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Did Democrats “Let Unions Die?”

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There’s a leftist component to Murc’s Law–that in American political discourse, only Democrats have agency, for those uninitiated to the maxim. We see that a lot on the labor left, where Democrats are seen as feckless sellouts who throw labor under the bus time and time again instead of standing up for the workers. It’s not that this sort of analysis is completely out of touch; after all, there are plenty of Democrats who don’t really care that much about unions. But when people say that bad Democrats are the reason that unions have fallen, well, that’s just not true. Eric Levitz has a version of this up in this NY Mag story that has been circulating widely in the labor world. Levitz is a smart guy and he rightly points out that it is more complicated. But his analysis of the Democratic Party is incomplete, because it ignores the long-term historical relationships between the labor movement and the party that demonstrate why Democrats can get away with marginalizing organized labor.

Nevertheless, there was lot that Democrats could have done — through labor law reform — to shelter the union movement from these changes, and help it establish a bigger footprint in the service sector. At present, employers are prohibited from firing workers for organizing or threatening to close businesses if workers unionize — but the penalties for such violations are negligible. Further, while they must recognize unions once they are ratified by workers in an election, employers can delay those elections for months or even years — and, even after recognition, face no obligation to reach a contract with their newly unionized workers.

Democrats could have increased the penalties for violating labor law, enabled unions to circumvent the election process if a majority of workers signed union cards (a.k.a. “card check”), and required employers to enter arbitration with unions if no contract was reached within 120 days of their formation — as Barack Obama promised the labor movement they would, in 2008.

Or, if they were feeling a bit more radical, they could have repealed the part of the Taft-Hartley Act that allows conservatives states to pass “right to work” laws. Such laws undermine organized labor by allowing workers who join a unionized workplace to enjoy the benefits of a collective bargaining agreement without paying dues to the union that negotiated it. This encourages other workers to skirt their dues, which can then drain a union of the funds it needs to survive.

Sure. And I would have liked to see all of this. So why didn’t it happen? Why does it never happen? It didn’t happen because unions don’t have enough power in this country and that goes back a long, long time.

For this, you have to go back to the period after World War II, which strongly shapes the issue in the present. When the CIO was at its peak, organizing the big auto, steel, and rubber plants, as well as many smaller industries, it had a lot of success and flexed its political muscles. Walter Reuther especially wanted labor to act as it would in Europe, a force with a hand in every political and social issue in the nation. But there was a problem. Half of all CIO members were in five states–Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Illinois. Even given that the CIO had a major reach in many smaller states, such as the New England states, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, that left it concentrated in a small part of the country.

Moreover, it existed in a nation where every state, no matter the population, has two senators. So it knew that if it were to survive and prosper, it would have to expand its reach. To leverage power like it wanted, it had to have power in Wyoming and Alabama, along with Ohio and Rhode Island. This led to Operation Dixie, the attempt to organize the South after World War II. It failed miserably for a number of reasons. First, the CIO’s racial strategy was poorly thought out and disastrous on the ground. By downplaying black workers to appeal to white workers, it alienated its own potential members while not attracting enough white workers. But while a terrible idea, this got to the larger problem that the South was very, very different from the North. Employers knew this and had moved much production there. The combination of racism, evangelical Christianity, anti-Semitism (relevant because unions were stereotyped as Jewish organizations and in fact many CIO organizers were Jews), paternalistic social relations, and a lack of immigration all made the South highly appealing to employers. Combined with the lack of large-scale industrial work on the Great Plains and in much of the Mountain West, outside of mining, and the conditions were very poor for the American labor movement to consolidate power. That’s why even in the Democratic Party, unions had a hard time making much headway.

The failure of Operation Dixie in 1946 was followed up upon by the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, outlawing much of what the CIO had done to organize the big northern industries, allowing for right-to-work states, and forcing the communist leadership out of the unions. Remember, this was passed over Truman’s veto. In 1948, Lyndon Johnson won the Senate in no small part by lying about his opponent’s love of unions. That was gold for Texas voters, who saw unions as foreign, Jewish, and pro-black. This is all terrible, but when Texas had 2 Democratic votes in the Senate, not to mention a growing number of members of Congress, this was bad news for labor.

Combined with unions embracing anti-communist Cold War politics and a greater emphasis on expanding the economic pie for union members, it’s not as if union leadership really challenged this paradigm by the mid-1950s and the 1955 merger between the AFL and CIO made sense since there wasn’t that much difference between the two organizations by that time. But labor’s inability to be the central kingmaker in the Democratic Party would come back to haunt it. Both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were pretty open about how their rise owed nothing to unions and they acted like it. After all, unions were a negligible power in Georgia and Arkansas politics. Carter actually had the opportunity to sign incredibly progressive labor legislation but expended no energy in favor of it and quite a bit to water it down, especially with the 1978 Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act. Clinton, more responsive to the DLC and organized labor, didn’t even try to do anything for organized labor, especially around NAFTA and other trade issues. It was bad for the Democratic Party, but they were right that they owed nothing to labor.

Now, yes, this had a terrible impact on the Democratic Party in the long run. But given the unpoplarity of unions in their own states for much of the 20th century, it’s hardly surprising. And it was still very much a thing in 2009. Let’s say Obama made the Employee Free Choice Act his #1 political priority. How would he have possibly gained 60 votes for it? What was going to make Blanche Lincoln and Ben Nelson and Mark Pryor vote for this? Where were the unions in Arkansas and Nebraska to pressure them from the left? They weren’t nearly powerful enough, especially in the wave of Republican backlash overwhelming the nation by that fall. Now, let’s say that Obama succeeded somehow in getting those 60 votes and he signs the bill. How is labor that much different now than it is anyway? Sure, organizing would be a little easier. But what stops all those states such as Wisconsin and Michigan and Iowa and Kentucky and West Virginia from becoming right-to-work? Who can tell, but I don’t see any clear path. All of a sudden Wisconsin unions organize thousands of workers and Scott Walker doesn’t get elected?

Levitz is absolutely right in citing research demonstrating that right-to-work laws depress Democratic voting, which is why Republicans love them. Unions are the only institution in all of American history to educate and mobilize the working class to act collectively for their own economic interests. This is why Republicans and bosses hate them and are seeking to eliminate them. But this analysis–and more importantly, the reaction to this article on the labor left–reinforces incorrect narratives.

It’s not that I have a great answer to the problem. As I’m arguing in my upcoming book, the problem that labor has traditionally faced is twofold. First, the American working class is deeply divided by race. Second, when the government is opposed to workers making advances, it’s almost impossible for unions to succeed. The answer, or at least the best I have, really is just a combination of old-fashioned organizing and electing the right politicians to office that will act to support workers. That’s all the harder though when unions have less power with every election, something that will almost certainly continue when the Supreme Court inevitably creates national right-to-work in the public sector in the upcoming Janus case. Yet at the same time, any Democrat competing for the 2020 presidential nomination has to support an economic populist agenda. A $15 minimum wage is almost certainly going to be something any winning candidate must support, for starters. Ironically, unions’ declines may be creating space for this since the emphasis is now on passing broad-based labor legislation instead of specific issues that matter to specific unions. Given a long history of unions creating caveats to progressive economic legislation for their own interests or even outright opposition, including to much of the original draft of Humphrey-Hawkins, this might not be a terrible thing, even as the overall impact of organized labor’s decline is disastrous.

The ultimate problem with labor is a complex conglomeration of issues that include automation, free trade, globalization, capital mobility within the United States, the decline of some American industries to more efficient foreign competition, terrible union leadership in some unions, the fact that for many workers racial and gender and heterosexual identity matters more than class identity, harsh corporate opposition that has funneled many millions of dollars against them for decades, a Republican Party that hates them, and yes, Democrats who didn’t understand how badly they needed unions for a successful party.

Distilling this down to another article blaming Democrats is an oversimplification that really just doesn’t help us move forward to create an economy with justice for all. It’s a piece of the problem. But it’s the piece much of the left most wants to hear instead of dealing with the tricky problems of globalization or the fact that sizable portions of the white working class is easily led to vote for politicians who make them feel good about being white.

For more, I was involved in a long Twitter conversation with Levitz and Rich Yeselson about all of this that may interest some of you.

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