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Private-Sector Unions Are the Real Battle


Yglesias summarizes the horrible federal court injunction that retroactively applies new rules for airline organizing, rules created during last summer’s ridiculous FAA standoff when Democrats caved on yet another labor issue to pacify Republicans, to the current American Airlines campaign to stop a unionization campaign by its passenger service agents with the Communication Workers of America. I don’t see how retroactively applying the law is legal except in the sense that it agrees with current Republican orthodoxy which is good enough for most of the federal courts and the Supreme Court in 2012.

But for as awful as this is, the real issue is the ability for unions to organize the private sector. Yglesias:

As a policy matter, the whole story illustrates how fundamentally bleak the outlook for American unions is. Political polarization has given Republicans a clear-cut partisan interest in doing whatever they can to block unionization efforts, completely apart from questions of ideology and business interests. And the basic tactic of changing rules midstream and applying them retroactively can be used in an endless number of permutations to block major organizing efforts. The CWA and the organizing workers will, of course, appeal the decision. But the conservative majority on the Supreme Court proved last week that it’s no more sympathetic to the union cause than the rest of the American right. The result is a set of political and legal situations in which it’s difficult to see how any major private-sector organizing battle can be won unless the Democratic Party has a sudden change of heart and starts fighting equally aggressively on the other side of these issues.

While I tend to eschew language about the end of unions, Yglesias does sum up the fundamental problem Americans unions face today–a Gilded Age problem one might say, when industry and the state are combining to destroy labor unions. Ideally, Democratic politicians would understand what is at stake here, but they continue either to not understand or not care, figuring that a future of corporate donations can make up for the grassroots political advantages unions provide. Again, Yglesias:

Point being that the future of the labor movement will be determined in the private sector, and that future is extremely bleak if there’s going to be post hoc legal changes every time a large bloc of workers gets close to organizing

He’s absolutely correct on the point about private sector organizing determining the future of the labor movement. Public sector unions are important and what happened in Wisconsin and Ohio is absolutely vital for understanding modern labor and how it is fighting back. But the only way to bring labor back in this country is to organize private sector workplaces. There’s no easy answer for that right now, particularly in the face of state repression.

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