Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Partisan Politics and the End of the Union Movement?

with 6 comments

[Updated below]

Back in January, the Center for American Progress put out an issue brief entitled Unions Make Democracy Work Better for the Middle Class.  As it shows clearly, declines in rates of  in union membership and the share of income held by the middle have moved together since the 1960s.  This is just a dramatic illustration of a great deal of evidence that unions produce a stronger middle class and less inequality.  The picture is as clear as it is disturbing.

The point of the chart, as with the report as a whole, was to make the case for the value of unions for society as a whole.  I’m fully convinced, needless to say, but I want to focus on something else for the moment.  Look at the decline in union density and point to where the Democrats held the White House, Congress, or both.  Density certainly declined when Republicans, who have made union busting a central tenet of their faith, have held power, but has it gone up when Democrats have? The Clinton years aren’t distinguishable from the Bush years on either end. There is a small uptick around the beginning of Obama’s presidency, but it’s insignificant in the face of the larger trend.  At this rate, it won’t be that long before union density is zero.  You simply cannot look at this chart and believe that Democratic control of the White House will stand in the way of the end of the union movement or that this is not where we are headed.

This is a fact, and facts, as John Adams said, are stubborn things. Unlike questions about the fate of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), or the impact of Race to the Top (RTTP), or about the relationship between Democrats at the state level and unions, this fact doesn’t leave much room for interpretation.  And it strikes me as one of the more important facts for understanding the challenges for our democracy, our economy, the Democratic Party and the union movement.  Any argument about strategies for the union movement, and the left, has to take this into account.

Something has to be done.  That said, strategies don’t flow automatically from facts, let alone one fact.  Figuring that out requires identifying opportunities, assessing strengths, expanding on models that are working, and any number of other things that facts like this cannot inform.

Of course, a lot of people have been talking about this, but I suspect that even more difficult than finding a roadmap will be enacting the sort of institutional change that would bring it about.  Announcements about change often are nothing more than wishful thinking, and even determined people may find it impossible to turn words into action.  This latter challenge strikes me as the most important piece, and as it stands I’m not sure what the answers are or even what the questions are.

One thing that this sort of institutional change will require is thinking big about what our goals are.  The new report Prosperity for America by Jacob Hacker and Nate Loewentheil and endorsed by the AFL-CIO and a number of other progressive organizations is a great start (I’ll have more to say about that later).  It remains to be seen what will come of this.

But we better figure it out quick.  The clock is ticking on the movement, and our democracy.


The always great Josh Eidelson reports on a janitors’ strike by SEIU members in Texas, not exactly the first place you might think of when you think of unions.  Whether they succeed will depend in part of the pressure allies can being to bear on some of the countries most profitable countries, which contract with the companies that employ these janitors and who likely hold all the power here.  Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be getting much attention from anyone else.  If progressives can’t get mobilized to support working people when they go out on a limb, it’s hard to see how these trends are going to turn around.

Written by David Kaib

August 5, 2012 at 11:26 am

6 Responses

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  1. Maybe unions can start by not defending crooks. Just because someone has a D next to their name, that doesn’t mean unions shouldn’t call him/her out and attack him. From Bill Moyers’ show:

    BILL MOYERS: You’re talkin’ about the leaders of unions?

    BILL FLETCHER, JR.: Leaders of unions.

    BILL MOYERS: And you’re saying they don’t recognize it?

    BILL FLETCHER, JR.: They don’t. They continue, they are fearful, Bill, of fundamentally becoming organizations that are viewed as disreputable. They’re very worried about being in a situation where they’re no longer invited to the White House dinners. And what we have to understand is that unions did not get started based on White House dinners. They got started based on exactly what Stephen is suggesting. That you have to be ready to throw the dice. And most of the leaders of the movement, unfortunately at this point, remain fearful of shaking the table. We need battle stations. A new level of vitality, a new level of tactics, new strategies, new forms of organization that we have not previously used. That’s where we are.

    STEPHEN LERNER: I think many of us at least have spent our life sort of waiting for the great leader to come and, you know, come and save us. And I actually am not waiting. I don’t think that there’s going to be somebody in Washington that’s going to emerge and do that. I think instead we have to look at where are the battles that we can have that we can both win but also become symbolic and exciting that inspire and move people. Because the labor movement’s suffering very a version of the Stockholm Syndrome. That we’ve been held captive by capital for so long, we’re so used to losing, that we almost identify with our oppressor. And that part of what has to happen here is brilliant strategies and tactics, but there’s another piece which is that we just have to be willing to say slowly dying is worse than having a really big fight and trying to win.


    STEPHEN LERNER: We don’t connect with people ’cause we’re not saying who the bad guys are. And the second part is if we’re in bed with and afraid to take on the people who have caused the crisis in this country, then why would people rally behind us?

    The Big Hurt

    August 5, 2012 at 10:45 pm

    • Well, some do, but I tend to agree that too many don’t. And this problem isn’t limited to unions, but is rather endemic among progressive constituency organizations.

      It’s unhealthy for any institution to avoid criticism. It leads to decline. (I hope to talk some more about that later, drawing on Albert Hirschman). Still, there has been a lot more talk that the movement will do precisely that – but whether that sort of change can be enacted is another matter.

      There’s another issue too, which came up in that episode. When your power depends on elite access, it makes it difficult to engage in criticism of those elites, because it threatens that access. I think the last few years show such access, on it’s own, doesn’t get you very much. But even if it did, it would come at the expense of being able to hold people accountable, and that price is too high.

      David Kaib

      August 5, 2012 at 11:06 pm

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