or four decades, American liberalism has had an ambivalent relationship with organized labor. On the one hand, liberals and Democrats rely on unions to help fund campaigns, man phone banks, and deliver their members’ votes each election cycle. Moreover, most liberals are in broad agreement with labor’s core agenda: better health care, a more generous minimum wage, more funding for public schools, and the like. On the other hand, as liberalism and the Democratic Party have gone increasingly upscale, they have evidenced a palpable disdain for unions and union leaders, who are often seen as narrow, selfish, grubby, and, sometimes, corrupt. Many liberals work in professions where they don’t personally see the need to unionize. And as consumers, they are beneficiaries of globalization and worry that unions will slow the positive and inevitable trend toward trade liberalization. Subscribe Online & Save 33%

No liberal institution better encapsulates this tension than the New York Times. With its highly educated, upper-middle-class readership, the Times editorial page generally endorses labor’s public policy goals but evinces no real understanding of the labor movement, especially as compared to, say, the civil rights movement. The most recent Labor Day editorial, for instance, described the holiday as marking no more than the changing of the seasons: “If you get choked up on Labor Day, you’ve probably just been eating too fast,” its writer advised.

I’ve recently written a biography of Albert Shanker, the legendary teachers union leader. When I speak to union audiences, individuals of all races and backgrounds ask me to sign their copy of my book “in solidarity”; for these people, Labor Day has enormous emotional resonance, something the Times editorial page doesn’t seem to comprehend. (It’s hard to imagine the Times writing so flippantly about Martin Luther King Day.) Labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan summarizes the diverging sensibilities of unions and the wider liberal movement by observing that when he meets other liberal activists, they “understand each other’s causes, but have no sense of yours.”

Perhaps this should come as no surprise. After all, American labor is in shambles. Union density has declined to 7.4 percent of the private sector, the lowest level since 1901. As Geoghegan notes, radio networks once broadcast the speeches of union leaders live, and bookstores devoted entire sections to the subject of labor. Today, the preferred topics are self-help and sex.

But the era of the weak union may be passing. Inequality has reached startling dimensions, and there is grumbling from the general public about CEO pay, which is now 369 times that of the average worker, up from thirty-six times as much in 1976. Corporate profits have been surging, but employees have not been sharing in the spoils: since 2001, productivity has increased nearly 20 percent, while average wages are up less than 2 percent. Such pervasive inequities have made workers more receptive to unions than they’ve been in decades. A 2007 poll found that 53 percent of nonmanagerial, nonunion workers said they would probably or definitely vote for a union if they couldup from 30 percent in 1984. If just a quarter of those people unionized, the labor movement would double in size. And the change is not just among middle- and working-class Americans; when Hollywood writers went on strike to preserve their piece of the pie, even upper-middle-class intellectuals realized the effect that corporate greed has on workers.

Steven Greenhouse, the labor reporter for the Times since 1995, has written an excellent book about this swing of the pendulum. In The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, he argues that if the 1970s saw excesses in regulation and bureaucracy, we are now in an era of unprecedented inequality, where unions may have an important role to play once again.

The Times, as the literary scholar Walter Benn Michaels has noted, has a knack for publishing stories about the wealthy that manage to make otherwise comfortable upper-middle-class readers feel economically insecure. Greenhouse’s book has the opposite effect: it will likely make such readers feel damn lucky that they have health insurance and a decent wage, and maybe even engender something more than an abstract compassion for those who don’t.

While some argue that labor unions are no longer needed, Greenhouse says it is naive to think that employer abuses ended with the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy. “The United States may see itself as the City on the Hill,” Greenhouse writes, “but many of its citizens labor in dismal swamps.”

Greenhouse sees the big picture, but he also tells us concrete stories. There’s Mike Mitchell, a Wal-Mart employee who was injured chasing a shoplifter and was fired soon afterward, apparently to hold down Wal-Mart’s worker’s comp liability. There’s Jennifer Miller, a “permatemp” who was periodically let go and then rehired so she would qualify under the law as a temporary employee, ineligible for the higher pay and benefits due to permanent staffers. There’s Myra Bronstein, a software worker who was laid off and told that if she wanted severance pay, she’d need to train her replacement workers from India. There’s Eva Mota, a Mexican immigrant working at an industrial bakery in New Haven, Connecticut, who tolerated sexual harassment from a lecherous manager because she had children to support and couldn’t afford to lose her job. There’s Marie Sylvain, a nursing-home worker who was illegally fired for trying to form a union and wasn’t reinstated until four and a half years later, by which time the unionization drive had fizzled. And there’s Drew Pooters, an employee of Rentway who was let go for lending a customer three dollars to help her make a monthly installment on a foldout couch. (Pooters sympathized with the customer, who said that without the couch her son would have to sleep on the floorbut companies like Rentway earn more money when customers default and an item can be rented out to someone else.)

Throughout The Big Squeeze, Greenhouse exhibits outrage and moral indignation and an idealism one doesn’t necessarily expect from a hard-bitten New York Times reporter. He even invokes the Bible on “the dignity of labor and the moral obligation to treat even the humblest worker fairly and with respect.” At the same time, he makes clear that the new ruthless economy affects not only those on the lowest rung. “Globalization used to hurt just the Bud crowd,” he writes, “but now it is also hitting the Starbucks crowd.” In the new era, he notes, white-collar workers “were suddenly being viewed as costs, not assets.”

Because their wages have been in relative decline, Americans have had to work longer and harder than workers in European countries, where unions and union protections are stronger. The typical American, Greenhouse reports, works the equivalent of “three full-time weeks more per year than the average British worker, six weeks more than the average French worker, and nine weeks more than the average German worker.” Greenhouse notes that this isn’t explained only by the number of workaholic lawyers who kill themselves to buy a Mercedes; it’s also about Michael Johnson, a father of four who works two jobs as a security guard to make ends meet. Johnson routinely works fifteen hours a day, leaving for work at 6:15 a.m. and returning home after his kids have gone to sleep. “I’m missing them growing up,” he says.

While it is true that in many globally competitive industries unions face an uphill battle, Greenhouse notes that unions can play an especially vital role in industries in which the work can’t be outsourced, like retail or home health care. Opponents of unions say that unions drive up prices and reduce profits, but Greenhouse cites examples of companies that manage to treat their employees well and still make a nice profit. Costco workers, for instance, earn an average of $17.92 an hour, 70 percent more than the average Wal-Mart worker. Not surprisingly, turnover and employee theft at Costco is much lower than in the retail industry as a whole. Greenhouse also profiles Cooperative Home Care Associates, an employee-owned home care aide company that pays workers 15 percent more than the industry average, yet is able to compete in part because workers typically stay five years rather than the usual eighteen months. Likewise, in certain sheltered industries, like casino gambling, the presence of strong unions is completely compatible with strong profits. University of Nevada professor Hal Rothman tells Greenhouse that Las Vegas, with its profitable and unionized casinos and hotels, is “the last place where unskilled workers can still make a middle-class wage.”

ome of labor’s woes, of course, are self-inflicted. As St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Philip Dine notes in his provocative book State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence, the Teamsters Union (the one union everyone can name) has a corrupt and violent past that colors the way the public views the entire union movement. Dine, while a supporter of unions, is clear-eyed about how some unions operate; he recounts an incident in which he was almost shoved off a hotel roof by union autoworkers in San Diego in retribution for stories he’d written about a union dissident. But both he and Greenhouse say that violent and mobbed-up unions are the exception. “It makes no more sense to dismiss unions on these grounds,” writes Greenhouse, “than it would be to dismiss all American corporations because of the Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom scandals.”

If workers want to join unions, why don’t they? The main impediment, both Dine and Greenhouse say, is the imbalance in American labor laws, which make it harder to unionize here than in most other democracies. Employers often illegally fire employees who are considered ringleaders in pushing for a union, gladly paying the small penalties imposed as a cost of doing business. In 2005, the National Labor Relations Board awarded back pay to more than 31,000 Americans who were illegally fired or otherwise disciplinedup from less than one thousand in the 1950s, when labor was much stronger. Dine notes that unionized workers earn 30 percent more, are 28 percent more likely to have employer-provided health insurance, have 28 percent more paid vacation days, and are 54 percent more likely to have guaranteed pensions. Little wonder that companies employ strong-arm tacticsboth legal and illegalto thwart unionization. Greenhouse says, “Elections to determine whether employees want a union are often as fair as elections in Cuba or China.”

Labor’s catch-22 is that it can’t make big organizational gains until it has better labor laws, and it can’t get better labor laws until it has increased strength to push through reform. In 2007, under a Democratic Congress, the Employee Free Choice Act to reform labor laws passed the House, but was stymied by a Senate filibuster.

Dine argues that in order to break the impasse, labor needs to present its case in the language of moral values (such as respect for hard work) rather than in terms of economic interests. I think he’s on to something important. The labor movement needs to be seen as akin to the civil rights movement, fighting for basic dignity. Up until now, Dine notes, labor has “been unable to raise a fraction of the public outrage a shock jock’s utterances can instantly produce.” The reality is that abusing workers somehow doesn’t garner the same media and public rebuke as racial discriminationproperlydoes.

Dine calls on labor to tap directly into the moral righteousness of the civil rights movement. His best chapter recounts a strike in the early 1990s that did just that. The conflict pitted nine hundred poor, black, female catfish packers in Mississippi against Delta Pride, the world’s largest catfish processor, owned mostly by wealthy white men. Many of the women who skinned, filleted, and packed the catfish had once picked cotton. They were poorly paid, and not tremendously well treatedtheir bathroom visits, for example, were limited to six a week. The workers had little economic leverage and much to lose: Delta Pride officials sat on the boards of the local banks that held the workers’ mortgages and car loans.

The battle shifted, however, when the food workers union representing the women called for a nationwide boycott of Delta Pride catfish. Leading supermarkets complied in order to stay on good terms with their own unions. When reports appeared in the national press, donations began pouring in from unionists and church members around the country who hoped to sustain the workers in their strike. After a protracted battle, the company eventually conceded to a hefty wage increase and eliminated the limits on bathroom breaks. The key, says Dine, was that the movement was put in the context of the broader fight for human respect. It wasn’t just a battle over money; there was a powerful moral component too.

This case was particularly well suited to such an argument, but even when workers are not exclusively minorities or women, the civil rights and labor movements have much in common. Each emphasizes solidarity for the common good. (Members of the black community and the labor community both commonly address one another as brothers and sisters.) And, ultimately, both movements are about fair treatment and human rights.

After three decades of failed attempts at labor law reform, what if labor instead tried to amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act, using the same mechanism that protects employees against racial discrimination to deter firing of union organizers? Might the explicit link to civil rights help break the logjam? For years, the idea has been kicked around by writers like Geoghegan and Michael Kazin (and me). If the Employee Free Choice Act fails to gain traction, labor leaders might revisit this idea.

Real labor law reform could help restore labor’s ability to ensure that economic gains are shared more broadly in the private sector. Moreover, strengthening labor politically could also help break the decades-long stalemate over progressive legislation. When labor was vibrant, it had the strength to help Lyndon Johnson pass Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education, immigration reform, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act. As labor’s strength declined, Democratic Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton produced smaller fare: the creation of the Department of Education and the passage of welfare reform.

Greenhouse proposes pegging the minimum wage to half the average wage (currently $17.60 an hour, meaning a minimum wage of $8.80), providing the right to health coverage just like the right to a public education, and easing the transition for workers displaced by globalization, all financed by taxes on the wealthy. To enact such an agenda, however, requires the political muscle of a revived American trade union movement. Albert Shanker noted that from the 1930s through the 1970s, “not a single piece of legislation,” from the minimum wage to safety standards to health care and civil rights, would have passed “without the strength of the AFL-CIO.” The big question, then, is whether liberals will realize who their best friend is.

Richard D. Kahlenberg

Richard D. Kahlenberg is an education and housing policy consultant. He is the author or editor of 17 books, including The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action, and Broken Contract: A Memoir of Harvard Law School.