Partisan Politics and the End of the Union Movement?
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.