Home / General / Hackneyed Anti-Union Historical References

Hackneyed Anti-Union Historical References


Dylan Matthews responded on Twitter to my brief criticism of his column on Thursday , leading to a good debate that eventually included Mike Konczal, Jamelle Bouie, David Roberts, Ned Resnikoff, and other smart people. Matthews admitted that he could see a scenario where there was no minimum wage at all, which I disagree with strongly. He claims to be for reducing inequality (which I believe does support) but shows no understanding about the importance of giving workers dignity and power to control their own lives. When I challenged Matthews’ claim that AEI economists had the interest of working-class people in mind (and I do not believe they do care about working-class people. Otherwise they wouldn’t be working for the American Enterprise Institute) by saying that if these were such good ideas, maybe actual working-class organizations like labor unions would support them, Matthews responded unfortunately, tweeting:

This is the anti-union equivalent of saying that we can’t take Democrats seriously on civil rights today because Robert Byrd was a Klan member in 1946. Who cares what George Meany’s foreign policy was in 1972? What on earth does that have to do with anything in 2013? But you hear this all the time. Meany’s support of Vietnam and hatred of McGovern remains a bog-standard anti-union argument from center-left people who are not comfortable with unions. At least mentioning Teamsters corruption and Jimmy Hoffa is so past its sell-by date that it’s not respectable to trot that one out anymore. But outside of saying that maybe we shouldn’t care all that much what AFL-CIO executives think about foreign policy, I can’t see what AFL leadership’s position on Cold War foreign policy 41 years after it happened matters one iota to the present and I certainly can’t understand what possible relevance it has to any economic debate today. Not only was that decision extremely controversial within the AFL-CIO, leading to many internationals openly bucking Meany, but the American labor movement also had a lot of other priorities in the 1960s and 1970s that are well worth taking seriously. Maybe Matthews could have mentioned union support for the Humphrey-Hawkins bill of 1978 that could have guaranteed full employment. Or the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Or increases in the minimum wage. Oh right, he doesn’t really support that one.

As regards Nixon’s health plan, while it might sound good compared what came after, it was hardly considered some great progressive bill in 1974. Unions believed it could be better. Ted Kennedy did not support it either. Nixon wanted to end Medicaid and replace it with significant employee contributions to health plans that did not exist in 1974. The plan as a whole was not terrible, but taking Nixon seriously as a progressive president domestically only makes sense if we complete ignore both the congressional and social movement context of the period. On all progressive domestic programs, Nixon signed what he had to and weakened legislation when he could in order to mitigate opposition to what he really cared about–fighting communists and cracking down on hippies. Nixon was moved very little by actually providing quality health care to average Americans, although his plan, if enacted, might have created real improvements. With hindsight, labor maybe should have supported it, but that was far from clear at the time.

I told Matthews that he needed to read less conservative economists and more labor history. The more I think about it, the more I believe he to delve much deeper into twentieth century American history. I don’t mean that in a condescending way. In general, we should all read more history, but for an important writer to not have the contextual historical background to make arguments that pull from the past to discuss legislation or ideas in the present is a problem. In any case, it’d be nice if liberal-centrist columnists who don’t much value unions at least updated their arguments to include some events that took place after I was born nearly 40 years ago.

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  • Billmon

    By now you’d think we have enough real world evidence of what happens to the wage-setting process in a “market” economy when collective bargaining is removed from the equation to satisfy even “center leftists.” But I guess not.

    • joe from Lowell

      Arguing with the libertarians back in the day about collective bargaining was awesome. You can demolish their anti-union stance using nothing but their own premises.

      “So you’re saying that being part of a bargaining unit distorts wage negotiations by giving the worker too much power, compared to negotiating individually? But the manager he’s bargaining with doesn’t negotiate individually; he has the additional power of the whole corporate structure behind him. A manager can say, ‘Fred, waiting outside, will take this deal if you don’t,’ but the worker can’t say, ‘The shipping department will accept my offer if you don’t.'”

      Uh yeah but yeah but yeah but…

      • Yeah, that one goes back a long ways:

        “What are the common wages of labour, depends everywhere upon the contract usually made between those two parties, whose interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower the wages of labour.

        It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer. A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, a merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.

        We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate.”

        – Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 8

        I sometimes wonder whether libertarians have that chapter removed from their copies of the book.

        • Linnaeus

          I’m just about convinced that Smith is one of the most cited, but least read authors in all of Western intellectual history.

          • Pretty much. Thankfully, I had a great teacher who made us read and debate all the parts of Smith that normally get glossed over.

            • djw

              A college professor of mine had a great handout I wish I still had, which was a bunch of paired quotes making very similar about capitalism (a few positive, mostly negative). The challenge was to figure out which one was Marx and which one was Smith.

              • Stephen Frug

                Someone should do a web version of that…

                • Jordan

                  Of course, such a thing does exist.

                  Not sure how accurate it is. And they are all throwaway lines. But still.

          • I had to read him along with Marx’s Das Capital in History of Economic Thought as an undergraduate. If you read the two in sequence you can see Smith’s influence on Marx pretty clearly. They also both differ radically from modern economics starting with Marshall in being philosophical works on political economy rather than collections of mathematical formulas.

        • elm

          Smith really is a misunderstood author. People say “invisible hand,” and think that means Smith supported some liberatarian utopia of a market. But it’s part and parcel of the type of people who think “Econ 101” is all you need to understand economic policy.

      • Anonymous

        To keep it sat their simpleton level, libertarians insist that if every one acted in their own self-interest, things would work out in the long run. B business owner who wants to make more money by cutting wages, fine, but a worker who joins a union to enhance his income and security must think about the consequences to society at large. Bullshit.

    • DrDick

      None of these people has ever heard of the term “monopsony” or, if they have, deny it plays any role in labor markets. This is despite the fact that it was coined to describe labor markets.

      • Last year, Harper’s ran a great article by Barry Lynn, “Killing the Competeetion,” that really gets into the ways that large corporations have been increasing their monopsony power in labor markets (although I don’t believe he ever uses the term monopsony). And, it’s one of the few things Harper’s has actually made available for free on their site. Definitely worth a read.

        • Obviously, it’s competition that’s being killed, not competeetion.

          • Bill Murray

            i thought that was just a short jeremiad

  • Davis X. Machina

    The more I think about it, the more I believe he to delve much deeper into twentieth century American history.

    The most salutary effect from reading 20th c history is to realize the 20th c. actually, you know, happened. That the 19th c. ended.

    …no understanding about the importance of giving workers dignity and power to control their own lives,…

    Back Matthews into a corner, and he’ll level with you — “Why should they have dignity and the power to control their own lives? They’re only workers.”

    “One born booted and spurred and ready to ride, nine born saddled, and shod, and ready to be ridden” is still with us.

  • Hogan

    fighting communists and cracking down on hippies.

    You’re repeating yourself there.

    To be fair, he also promoted significant advances in the War on Black People Drugs.

    • joe from Lowell

      I think means overseas vs. domestically.

  • Sly

    Meany’s support of Vietnam and hatred of McGovern remains a bog-standard anti-union argument from center-left people who are not comfortable with unions.

    They’re not comfortable with union members, who are, to a certain species of liberal, all low-brow, hard-hat wearing troglodytes too stupid to know their own interests. The discomfort with unions as institutions flows from that.

    • Linnaeus

      Yeah, I think there’s something to that. I’ve noticed some of this discomfort myself, as one who grew up in a blue-collar union household and transitioned to spaces where people with that background are less represented (college, grad school, professional conferences, etc.). There’s a lack of familiarity with unions and the people who belong to them, which leads to some half-informed assumptions about those people.

      • Three subtexts that I detect with respect to non-self-identification with unions:

        1. Defense contractors and autoworkers used to be more numerous and in the mainstream of middle class households. This meant ‘normal’, patriotic, white middle class Americans were benefiting from unions – including the first tier white collar workers who received raises when the bargaining units negotiated a union raise. That’s no longer the norm, service workers, government workers, and teachers are the most prominent unions to most of the public. That means they are the poor, the blahs and folks who drive up taxes any time they get a raise.

        Union workers used to part of the family, now they are part of ‘them.’

        2. America has become wealthier and more complacent. They don’t want to be inconvenienced by anything, including strikes. And they don’t want to have their heads hurting from having to think about the issues of economic morality or income equity. Right now almost half the country is batshit crazy enough to keep electing Republicans who clearly define their mission as destroying every part of America that doesn’t belong to the 1%.

        It’s impossible to get a consensus on economic justice when most Americans don’t even give a shit about their own basic civil liberties and privacy.

        3. There is a lot more money and intellectual horsepower being expended on how to break or marginalize unions both in the private enterprise and political spheres than by unions themselves. And when states like Wisconsin and Michigan are electing union busting rightwing nuts as governors, it shows that the will of the electorate has been broken.

        So, being blunt – the predominant view of Americans is that union folks are not people like themselves, are not doing jobs they respect, aren’t contributing to upward evolution of society, and are more of an irritant than an asset.

        That the facts are different than this view is irrelevant.

      • JL

        Yeah, I talked about this on another thread a few days ago when describing the learned barriers of twentysomething and early-thirtysomething tech workers to being labor allies.

        I used to be like that too until five or so years ago. Neither of my parents (or stepparents) were ever in a union. None of my parents’ friends were in unions. The only union workers I’d interacted with, until adulthood, beyond quick commercial transactions, were teachers (and it’s not like I knew a lot about their lives, since they were adults who were not relatives and I was a kid) and my cop step-uncle. I knew a little about the labor movement circa 1900, but I didn’t know anything about modern unions or the people in them except for stereotypes. And the stereotypes that I’d heard were bad. Jimmy Hoffa. Organized crime. The people whose excessive demands killed the US auto industry. Straight white guys with regressive social and foreign policy views. I knew that there were a few that were clearly not any of this, like teacher’s unions, but assumed they were oddities. I didn’t hate unions, but I was wary of them and didn’t identify with them at all.

        What started changing my mind was reading a comment, somewhere, that unions were the only collective-action force we had to exert political influence that would counter that of corporations and rich campaign donors, and the only institution we had to protect workers from things like unsafe working conditions. That made sense, so I figured I should care about them, albeit grudgingly. Then, as I got deeper and deeper into activism around a wider variety of causes, and actually met more people who were in unions, I started seeing what they were really like, and what they could mean to the people in them. I saw them forming alliances with other causes I cared about, like queer justice – hardly the regressive views I’d assumed.

    • Right. There’s also the related canard about damning unions by noting that a couple of building trade locals beat up some anti-war protestors in 1970, thus we can’t trust unions in a progressive coalition.

      • Davis X. Machina

        Well, you still can’t trust the Carpenters

        • It’s not like Stephen Lynch is Rand Paul or Jeff Sessions. It’s entirely reasonable for unions to support legislators who are pro-union. Markey was far superior, yes, but it’s unfair to say that supporting Lynch was a terrible thing for the UBC.

          • Davis X. Machina

            No one in MA is right enough to be Paul-bad, or Sessions-bad. Virtue isn’t the same thing as lack of opportunity.

            • Lynch voted for the Progressive Caucus budget. So he’s not just not-Rand Paul, he’s better than most Dems on economic issues.

              • Davis X. Machina

                Better than most national Democrats, yes. Better than most Massachusetts Democrats, no — more or less indistinguishable. There’s not going to be a lot of distance between options, on economic issues anyways.

                But on non-economic issues?

                • joe from Lowell

                  On labor issues, I didn’t think the difference between Markey and Lynch was their positions, so much as their priorities.

                  I’m sure Markey will vote on union issues the same way Lynch would have voted if he’d won, but Lynch probably would have pushed harder on those issues, while Markey will push harder on, say, environmental issues.

                • maual

                  Joe has it correct. Although voting record is important, unions/any interest are looking for people to move their issue. Lynch is co-head of the labor caucus, a former union official, and someone who works on labor issues quite a bit. Not a per se reason to support him, but it should not be ignored.

                • The vote I linked to, and I’m a fan of the Progressive Caucus budget, was a 5–4 split in favor among the Massachusetts congressional delegation. I mean, I’m no fan of Lynch, and am pretty annoyed at being redistricted from Capuano’s district to his (and at the fact that they split Jamaica Plain between the two, with the line running down my street), but saying “you still can’t trust the Carpenters’” is a bit much.

                  Is there anybody in the Senate that has made unions as much of a priority as Lynch has? It would undoubtedly be good to get someone into the Senate that has Lynch’s dedication to unions. Not worth taking his shitty views on other issues when you’ve got a solid progressive like Markey as the other choice, but I see where the Carpenters’ are coming from.

                • maual

                  No one has the union background that lynch has, obviously. But as far as a history of pushing the labor cause, probably Sherrod Brown (he’s more loved by national unions than Lynch ever will be) He’s almost uniquely forthright in his support of labor and does a better job of building coalitions and agenda setting than other like-minded Senators (eg Bernie Sanders).

                  I’d say the following people are top tier labor senators at the moment: brown, sanders, franken, warren, harkin, and merkley.

                  Id say boxer, whitehouse, blumenthal, udall, mikulski and maybe gillibrand and begich are good, second tier Senators.

                  Frank Lautenberg was an old, new deal, pro labor voice, which is what makes his seat so problematic. A flip from lautenberg to booker is a strong departure on economic issues, and booker is pretty despised by new jersey labor.

                • IW7

                  Lynch was an ironworker (as was his father)
                  before he became a union official. Personal experience as a construction worker is what sets him apart from the rest of the MA delegation on labor issues.

                • BobS

                  There’s a few who deserve a mention on your list, including Levin, Durbin, Mikulski, and probably a half dozen others.

                • Lynch proved that non economic issues were also economic issues by being a squish on health care almost right up until the last minute because WOMEN and abortion rights. I think the Unions absolutely have the right (and duty) to try to choose someone who is going to be good on their issue but their only issue isn’t, or ought not to be, a narrow view of union issues given that women are members of unions too, and families too. Lynch is pretty damned retrograde on family and female issues and there’s no excuse for that.

          • joe from Lowell

            You think Markey was “far superior” on union issues specifically?

            Or just overall?

        • Hogan

          Karen was OK. I have my doubts about Richard.

          • LosGatosCA

            Chris was a hell of a pitcher.

        • JL

          I actually know a guy who’s a rising star in one of the Boston-area carpenters’ locals. He’s only 25 and a dedicated activist – he was an Occupy Boston stalwart/direct action organizer, he’s a feminist ally, a queer ally, an environmentalist who supports the Tar Sands Blockade. He’s been speaking at a lot of labor events in the Boston area, and is some sort of staff for the local and the NERCC. He very much wants to move the union in a leftward direction. I hope he’ll continue up the union-leadership ladder and not burn out.

    • DrDick

      They’re not comfortable with union members, who are, to a certain species of liberal, all low-brow, hard-hat wearing troglodytes too stupid to know their own interests.

      Like the faculty at many state universities. I am a proud fourth (or more) generation union man.

      • Sly

        Like the faculty at many state universities. I am a proud fourth (or more) generation union man.

        It’s not just state universities; there is a generally problem of disdain, I think, among liberal academicians and intellectuals when it comes to labor.

        And… well… to be perfectly honest, it’s a problem largely among white liberal intellectuals. “Workers are dumb… of course they’re not going to know their own interests like we smart people. Here, borrow my copy of What’s the Matter With Kansas to find out all about stupid working people and their stupid brains. Hint: It’s all because they worship stupid Jesus.”

        Let’s just ignore the whole hell of a lot of black evangelicals in this country who are and have always been reliably liberal when it comes to issues of economic power.

        • fka AWS

          I think, correct me if I’m wrong, DrDick is saying that he is a member of a union, as many state university academics are, so there’s less disdain for union members/actions.

          • Sly

            If so, I misinterpreted.

            • DrDick

              You did.

              • DrDick

                I would add, however that there is still considerable disdain in some disciplines (law, business, and sometimes economic come to mind). It is just not universal and many state university faculty are quite militant unionists.

                • (the other) Davis

                  In my graduate teaching assistant organizing days, the department that was the biggest hotbed of anti-union sentiment (among faculty) was Chemistry, oddly enough.

                • DrDick

                  While this does not really surprise me, some of the most militant folks here are in the hard sciences.

                • Linnaeus

                  In my graduate teaching assistant organizing days, the department that was the biggest hotbed of anti-union sentiment (among faculty) was Chemistry, oddly enough.

                  Same was true at the two universities I’ve attended for grad school.

                • (the other) Davis – there’s a structural reason for that. Chemistry grad students spend most of their time as research assistants or on fellowship, and may only TA for a quarter or a semester. This tends to decrease their sense of shared interests, and it makes them harder to organize because you have to explain rather laboriously how a higher floor for TAs makes depts increase salaries and benefits for RAs.

                  If and when TA unions can get RAs included in the unit (which often requires a change in state labor law), I think this will change.

                • djw

                  the biggest hotbed of anti-union sentiment (among faculty) was Chemistry


                  If so, part of the story was some really serious union-busting on the part of some prominent professors in that department. There was a generalized sense, in some STEM (well, STE, Math people were very pro-Union) departments, that the Union might result in ‘levelling down’ for those departments that used their own resources to provide support beyond the standard TA/RA stipend. This myth was generally pretty easy to explain away, except with Chemistry people, many of whom seemed convinced we were just lying.

                • (the other) Davis

                  @Steven — That definitely makes sense. My department (math) was very supportive at both the student and the faculty level, but then we were all heavily dependent on teaching assistantships to pay our way through the program.

                  @djw — Yup, UW. And I do recall that specific objection from the Chemistry folks (spurred on in part by their department chair at the time, if I remember correctly), and how it was strangely resistant to the facts.

                  I didn’t realize the other hard science departments raised that same nonsense. But we math folks didn’t have leveling down concerns because there was no extra money in the department—pure math is not an attractive target for large piles of research money.

                • Linnaeus

                  Yup, UW.

                  UW-er here, too, though I came during the latter part of the organizing drive.

                • djw

                  The other davis and Linneaus, I must have met one or both of you at some point in the process.

                  @Steven, your point about RAs and TAs was sort of true, for a while, at UW. The union started with just TAs, but we organized RAs fairly early in the process. We were able to get membership cards from over 90% or eligible TAs; slightly higher resistance from RAs kept their number around 80% (IIRC, if I’m off here someone please correct me).

      • Tehanu

        My dad was a music teacher, so he belonged to two unions, the CTA (Calif.) and the American Federation of Musicians. Still, I used to think the Teamsters were a horrible insult to the other unions until my younger sister got dumped by her no-good husband with two kids and no child support … and the Teamsters helped her get a Class-A driver’s license for her job, training to advance, child care while she was working, and a home loan. Now, I don’t care how much of a crook Hoffa was. Nobody disses any union in my hearing, let me tell you.

    • Theophrastus Bombastus von Hoenhenheim den Sidste

      Wait a minute. There are center-left people who are not comfortable with unions?

      I guess I have to recalibrate my politicometer.

  • djw

    DM’s coverage of the Chicago teacher’s strike was shot through with all manner of anti-union talking points, IIRC.

    • Scott Lemieux
      • Lot of Anti Union coverage in the NY transit strike, too.

        • DocAmazing

          We’re enjoying quite a bit of that with the looming BART strike, as well–though the intervention of the governor’s office has forced some of the management misdeeds to light in a way that even the SF Chronicle can’t handwave away.

          • DocAmazing

            Eh, my bad. Shitty coverage, but not from DM.

  • RepubAnon

    Perhaps the subsequent export of union jobs to offshore low-wage countries with no labor or environmental protections would cause labor union leaders to re-think some of these positions?

    However, Nixon’s anti-communist, anti-hippy wedge issue plan has been updated by today’s Republican Party to Guns, God, and (Gays or Coal, depending on the region). To win, we’ve got to convince a significant number of people to spend more effort worrying about their own financial health than regulating their neighbor’s morality.

    • What do you mean by rethink some of these positions? Which positions? If you mean supporting Nixon, you are engaging in some of the same problems Matthews is. Republicans in the 60s-80s could draw support from a few union leaders. In 72 that briefly changed, but that was really a top-down thing that was about hating McGovern. But the idea that American labor supported the Republican Party or undermined their own economic position through supporting conservatives over social issues just doesn’t square with the actual history.

      • The Charge that “unions have been wrong in the past” is nothing more than the warmed over “no heroes on the left” argument that the right always makes, one way or another.

        Because right wing authoritarianism shapes certain assumptions about how coalitions form and work. A central value is blindly following authority and accepting that authorities are always right. Its destabilizing to a right wing coalition to argue that one branch might be fallible and make mistakes, and they project that onto left wing coalitions all the time. You get the same attempts when it comes to an alliance between (say) blacks and gays. The prop8 people both tried to suborn black voters with homophobia because homophobia was the “right” stance for christians and then they turned around elsewhere during the Romney campaign and taunted (white) liberals by pointing to (what they argued was) historic black christian homophobia and tried to undermine both kinds of voters for Obama. Look at how they used the exact same argument to try to shame/humiliate/and defang the Trayvon Martin defense by arguing that he was the “real” “hater” because he was an imaginary homophobe committing a hate crime against Zimmerman.

        Unions made a mistake and can’t be “followed” or understood to have respectable political interests that they might pursue is just one in a long line of such attacks. Its almost their go-to assertion.

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, this is nonsense. You might be able to argue that point about non-union workers. But white guys in unions are much more likely to for the dem candidate relative to their demographic profile. Also, frankly, to the small extent that issue exists, it is ending via changing union demographics, as women and people of color are the vast majority of new union members. So yeah, your just kind of using a silly canard.

  • cpinva

    the fallacy of the “free market” setting wages, is that it assumes parity between worker and ginormous, mult-national corp. the reality, of course, is that there isn’t even a patina of parity between the two. this is so obvious, to anyone with even two functioning synapses, it was the reason organized labor organized to begin with.

    that anyone still attempts to shill the “free market”, with respect to labor, means they’re either an idiot, or on the heritage foundation’s payroll.

  • Yep. In many ways, the whole “Watergate baby”/”Atari Democrat” thing never went away. A lot of putatively progressive blogger-types basically have no understanding of the labor movement outside of the crudest of caricatures, and not so subconsciously are uncomfortable with labor unions as a vehicle of collective power.

    And I’d go further than that, given my experience with trying to organize graduate students. There’s a fairly broad swathe of the progressive-identified middle class who are uncomfortable with unions full stop.

    • There’s a fairly broad swathe of the progressive-identified middle class who are uncomfortable with unions full stop.

      Agreed. Class differences overlap with cultural markers, which are so much easier to reject.

    • Linnaeus

      There’s a fairly broad swathe of the progressive-identified middle class who are uncomfortable with unions full stop.

      Fortunately, in the two organizing campaigns I was involved with, we were able to overcome that. But the employer and the anti-union group that opposed us definitely tried to take advantage of that discomfort.

      • Oh absolutely – strategies on overcoming that discomfort was a key part of my training as an organizer.

        But it certainly takes a lot of time and effort to do that one-on-one educating.

  • Chris Mealy

    I think the labor aristocracy critique is kinda valid. Back in the heyday of the Rehn–Meidner model when you had most of Sweden represented by LO you could say it represented working people generally. In America today (and even the 1970s) unions represent a narrow slice of the country (but not as narrow as the 1%!). A lot of what unions do is to try to force companies to fire their non-union workers first and they’re union workers last. For non-union workers the union can be the bigger enemy. But yeah, whatever problems unions have would best be solved by getting more people into them.

    • IM

      I thought the LO is still representing most of swedish employees, 80% or so?

  • Anonymous

    The right’s obsession with “unions” is somewhat mystifying since unions are much smaller in the aggregate than even 20 years ago. The minimum wage – even in states that have adopted the highest levels (i.e. Washington)- has not kept pace with any measure of inflation. Yet we keep hearing an unceasing drumbeat of anti- union and anti-minimum wage rhetoric from the right.

    • It’s not mystifying at all – on the political side, unions are as crucial to the Democratic Party as megachurches are to the Republicans. Taking out the unions empowers Republicans at the expense of Democrats.

    • Linnaeus

      It’s hilarious, really. We could have not a single unionized worker in all of the United States, and we’d still see Wall Street Journal editorials inveighing against “Big Labor”.

    • These are people who have held 13 votes to defund ACORN after the organization disbanded. It’s only mystifying if for some reason you think Republican rhetoric has any relation to reality.

    • Davis X. Machina

      The country’s not safe till the last unionized public employee is strangled with the entrails of the the last welfare recipient.

  • Funkhauser

    My grandfather retired as a member of IBEW Local 3 in Brooklyn. I have his 60-year pin. My father retired as a member of CTA/NEA. Both had/have pensions and comfortable retirements.

    The problem with centrist Democrats like Matthews is perhaps that they’ve never met real union members, or union households.

    • LosGatosCA

      The problem is that he’s not a centrist Democrat. Maybe he’s a Democrat, maybe he’s a centrist, I don’t know for sure.

      But he’s definitely not a centrist Democrat.

      • manual

        You might not think so. But, unfortunately, his kind is more present within the halls of power in the democratic party. Most elected officials and party members have little if any foundational interest in labor unions (trust me) – it’s the money and votes that keep them from echoing Dylan Matthews.

  • sharculese

    Wow that Twitter avatar really says it all.

    • Anonymous

      oh piggly

  • Johnny Sack

    What books do you recommend to someone who wants to delve deeper into American history? I’ve been fixated on other parts of the world-I honestly think the last real American history book I read, other than a couple of Caro books and a Lincoln bio was Out of Our Past way back in high school.

    • Davis X. Machina

      For the first century or so, it’s hard to beat the Oxfords:

      The Glorious Cause
      Empire of Liberty
      What Hath God Wrought
      Battle Cry of Freedom

    • Jestak

      It’s been a while since I read it, but as I recall, There is Power in a Union, by Philip Dray, is a good introduction to American labor history for the general reader.

  • montag2

    Nixon and health care? From the White House tapes:

    Ehrlichman: “… we have now narrowed down the vice president’s problems on this thing to one issue and that is whether we should include these health maintenance organizations like Edgar Kaiser’s Permanente thing. The vice president just cannot see it. We tried 15 ways from Friday to explain it to him and then help him to understand it. He finally says, ‘Well, I don’t think they’ll work, but if the President thinks it’s a good idea, I’ll support him a hundred percent.’”

    President Nixon: “Well, what’s … what’s the judgment?”

    Ehrlichman: “Well, everybody else’s judgment very strongly is that we go with it.”

    President Nixon: “All right.”

    Ehrlichman: “And, uh, uh, he’s the one holdout that we have in the whole office.”

    President Nixon: “Say that I … I … I’d tell him I have doubts about it, but I think that it’s, uh, now let me ask you, now you give me your judgment. You know I’m not too keen on any of these damn medical programs.”

    Ehrlichman: “This, uh, let me, let me tell you how I am …”

    President Nixon: [Unclear.]

    Ehrlichman: “This … this is a …”

    President Nixon: “I don’t [unclear] …”

    Ehrlichman: “… private enterprise one.”

    President Nixon: “Well, that appeals to me.”

    Ehrlichman: “Edgar Kaiser is running his Permanente deal for profit. And the reason that he can … the reason he can do it … I had Edgar Kaiser come in … talk to me about this and I went into it in some depth. All the incentives are toward less medical care, because …”

    President Nixon: [Unclear.]

    Ehrlichman: “… the less care they give them, the more money they make.”

    President Nixon: “Fine.” [Unclear.]

    Ehrlichman: [Unclear] “… and the incentives run the right way.”

    President Nixon: “Not bad.”

    As for Meany, he probably did more than Hoffa to further the general dissipation of unions, including publicly dissing public-sector unions (not exactly the way to increase union participation), and had rather proudly stated that he’d never walked a picket line nor joined in a strike.

    Regarding unions “opposing Nixon’s health plan,” perhaps Matthews is unaware that it was Walter Reuther who went to Washington to press the Truman administration for universal health care (of the type that Canada now has).

  • Bruce Vail
  • Didn’t scroll upwards when looking at the Twitter link earlier. It just gets worse than I thought. Matthews says: “Seems like what you want there is a tight labor market through better Fed policy.” That’s what we had in the Clinton years, more or less, yet Barbara Ehrenreich still managed to get Nickel and Dimed written during that period. His whole attitude is totally that of someone who got his dream job as a Harvard undergrad, and has no actual understanding of what work is like for the rest of us. Just so completely detached from the reality that most Americans face in their jobs that it’s simply embarrassing for him. Like you keep hoping he won’t put his foot in his mouth this time, and he keeps doing it.

    • TT

      At a company I used to work for one of the concrete foremen approached the owner about a modest raise, which he had not gotten in about six years. This foreman had been at the company for over a decade and was hard-working, highly-skilled, and a very valuable employee. The owner told him that he had a job and that was his raise.

      It appears that the likes of Dylan Matthews and the extended Wonkblog family, not to mention a great many well-to-do moderate liberals generally, have never had this type of experience, much less in a back-breaking, 16 hours a day, six-to-seven days a week job.

    • LosGatosCA

      Seems like what you want there is a tight labor market through better Fed policy.

      Yes – despite zero interest rates for years in a demand collapse driven Great Recession, better Fed policy is the key for labor.

      Seems like what ‘you’ want is a strong stimulus program to get demand leading to lower unemployment and less friendly corporate labor law that allows unions to organize. Not seeing the Fed policy role in any of that.

      Here’s a pro tip for DM in 2 parts:

      1. When you’ve exposed your personal shallowness, use some common sense.
      2. Using common sense, instead of posting something obviously stupid, cut your losses with a generic, ‘We’ll just have to agree to disagree.’

      Worker safety, a living wage, basic respect and dignity on the job are clearly things he doesn’t understand not every body has or can take for granted.

  • Jeezus. Even worse, Matthews’ quip about 1970’s healthcare reform falls on its face even if taken on its own terms. Even if you concede unions made a tactical mistake in not saying yes to Nixon’s plan, it’s not like they opposed universal healthcare or something.

  • Scott Lemieux

    we can’t take Democrats seriously on civil rights today because Robert Byrd was a Klan member in 1946.

    Indeed, it’s actually worse than that. There was an effective segregationist wing of the Democratic Party that obstructed change for decades, while 1972 and unions was a massive one-off outlier. (And as you say, it wasn’t “labor” that supported Nixon in 1972; it was George Meany.) The fact that labor was essential to the New Deal and Great Society seems much more relevant.

  • Davis Statton

    Dylan Matthews is an important writer who thinks that the AEI has the interests of the working class in mind; that is a depressing thought.

    • fka AWS

      Is he really an “important” writer? I’d never heard of him before people started teeing off on him because of stuff he wrote for the wonkblog.

      • Don’t worry I have never heard of him either. I don’t think any of my co-workers or students have either.

  • I think there are a lot more conservative union members than Dr. Loomis insinuates. This is especially true in situations where there are closed shop agreements. After all there is nothing requiring individuals supporting the AFL-CIO increasing their wages and benefits to support the same policies as Che Guevara. Lenin even had a term for workers who supported unions, but opposed socialist revolutions, “trade union consciousness.” A counter-revolutionary thought crime to which I plead guilty.

    • witless chum

      They certainly exist, but like Erik said, compared to their demographic profiles they’re much rarer.

      A guy I sorta know who could be fairly described as a redneck, heavily into guns and not a huge fan of non-whites, was going around hardcore campaigning for John Kerry. (He reason that Kerry might look silly duck hunting, but he probably just hunted deer.) Guess what organization he was a member of?

      • I hate to say it but I agree with Pohl on this one. Of course the unions turned out big for Kerry–at least here in MA–and did all the ground organizing for the drop in/every four year liberals who went out to doorknock. But the most politically conservative and anti-union guys I ever met were all the construction workers who worked on our house renovation. And these guys, and Postal workers btw, will basically tell you they hate the union because they see EVEN THEIR OWN UNIONS (to the extent they have one) of protecting people who don’twork hard, while failing to protect them when they are actually being fucked over by management. The cognitive dissonance of (some) union guys, or people from union families, is astounding–they can both be members of unions and hate unions and be quite vociferous about it.

        • Well this a bit different than what I was arguing. I think there are plenty of pro-Union “reactionaries” like myself who think that raising wages and benefits for themselves and their co-workers is great, but think that radically transforming society along Marxist lines is a really bad idea given its track record. That isn’t belonging to a union and being anti-union. That is belonging to a union being pro-union and opposing radical leftism.

          • Really, can you name me a real union that advocated reorganizing society along “marxist lines”–whatever that would be?

            • You misunderstand me. Most unions are not Marxist, especially in the US. Although there have been major Marxist trade unions in the past in Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia and I am not talking about those controlled by communist governments. But, Loomis seems to think that most contempoarary union members share his radical left-wing ideology. Having been a member of labor unions in the US, Kyrgyzstan, and Ghana I can assure you that this is not the case.

              • Do you ever offer anything useful in your comments?

              • The Dark Avenger

                J. Otto, I’m sorry that you think anything one nanometer to the left of neoliberalism is ‘radical, left-wing ideology’.

              • Linnaeus

                Loomis seems to think that most contempoarary union members share his radical left-wing ideology.

                Erik certainly doesn’t need me to defend him, but I’ve read his stuff here since he first came to LGM (and even a little before that at his Alterdestiny blog) and I can’t think of a single time in which he ever made that argument. In fact, I know he’s pointed out times in which union members acted quite the opposite with respect to particular issues of the time.

                Yes, some union members are more conservative than many of us who comment here (my dad would probably be a good example). But they’re not all as conservative as even some liberal-leaning people appear to think.

    • Joseph Slater

      The closed shop hasn’t been legal in the private sector since the NLRA was passed in the 1930s, and it has never been legal in any public sector jurisdiction. Further, since the early 1960s, it has been illegal to require members of a union bargaining unit to actually join the union. The most that is possible, in a state that is not a right to work state, is the “agency fee shop,” in which a member of a union bargaining unit can be required, in a union contract, to pay that portion of the total dues amount that goes to “activities related to collective bargaining.”

      Not that there aren’t a decent number of folks in union bargaining units — or even union members — who are conservative on at least some issues. But there is no closed shop.

      • It is only the US where that is the case. We have a closed shop here and it is common in many other countries as well. I am technically a public employee of the Ministry of Education here and I was automatically enrolled in the faculty union complete with dues deductions upon signing my contract.

  • TT

    As regards Nixon’s health plan, while it might sound good compared what came after, it was hardly considered some great progressive bill in 1974. Unions believed it could be better. Ted Kennedy did not support it either.

    Didn’t Kennedy eventually admit that opposing Nixon’s health plan was both the biggest substantive and political mistake of his great career? I’m not commenting on the merits or lack thereof with respect to the plan, but I think Kennedy believed at the time, fatally as it turned out, that a much better deal could be hammered out unified Democratic control of the presidency and Congress. However, I think he came to realize that Nixon’s plan would have been a giant foot in the door.

    • Davis X. Machina

      I expect he anticipated working with a Kennedy-eque Democratic president — and not Jimmy Carter.

      • TT

        Very possible. But that missed opportunity probably accounted for a great deal of his pragmatism and willingness to take half or even less a loaf from the early ’80s onward.

  • mch

    Erik, maybe what I most appreciate about your posts is their attention to recent history. Recent as in the last 50 years, the last 80 years or 100. (As a classicist, I am very capable of a much longer view.) I am 62, and I remember the world of not just 1950 forward but of my parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents, as reported to me. (When I was very little, I even knew a person born before the Civil War started!) It never ceases to amaze me how short people’s memories now are (shorter than in, say, fifth century Athens), despite widespread formal education and the easy access to information and controversies about our recent past. The American Adam, I guess.

    And Eve. LGM needs regular posts about “This Day in Feminist HIstory.”

    • That would be great! I would love a “this day in feminist history.” Also, I loved DennisGs occasional series at Balloon Juice (I think it was balloon juice) on civil war history.

  • Nigel Holmes

    How to get name recognition on the internet:
    1)Dylan Matthews writes post titled “Care about unemployment? Indentured service brokers care more than you do.”
    2)Fifty liberal blogs write posts, beginning “Once again Ezra Klein …”
    3)The comments sections respond, “It’s not Ezra, it’s Dylan Matthews.”

    He didn’t invent it, but he’s put a lot of work into polishing the form of the classic model: “Traditional progressive concern? You need to adopt this conservative policy.”

    • My father told me once that there was an entire subset of scientific professional log rolling where you settle into successful mediocrity by simply pretending to “confirm” other people’s results. You can publish a lot confirming other people’s insightful experiments and when, eventually, those experiments are falsified you just shrug your shoulders and say “I must have made the same error in my confirmaiton experiments as the original researchers did in their experiments. Oh well.” There’s plenty of room, in other words, to be an insincere repeater of conventional wisdom (or contrarian wisdom) and its safer and easier than thinking and publishing novel work.

  • The transition from “moderate Republican” to Reagantot can be understood by comparing this conversation with the following post from Kos:


    • Wow! For a ghost you have great links! That link to the kos diary is fascinating. I lived through the strike but was too young to understand the issues and the antecedents. I remember despairing when Reagan got in but things went to shit so fast that I barely remember the Carter years or the election itself.

  • David T

    If labor and liberals had supported Nixon’s health plan, Nixon would probably have backed away from it. It’s like conservative support for an individual-mandate-based health care bill in 1993-4 as a weapon against Hillarycare; it was politically convenient to show that you wanted to “do something” about healthcare–unless the Democrats backed it and it had a real chance of being enacted.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Yeah, that’s certainly my guess.

      • Elihawk

        Maybe, but Nixon certainly had a record on Domestic policy of generally going along with the Democratic Congress on certain things so he had free time to do his foreign policy wizardry abroad. It’s how we got stuff like the Clean Air Act, OSHA, and the EPA.

  • Cody

    The AEI supported the Iraq War. The SAME PEOPLE WHO ARE CURRENTLY THERE.

    So apparently they have a great track record! But oh no, a few Unions 50 years ago made the wrong choice and now they must all pay…

  • Halloween Jack

    This is the anti-union equivalent of saying that we can’t take Democrats seriously on civil rights today because Robert Byrd was a Klan member in 1946.

    I’m surprised you-know-who hasn’t popped up, a la Beetlejuice or Candyman.

  • Heron

    Given that the courts have perennially taken “…the right of the people to peaceably assemble…” to mean “the people”(not even citizens, but anybody) have the right to create and belong to whatever social associations they wish, and the right “..to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” combined with the stipulation against “…abridging the freedom of speech…” to mean the people so organized have the unequivocal right to protest the actions of private third parties such as businesses, research hospitals, cemeteries, and even health clinics, I don’t really see how anyone can say they share the values of the United States, cherish the freedoms our BoR grants, and oppose the existence and practice of unions at the same time. How, if you accept these interpretations, could unions be an illegitimate practice, let alone an illegal one? The only answer I can think of is rank, unexamined classism.

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