As Labor Goes, So Goes the Nation

Article excerpt

It is easy to lament President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party's compromises over their first two years in power, especially their failure to do as much for unemployed workers and foreclosed homeowners as they did for bankrupted and indebted financiers. Yet there are explanations for why Obama and the Democrats have behaved as they have. To understand them, we must analyze the deeper forces behind the political dynamics of the past 30 years.

What we know of as modern American liberalism, or what is more fashionably characterized today as progressive politics, is largely the result of the rise of organized labor. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, a still-divided labor movement represented the largest single electoral bloc in the nation, and it would remain that through the 1960s. The votes of union members and the lobbying of their representatives in Washington and in state capitals expanded the ranks of workers covered by minimum wage and hours laws, and raised that wage repeatedly. They helped bring millions of previously excluded employees into the Social Security system and improved the system's benefits for retirees, their survivors and the disabled. However much many white union members and their leaders remained racist and misogynist, labor's political influence proved decisive during the 1960s in the enactment of civil rights legislation.

Labor exerted such influence because at its peak it represented a third of the non-agricultural labor force. Even after its density began to slip in the late 1950s, absolute membership rose, however erratically, for two more decades. Almost all unions (other than the white male bastions that were the building and construction trades) acted as a place where working people who otherwise lived in separate neighborhoods, worshipped in different churches and temples, patronized different taverns, and even belonged to ethnically or racially-based local political clubs, met together to discuss work issues, union matters and politics. Blue Collar Community, William Kornblum's sociological study of Chicago steel workers in the early 1960s, shows how unionism brought together white, black and brown members. In those sectors of the economy where women entered the labor force in substantial numbers, and especially in the rapidly expanding public employees' unions, organized labor united women and minorities along with dwmdling numbers of white males. Over time, minorities and women rose to leadership positions in public employee and service industry unions.

Not only did unions serve to unite workers across gender and racial boundaries, they also provided a counter-narrative to what their members heard and saw in various media. Progressives suffer today not because they lack attractive narratives but rather because their opponents have grander platforms from which to narrate their political tales. In the United States, money continues to speak (and we all know how five Republican justices on the Supreme Court validated that truism in Citizens United). The more you have of it, the louder you can speak. On talk radio, television news and in most daily newspapers, capital and its conservative admirers speak far louder than labor and progressives.

That - combined with labor's declining size and influence - explains why the Democrats behave as they do, and how their behavior is part of a process that has unfolded continuously since the administration of Jimmy Carter. When inflation and deficits raged, Democrats found it as easy as Republicans to blame union power for economic misery and to assure white nonunion workers that their real incomes would rise and tax rates would diminish if union monopolies were curbed (part of the rationale for deregulation of the airlines and trucking). During the Carter years and the Clinton years, Democrats refused to provide unions and their members labor law reform or expansive employment programs. Such policies would worsen inflation and deepen the national debt, according to party economic gurus and senators whose victories derived from suburban voters. …