culture or “backwardness”, remember that these are often American companies, headed by American executives and accountable to American shareholders. While some employers are better than others, they all feel the pressure of the race to the bottom. It is the logic of our economic system. If one company cuts costs through exploitation, they all have to, or they die. Unions are the necessary counterweight to this downward pressure, not just in terms of wages, but in health and safety, benefits and rights on the job.
If we want to take the “high road” in our economic life, we need to start at the most basic level: empowering working women and men.Organized labor produces progressives.
In the last Presidential election, only one demographic group of white men voted for John Kerry: union members. If we have learned one thing about our country in the last few years, it is that great swaths of the nation are culturally quite conservative, and the corporate-Evangelical coalition which runs the Republican Party has been adept at tapping into that conservatism even while majorities strongly favor Democratic policy positions on the economy, education and the environment.
We can do a lot to improve our messaging, but the most powerful frames come from people’s everyday experience, not campaign spin rooms. Union members have an every day experience which shows them that banding together gives them power, that corporations are not our best friends, and that solidarity is more effective than scapegoating for putting bread on the table. Through internal education and voter mobilization, unions are able to direct this message into the political arena. That mobilization is often the key margin of victory for progressive candidates and ballot measures. Ask Arnold Schwarzenegger.
At the recent national convention of my union, the United Auto Workers, I met Glenn, a local leader from Saint Louis. As you all know, these are tough times for the auto manufacturing industry, and tough times are always passed first on to working families. As Glenn and I were talking, the subject of Gay Marriage came up. I found my own “Blue State” prejudices start to well up as Glenn, who grew up in rural Missouri and spoke with a slight country twang, explained how the issue was being used to distract people from what was really going on. Besides, he explained, his family has an aunt who lived her whole life with a female companion, and nobody cared. Glenn argues with his sister who insists that the world will be made a worse place if same sex marriage is allowed.
Glenn didn’t join the United Auto Workers because he’s a liberal. He’s a liberal because he joined the United Auto Workers. It is hard to name another popular institution in American social life which produces both material benefits and a progressive worldview. That potential is squandered when the Democratic Party is afraid to stand by working families in their economic policies. For too long, the Party has taken labor support for granted, championing cuts in the social safety net, failing to raise the minimum wage, backing lopsided trade deals and refusing to invest in real job creation. After all this, people are surprised when working class voters abandon the Democratic Party. When neither side can be trusted to deal with bread and butter issues, the choice is easy: chose the party which seems to share a cultural framework. The problem is not that the Democratic Party is too liberal on social issues. The problem is that it is too conservative economically.Unions are needed now more than ever.
There is one term to describe the new economy being foisted on America. No, it isn’t dotcom, its Walmart. Now the largest private employer and wholesale consumer in the United States, Walmart is serious about building a union-free future. Liberals who are skeptical of labor should take a hard look at what’s happening in the retail and service sectors of our economy. That’s where lean production and flexible workforces lead us. We need unions to lift people out of the poverty that Walmart both preys on and reproduces. And we need them to make sure that restructuring and redeployment in the auto industry doesn’t happen at the expense of more than a hundred thousand workers and their families.
By some estimates, there are more than 65 million workers in the United States who would join a union tomorrow if they could. Ruthlessly pro-employer labor laws and management’s increasingly sophisticated union-busting playbook make it difficult, but not impossible, to help them achieve their dream. That organizing is happening, and the Democratic Party must be very clear about which side it is on.Labor should have more, not less, power in the political process.
Corporations outspend unions 24 to 1 on political donations, and yet they are often discussed as if they are identical threats to the democratic system. Not only do employers have more power in the economy and in the workplace, they have more power in the political process: more money to give, more leverage over elected officials, more access to media. We should always be careful, in developing strategies for taking big money out of politics, that we don’t inadvertently reinforce this imbalance of power.
Where labor is strong, however, is on the ground and institutionally within the Democratic Party. While some people lament the fact that labor, along with environmental, feminist, people of color and LGBT groups, wield “insider” power within the party, this is aspect of the coalition politics upon which so much positive social change has been built. What all of these organizations have in common is that the people they represent are deprived of power in our society. Their strength is in coming together and using a collective voice- in mobilization, advocacy, and monetary contributions. They should have a strong voice in our party because our party is supposed to be about giving them a stronger voice in society.
And let’s not kid ourselves: there is a moral distance between corporations, which are driven by profit, and democratic organizations which represent millions of people at the bottom of the economic ladder. All things are not equal when they chose to intervene in politics. One does so for the benefit of the many, the other for the benefit of the few. It’s that simple. While unions can be sectoral in their thinking, there is tremendous pressure on them to think broadly and strategically, which is why unions have been at the forefront of so many important struggles- for universal health care, well-funded education, civil rights, even environmental protection. My own union, the United Auto Workers has a better position on fuel consumption than the national Democratic Party does.
Unions are at the core of any conceivable coalition to move America in a progressive direction. There is much work to be done to rebuild the labor movement and move it forward into the next century. However, this task is of crucial importance if we want to take the initiative away from the right. It is not an accident that as unions have waned, so has the “traditional” Democratic Party. We can wring our hands and talk about using the internet to "take back America", or we can understand that that fight happens in workplaces and neighborhoods across the United States. It is in organizing drives, Living Wage struggles, house meetings and city council elections from Seattle to Miami. Everywhere, labor is a part of those battles. Unions are far more than a national ATM machine for tepid, “liberal” candidates. Labor is the heart and soul of our progressive future.
Certainly, new challenges face us as the economy moves at lightning speed. Still, at the most basic of levels, nothing has changed at all. Employers still have more power than employees. Perhaps they have more than they ever have. All over the country, people are realizing that the only way to change that balance of power is to join together. For the union makes us strong.