Losing A World They Barely Knew Existed

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.