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The Democratic Party: Labor’s Frenemy

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I have a long piece in the Boston Review on the complicated relationship between organized labor and the Democratic Party. The basic thesis is that unions have no real choice other than working within the Democratic Party even when the Democratic Party does not pay off that support. In the end, what other choices does labor have? The political wilderness. An excerpt that starts by considering the paradox that despite the Obama administration doing a lot for workers in the second term, unionization rates still declined in the last 8 years:

This mixed bag for American workers suggests both the possibilities and limitations of labor unions’ integration into the Democratic Party. Nothing in American labor history suggests unions can succeed if the government opposes their causes, but unions have consistently failed to further a pro-labor agenda within the Democratic Party. And without a realistic alternative—the Republican Party, after all, has waged a multi-decade war on workers—unions have no choice but to keep working within the Democratic Party.

Historically unions have faced three fundamental challenges within the Democratic Party. First, and perhaps most importantly, they are politically isolated, thanks to geographical limitations. Unions only ever held significant power in a handful of states in the Northeast and Midwest, with smaller numbers on the West Coast. This meant that politicians throughout the South, Great Plains, and Rocky Mountain states could ignore unions, attract companies to their states by claiming they would remain non-union, and pay no political price for hostility to organized labor.

Second, the Democratic Party has lacked a coherent industrial policy for the last half-century that would foster union growth. Both Democrats and Republicans have helped companies move their union factories to overseas locations while having no realistic job plans for those workers left behind.

Third, and as a result of the other two issues, the labor movement has remained a junior partner in the Democratic Party, unable to be the kingmaker it hoped to be after World War II. Without meaningful input or control of the Democratic agenda, it remains reliant on the goodwill of national Democrats and the few allies it does manage to cultivate to promote its agenda.

I go on to discuss how the failure of unions to organize the South in face of widespread racebaiting and anti-Semitism meant that Democrats like Carter and Clinton rose to power owing basically nothing to unions and how that, combined with the lack of a meaningful industrial policy or any real plan to deal with globalization, deindustrialization, and automation, means that Democrats have a lot of responsibility for the problems workers face today. Yet, what else is there for unions to do but to keep trying to make the Democratic Party better? Not much.

I also argue that the progressive politics of the small, grassroots donor is basically a consumerist politics that privileges middle class white people over workers and the collective action that only unions can provide.

The reality of the post–Citizens United world even further marginalizes organized labor within the Democratic Party. Democratic candidates are increasingly reliant upon both corporate grandees and small donors to run election campaigns. But while progressives mostly like the small donor model, which worked so well for Bernie Sanders, what this really means is that legions of middle to upper-middle class white donors will be funding grassroots Democratic campaigns. Without a strong union influence over candidates, union workers, who are increasingly African-Americans and Latinos and who lack the resources to donate to candidates individually, will be shut out of the process. Such a model might be good for progressive initiatives such as gathering support for minimum wage hikes, but significantly less so for union-specific legislation such as passing card check legislation or reversing a national right-to-work bill if Trump were to sign one. If unions could not reverse legislative setbacks during the Johnson or Obama eras, it seems even less likely that they will be able to the next time Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress.

And yes, this may be the first ever political article or at the very least article about labor unions to use the word “frenemy” in the title. I feel like getting that title through the editors is a victory for 21st century language.

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