An Exceptional Hostility to Labor

Here’s an important reminder about an aspect of “American Exceptionalism” that is too often taken for granted, from a 2014 interview of WaMo friend Rich Yeselson by Jonathan Cohn, which TNR reprinted for Labor Day:

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.

Last year I wrote about my upbringing in the profoundly anti-union textile town of LaGrange, Georgia, where we started school on Labor Day each year. You can hear more than an echo those days in the union-hatred of contemporary pols like Nikki Haley (the perfect running-mate for Scott Walker if he is somehow nominated), who boasts that South Carolina doesn’t want investment from companies that tolerate unions–a rare exception to her usually submissive attitude towards “job-creators.”

In this as in other respects, contemporary conservatives are taking a traditional party preference, born of class loyalties, and ratcheting it up into the high-pitch chattering whine of an ideological obsession. When the Republican Establishment finally settles on a strategy for “killing” the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, I’d bet anything that his friendly relations with private-sector unions and their leaders will be high on the list of heresies for which he is conspicuously excommunicated.

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.