As Labor Goes, So Goes the Nation

By Dubofsky, Melvyn | In These Times, March 2011 | Go to article overview

As Labor Goes, So Goes the Nation

Dubofsky, Melvyn, In These Times

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

As Labor Goes, So Goes the Nation


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.