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Nocera and Beltway Unionism


I was OK with Joe Nocera’s column coming to realize that, hey, maybe unions do have value in American society! After all, as a long-time member of the Beltway class, it is useful to see him come around on the idea rather than continue with the decade-long union ragging that has obsessed the respectable class. And it’s somewhat less suprising that Nocera would be one to do this because his parents were union members. But as he says:

That last one, I have to admit, caught me up short. My parents were both public high school teachers, who proudly walked picket lines when the need arose. My hometown, Providence, R.I., was about as pro-union a city as you could find outside the Rust Belt. But like many college-educated children of union parents, I have never been a member of a union, and I viewed them with mild disdain.

At least he’s honest. After all, for the 60s generation with its embrace of individualism and sky’s the limit possibilities, what good was working-class people standing together? After all, some hardhats beat up hippies that one time.

Of course, there’s nothing in here that anyone who has even the most basic familiarity with the modern labor movement doesn’t already know. It’s clearly written for the clueless Beltway class by the (pretty) clueless Beltway class. But that’s OK, after all, I’m glad he is saying it.

And then we get to the end. Nocera has spent the whole time noting that he was probably wrong about unions, that the private sector will crush workers when it needs to, that government has played a major role in this problem. But he can’t help taking a traditional shot at labor, I guess to keep his respectability at Beltway cocktail parties.

“Say what you want about the abuses that labor committed,” says Noah. “They were adversarial. They weren’t concerned enough about the general prosperity. Some of them were mobbed up. But they were necessary institutions.”

Not surprisingly, Noah closes his book with a call for a revival of the labor movement. It is hard to see that happening any time soon. And unions need to change if they are to become viable again. But if liberals really want to reverse income inequality, they should think seriously about rejoining labor’s side.

So how does labor need to change exactly? The mob connections of the past are dead so it can’t be that. That they are too adversarial? Is that the problem? Really? You’ve just been saying all these horrible ways that the decline of unions has negatively affected the nation and then you close by suggesting that adversarial ways are not the way to go? So what is supposed to work exactly? Politely register disappointment with Scott Walker for destroying their labor organizations? And saying that unions weren’t concerned enough about the general prosperity is too absurd to address seriously–that long-time opposition to all manner of legislation that would bring about relative economic equality is well-noted…..

Of course labor does need to change in a lot of ways–take it to the streets more often, focus on organizing over political donations, etc. But that’s obviously not what Nocera is saying. Instead, he seems to want a unionism that is acceptable to bring inside the New York Times editorial room. Where David Brooks writes today that a vote to recall Scott Walker is a vote for the immorality of debt. So I guess I’ll take Nocera’s progress when I can get it.

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