The defeat of the recall effort in Wisconsin has, understandably, troubled the waters on the left. Everyone from Ezra Klein to Doug Henwood to Josh Eidelson is trying to figure out what it means. I’ve been doing the same, though I’m still not sure.
So I put the question to my Facebook friends. Lots of folks participated in the discussion: bloggers like Aaron Bady and Seth Ackerman, political scientists like Scott Lemieux and Alan Ryan, journalists like Doug, and labor experts like Gordon Lafer, Stephanie Luce, and Nathan Newman.
The discussion was kicked off by my posting Klein’s observations on FB, and everyone took it from there.
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Corey Robin Here are some sobering thoughts from the preternaturally middle-aged Ezra Klein. Curious to hear folks’ thoughts on this.
Paul Heideman Very telling that Klein’s key concern here is how to reduce corporate power over elections, with no words about corporate power over workers.
Corey Robin Just to clarify: Klein’s stuff about getting money out of politics seems like pabulum; more curious to know what you think about what he says about labor and balance of power within and between parties.
Corey Robin Paul, you beat me to the punch!
Nathan Newman I posted this in my thread, but Ezra has never been particularly loyal to labor as an institution (pissed me off royally when he attacked the anti-Walmart movement in Chicago when I was working with that campaign), so this is hardly a new theme with him.
First, the inevitable decline of labor has been happening supposedly for decades. And I can list the ways in which Dems actually more uniformly favor labor in voting patterns than they did thirty years ago. No doubt the GOP has gained seats because of the weakening of the labor movement, but there is little evidence that labor wields less influence within the Democratic Party than they did a generation ago. Labor still raises over $8 billion per year, where even a small part devoted to politics makes labor a decisive support for Dem elected politicians– plus the millions of remaining labor members that are contacted by and mobilized by labor in elections.
Honestly, labor is smaller than thirty years ago but far more innovative and effective out of necessity. Not perfect, but look at the list of major labor leaders from the early 70s (from George Meany on down) and compare them to those leading labor today– it’s hard to argue progressives are worse off today. It sucks for workers day-to-day in the workplace to have lower unionization rates but I’m unconvinced that labor matters less in the political sphere. (Remember, labor came closer to getting labor law reform under Obama than they did under LBJ or Jimmy Carter)
Corey Robin One question about that last point, Nathan: My impression of labor law reform under Carter is that while you’re right about the final outcome, business did a much bigger mobilization against it then; I mean it was the real line in the sand on which they made their stand. So initially labor law reform had very strong support and it was whittled away with time. If it had seemed like labor law reform was going to be a possibility under Obama — had the Dems really had the votes — I do wonder if business couldn’t have done the same. There wasn’t the same titanic struggle over it.
Aaron Bady Wisconsin doesn’t “show” anything that the person saying it wasn’t already convinced of. In other words, yeah, unions are in a bad way, but we all already knew that; Scott Walker is himself a great demonstration and advancer of that fact, and it would still be true even if he had lost. Election results are always caused by lots of different factors, and this one was no exception: one of them was union weakness, but to claim that it shows us something new about union weakness is vacuous. Or, rather, it demonstrates something about the ideological desire of the writer: because election results are always over-determined, you can tell a lot about a person by what they look at the ink blot and perceive it as being.
Nathan Newman Corey, there was a very titanic struggle over labor law reform by business. Remember, corporate interests pushed through multiple state referendums challenging card check before it got close to passage. I would say the skirmishing was slightly less public inside the Beltway, but out in the states where I was doing a lot of work, literally thousands of state legislators were mobilized on both sides of the issue.
Jay Driskell I think Ezra Klein’s concern over the fate of labor conflates a mixed result in this battle with losing the entire war.15 months ago, Wisconsin’s labor movement was not nearly so mobilized. Walker-style anti-union bills were cruising through the state legislatures of MO, IN and OH and the Dems hadn’t really aggressively organized in the red counties of WI for decades.
Here’s what we’ve accomplished since then:
1. WI labor – though bloodied is more mobilized than it has been in a long time – taking the fight into the reddest of red precincts in the state.
2. The Walker agenda has been derailed in WI esp since the Dems took back the state Senate. It’s also been derailed throughout the Midwest – as the defeat of Ohio’s SB 5 attests.
3. They did all of this without the help of Obama or the DNC (though to his credit, Obama did trouble himself to send a tweet in support…)
4. With the backing of labor, the WI Dems made it a real fight even while being outspent 10 to 1.
5. The folks in WI have helped inspire OWS (which has wrested the national debate about austerity and failings of capitalism from the control of the Tea Party).
I don’t think that last night’s election indicates a decline of labor at all. I think it indicates that it is quite healthy. We didn’t win everything, but we fought hard. I don’t think that Ezra Klein seems to care all that much about working people (see Paul Heideman’s comment above). His hand-wringing comes I think from his concern over Obama’s re-election prospects in 2012. That’s all that’s going on here.
Nathan Newman Also note that Ezra’s ax to grind is actually that labor has TOO MUCH political influence in the Democratic party and opposed his favored solution, the DISCLOSE Act.
Erik Loomis What I took from this is that Ezra thinks of labor as nothing more than an interest group whose primary mission it is to support the Democratic Party. Thus, what’s important for Ezra is how the Democratic Party survives in a post-Citizens United world. Which suggests that he doesn’t really understand what the point of labor unions are.
Corey Robin I guess I’m more interested in the substantive point Klein raises — re the declining power of labor, politically (and, it goes without saying, in the workplace) — than in Ezra Klein. Nathan and Jay have spoken some to this. I wonder what other folks think.
Nathan Newman Erik- Um, yes. Ezra built his blogger reputation around the health care issue, largely by trashing unions for establishing health care benefits for their own members instead of supporting Ezra’s favored solution of individual health care benefits backed by an individual mandate.
Here is a post I did back in 2006 about Ezra’s tendency to oppose labor politics to “progressive politics” represented by people like himself.
Ben Alpers Ezra Klein was middle-aged when he was an undergraduate (indeed that’s practically his explanation for why he supported the War on Iraq…he couldn’t abide those hippies among his fellow UCSC students). “Neoliberal cries crocodile tears over the death of old-school liberalism” was already old news twenty years ago.
Corey Robin Okay okay okay: really not looking for a trash Ezra fest, as fun as that can be. Try to stick to the substance of the issue, please!
Ben Alpers This is key, Jay: “3. They did all of this without the help of Obama or the DNC (though to his credit, Obama did trouble himself to send a tweet in support…)”
There’s a lot to build on in Wisconsin and none of it came about because of the Democratic Party. Our political system for decades has functioned as a kind of a ratchet, in which the GOP makes things worse for working Americans, and one votes for Democrats to slow the process a little, before the GOP comes back to power and makes things worse again.
Ezra Klein defines the problem as: how do we elect more Democrats? I think the larger problem is that electing more Democrats, while certainly less bad than electing more Republicans, has not made things better for average Americans in at least thirty years. And Ezra Klein is part of that problem (which is why “trashing” him is actually entirely germane).
Nathan Newman But Corey– it matters for this debate since if labor is declining, it strengthens the political position of those like Ezra who argue for a pure “electoral” view of progressive politics. Taft-Hartley was passed in 1946 and lots of conservative Dems supported it back then, so the meme that “labor lost this battle so Dems should loosen their alliance with unions” has a long history.
Scott Lemieux I guess one can argue about whether the fatalism is correct, but I find the general point unexceptionable (and very much not “neoliberal.”) Unlike some pundits who talk about the value of redistributive politics as opposed to labor, Klein’s point in this post is that progressive policies without labor unions are very unlikely to happen, and this is a serious problem. I see this as an important point, and I also note that more corporate-dominated Congresses are certainly relevant to corporate power over workers.
Thomas Nephew Echoing Ben a bit here: with all due disrespect to Klein, he’s not the one who decided to frame this as an electoral struggle, rather than a labor one. As far as I can tell sitting on the East Coast, that was a mutual labor/Democratic Party choice, but it meant the Wisconsin fight mutated from a labor/mobilization struggle — which might have instead led to, say, general strikes — to an electoral one for a Democratic party candidates. Klein doesn’t put it this way (of course), but it’s not out of bounds to see the failed Walker recall vote (and the failure to win enough recall elections last year) as illustrating the limits of the electoral approach for labor unions.
Ben Alpers Scott: given the state of electoral politics in America today, understanding politics as no more or less than electoral politics is a recipe for progressive failure.
Nathan Newman Scott- I don’t think that’s Ezra’s point. He pretty much explicitly calls for Dems switching to an attack on “all interest groups [as] having too much political power, and unite behind legislation that would weaken them.” So don’t defend unions– go after corporate and union power in a combined legislative assault in hopes that small progressive donors can replace union and corporate money in elections.
Scott Lemieux Saying that electoral politics matters (which it obviously does — the decline of labor mobilization after Taft-Hartley is hardly a coincidence) doesn’t mean that all politics is electoral politics.
Thomas Nephew Scott: true, but if labor itself acts like all politics is electoral politics, it’s going to lose more often than it needs to and more often than we can afford for it to. Were recall efforts really the best way to go? Where will the remaining (or for all I know, increased) energy go now — to Obama? Will that help labor and those it has traditionally helped the most, or will it mainly help Democrats like Obama who have failed to keep their promise to “put on some comfortable shoes and walk the picket line” with them?
Ben Alpers To me the political question coming out of the failure of the recall efforts is not “how do the Democrats survive without labor?” but rather “how do progressives build on the Occupy model?”
Stephanie Luce On the general point about labor losing power: I think Klein is right. Though as others have said – this is nothing new. But WI (and OWS) showed an opening for unions to get creative and bold.
Some took the chance but for the most part, I think we see either:
1. Big unions that simply can’t break out of their old thinking, who think they can play the same game as usual, and who operate on short-term thinking that takes current consciousness as a given and panders to it rather than trying to change it. (e.g., downplay union issues, play up “middle class” noncontroversial language).
2. Union leaders with more vision, who may be ready to be bolder but realize they have a demobilized and demoralized base of members.
The signs of larger defeat are everywhere. Look at labor’s top 3 priorities after electing Obama; look at Democratic mayors like Rahm Emmanuel and in San Jose, CA where the mayor just helped push through major cuts to public sector pensions yesterday. Look at Dem Governors like Deval Patrick. Look at what Barrett himself did as mayor in Milwaukee. When the Dems join the Republicans in targeting public sector workers as the cause of budget crises and unions won’t or can’t fight back, I think it’s over.
Gordon Lafer I think Klein is both right and wrong. There’s no getting around the fact that the recall, and other things happening in the states for the last two years, signal the impact of Citizens United on state politics — i.e. someone can do something quite unpopular, and still survive politically by massively outspending the opposition, including ways that fundamentally mislead the electorate as to the truth of issues. Fortunately, sometimes this power doesn’t work, and is still outdone by people-power. But there’s no question that there’s a qualitative increase in the power of corporations and the very rich’s influence on politics. What I think Klein gets wrong is the idea that it’s going to be easier to pass campaign-finance laws than progressive labor laws—and the faux-cleverness of thinking that you can fool corporate lobbies or the GOP into policing corporate power by saying you’re against all “interest groups,” workers and corporations together. That never works. The more offensive part of this is his treating this like it’s an attack on a limited special-interest group, which at the end he of course chooses to join in the attack against. The biggest blind spot in his analysis is not seeing that what the real agenda behind the destruction of public sector unions in Wisconsin and the other anti-labor initiative in state legislatures is not about unions per se; it’s about getting unions out of the way in the political process so that corporations and the rich can remake the economy at will — in ways that affect everyone, not specific to union members. That’s why the same people pushing Walker’s bill also push anti-minimum wage, pro-”free trade,” anti-consumer rights, anti-pay equity, slashing unemployment insurance, lifting caps on school class sizes, etc. Organized workers are the one thing that significantly stands between the Kochs, the Chamber, et al, and an even more radical neoliberalization of America — that’s why unions are first on the chopping block. To cast the story so narrowly as Klein and others do is the biggest blind spot here.
Nathan Newman Thomas- I actually agree that labor can get diverted into electoral politics but I’m not sure how Wisconsin recall fights were in the interest of Obama in particular? Obama has done more for labor than most other Dem Presidents– good NLRB appointments, lots of stimulus money for unionized teachers and nurses, and so on — so I’m not sure what the point is there.
My worry on labor is that too much energy is going to electoral politics and not enough into new organizing campaigns and rallying the same kind of public support for those fights as was applied in the recall efforts. The question is whether there is really a well of support among non-union progressives for supporting those non-electoral organizing campaigns by unions for economic justice in the workplace. That is the test that needs to be pushed.
Alan Ryan What do you make of the fact that the male vote was overwhelmingly pro-Walker, the female vote heavily anti-Walker, and the black vote overwhelmingly anti-Walker? I incline to think that women voted against “divisiveness,” and mean against recalling anyone for anything other than blatant corruption; and the exit polls suggest people voted for Walker yesterday who will vote for Obama in the fall. What conclusions one can draw from that, heaven only knows.
Scott Lemieux I do agree with a lot of what Gordon says — I think Ezra greatly overestimates the efficacy of stuff like the DISCLOSE act and ignores that it’s almost as hard to pass that kind of bill as, you know, real pro-labor legislation. I don’t have a silver bullet solution, but to the extent he sees campaign finance restrictions as an adequate substitute for real pro-labor legislation he’s wrong. OTOH, I think that to think that a radical, effective labor movement will develop alongside radically pro-corporate legislatures that are gutting labor protections is a fantasy.
Thomas Nephew I didn’t mean the recall efforts were in Obama’s interest, I meant they were in the WI Dem party’s interest and only of prospective, postponed, and now near-zero benefit to labor. I was speculating that Obama would be the next such beneficiary. I felt like the EFCA failure and his failure to show up for WI labor either in winter 2010/2011 or now were strikes against him, but bow to your assessment. Again, though, to what overall gain? The question is not just Klein’s “should Dems cut loose from labor”, it’s “should labor cut loose from Dems” and a largely electoral strategy. We seem to agree that some of the latter needs to be explored.
Thomas Nephew Scott: I think radical labor movements have arguably often developed alongside radically pro-corporate legislatures, often precisely because of what those legislatures were up to. But their effects were delayed, it generally wasn’t pretty, and the radical unionists often didn’t get the credit they deserved years later. Perhaps an example: Those guys didn’t leave it at canvassing for Dems. :)
Scott Lemieux I said radical and effective. If the late 19th century is an example of social justice winning I’d hate to see an example of things getting worse. (Which, of course, absolutely does not mean that unions should leave it to canvassing for Democrats.)
Corey Robin Scott, you’re not responding to Thomas’s point. He’s not saying they were a model of winning or effectiveness; he’s saying their victories came later but could not have happened without those years of defeat. And indeed it’s hard to imagine any effective social movement that didn’t spend years in the wilderness first.
Nathan Newman Sometimes the prosaic answer is BOTH. Labor can’t ignore politics if only to avoid devastating anti-union legislation but also for the positive gains you get, but it’s not sufficient.
And I am a great believer that labor law reform will come from radical, innovative union organizing, some of which will inevitably have to be illegal under current laws, in order to force a legislative compromise that re-channels that organizing energy back into a legal, but more pro-labor framework. Note that the only major pro-labor legislation enacted post Taft-Hartley were the 1974 amendments legalizing hospital-related union actions which followed a range of illegal strikes hospital workers.
Unions need to figure out the forms of solidarity that will resonate with the broader progressive movement, engage public sentiment, and challenge corporate power. Justice for Janitors fit that bill and had some success. We’ve seen some recent health care fights that have done that. But the major unions seem to have backed off from the big organizing drives in the last year or two and that’s the most worrisome thing to me.
Scott Lemieux Well, if we’re going the full heighten-the-contradictions mode, should we actually be celebrating Walker’s victory? As Republican after Republican crushes the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions, this will surely radicalize some union members who have been denied their rights. This doesn’t make that a good thing; radicalism isn’t an end in itself. Again (and I endorse everything Nathan says above) this doesn’t limit politics to electoral politics, but crushing labor rights isn’t going to lead to a more effective labor movement and more than Taft-Hartley did.
Nathan Newman Yeah– losing is not a political aphrodisiac, except for masochists. Losing mostly begat losing in the late 19th century– and the federal troops breaking strikes didn’t help (ie. slightly more effective politics would have helped then as well). Time in the wilderness usually breeds bizarre sect-like behavior, not effective engagement with the broad public.
The recipe for social movements is not always clear, but the literature is pretty clear that straight up repression doesn’t breed mass action. Usually, it’s small successes building towards greater success– often with a dose of rising expectations from outside environmental factors.
One problem I see in the present period is that the public is so cynical that they almost accept that they will get screwed by corporate interests. They don’t like it but they don’t really believe there is an alternative. But what this means is that leftist harping on corporate power and greedy actions is almost self-defeating, since it just feeds that same cynicism.
What would be helpful is more leftist harping on progressive successes, so that people can actually believe that we can build on those successes for something more. One reason I will come off as an Obama apologist is that I think talking about what has been accomplished as President– and only with progressive mobilization — is the best way to get people excited. And at that point, it’s worth raising the issue of why more hasn’t been done.
Corey Robin I was hardly arguing for a heightening the contradictions or recommending failure as a way of doing politics or arguing that repression produces mass action; nothing in what I said entails or even suggests that. But every social movement begins, by definition, in the wilderness. Good leadership learns how to lead out of that wilderness. A lot of political education and leadership training and organizational learning are going on amid failures and defeats—all that often gets overlooked yet it can prove to be a school for long-term victory. Risking failure and coping with and learning from failure is a lot of what building a social movement is all about, Nathan, and if you truly want labor to engage in the kinds of disruptive and illegal organizing campaigns that bring about victories, it’s going to have to be able to risk defeat/failure—for workers, every day on a picket line can feel like a failure; you never feel like you’re winning till you actually win—to get there.
Corey Robin Here’s Doug Henwood’s take on the whole matter: curious to hear thoughts. I think this is a really important conversation to have, and I hope people can have it by actually speaking to each other’s points and not going after versions of each other’s points that they find easiest to parry. Oddly, it seems to me that Nathan and Doug—who I usually think of as on opposite sides of these debates—actually agree on the deeper issue: they both think labor is not doing enough to be a full social movement, and they both seem to think the fault for that lies mostly with labor itself. Nathan thinks perhaps labor is doing more than Doug realizes—and so wants to accentuate the positive in that regard (and that, I suspect, more than anything is what really divides him and Doug)—but on the basic question I don’t see them as all that different. Or am I wrong? Try to keep the personal animus and invective down, but let’s really argue this out.
Nathan Newman I probably agree with Doug that channeling all that energy into the recall election was a mistake, but activism is not a zero sum game. I wasn’t on the ground in Wisconsin and that may have been where the energy was—and Doug’s proposal for some general education campaign on living standards seems like a pretty weak alternative. Election campaigns naturally attract energy because they are concrete with real outcomes in some set time period that normal people can envision working on (and then stopping to go back to their lives).
Those of us with open-ended commitments to politics and activism can argue for long-term base-building fights without immediate payoffs, but that’s not always the best recruiting message :)
Doug Henwood Nathan, a “general education campaign” was far from my only proposal. You saw the bit about single-payer?
Corey Robin One problem I have with Doug’s analysis, which draws so many conclusions about the state of unions from this recall vote, is that just across the border in Ohio, which is probably slightly more reliable as a Red state (I don’t know this for sure; at a minimum, it’s pretty close to WI), when there was a mass referendum on the almost-identical issue that propelled unions to push for the recall of Walker, voters voted with the unions. I’ve been reading a lot about how in Wisconsin the procedural qualms about a recall really did influence a fair number of voters. They simply felt that an election is an election; you don’t like what the guy or gal does, you vote against ‘em next time. Recalls are really rare, and so it was a very tough hurdle to get over. But anyway the point is that in Ohio they had the exact opposite result when the issue really was about collective bargaining rights for workers.
Doug Henwood I am insisting that people start by acknowledging that unions are not very popular, and for often good reasons. Anyone who evades that is sweet-talking him- or herself.
Corey Robin But in Ohio, when the issue was unions and nothing but unions, the voters voted with the unions. I was organizing in CA in 1997, when there was a ballot initiative against union dues check-off: the unions made the case about why unions matter to the public, and the public voted with them (even though this was an incredibly well funded initiative by the right). In WI, the issue got clouded by the procedural stumbling block of the recall. I’m all in favor of not sugar-coating things. But in the same way that I remain leery of Nathan saying we should talk up the positives for the alleged sake of a better political outcome—were I an organizer, I certainly would do that, but I’m not—so am I leery of talking up the negatives for the alleged sake of a better political outcome. I’d rather focus on the actual matter at hand.
Ben Alpers I think Corey and Doug can both be right: unions aren’t very popular, though in certain states they may be just popular enough to win certain elections. I think the Wisconsin vote reflects the relative unpopularity of unions, but it was about more than unions, so it is wrong to see it as simply a referendum about unions. I agree with Corey that we should focus on the actual matter at hand…but this actual matter at hand is fairly complicated.
Stephanie Luce I agree that both Corey and Doug can be right in part because of low voter turnout. The Gallup polls Doug cites show that just over half the population supports unions; it only took 30% of all adults to elect Scott Walker. So it depends in part on who shows up to vote. The other thing that I think is important is that public opinion can change quickly, and I think that goes for unions too. Those same polls show a pretty strong drop in approval in just one year, from 59% approval in 2008 to 48% in 2000. Public polling also seemed to show quick changes in public opinion around the time of the Wisconsin protests (and similarly, Occupy seemed to initially change public opinion around other, related issues). So I think Doug’s general point—that we cannot fool ourselves into thinking unions are popular—is a good one, but not static. Things can change quickly in times of struggle or “upsurge.”
Scott Lemieux Like Nathan, I don’t think that labor (or any other progressive group) can abjure either electoral or non-electoral politics. If “they’d spent that sort of money, say, lobbying for single-payer day-in, day-out, everywhere” we still wouldn’t have single-payer because 1)public opinion isn’t the primary barrier standing in the way of enacting single payer, 2)that money would be easily matched by the lobbying of corporate interests, to the effect it would have on public opinion is unclear, and 3)the conservative Democrats who stand in the way of single-payer even in an atypically favorable environment sure wouldn’t be more likely to support progressive legislation if all of their money comes from corporations and none from labor. I’ll also note that the Tea Party channeling activism into electoral politics in Wisconsin worked out like gangbusters for them.
Doug Henwood What would the DP do if labor stopped writing checks and punching the phones? It’s like a third of their income, no?
Corey Robin I assume the Dems would hustle even harder for corporate money and drift even further to the right. We’d be back to 1892 or so in terms of the relationship between the two parties and labor and capital.
Doug Henwood So the choices are the status quo of a slow drift to the right, or labor withdrawing from the Dems resulting in a perhaps less slow drift to the right?
Scott Lemieux Corey is right—they sure as hell wouldn’t become more progressive. There’s more money in the corporate sector anyway.
Doug Henwood Dial me Sartre: Huis Clos.
Stephanie Luce Doug – according to an article by Peter Francia, business contributions to the Democrats in 2008 were 15 times more than labor’s contributions. (From Polity, July 2010 – let me know if anyone wants the pdf of the article). Still, I think it is a reasonable strategy, since the money could be used much more effectively in other ways.
Corey Robin Stephanie, can you spell out that last part of your statement? And curious what you’d say to Scott above. And more generally to the position that labor needs both a mobilization, non-electoral strategy AND an electoral strategy. Seems like you’re saying the latter is…I’m not sure.
Stephanie Luce I would argue for a mostly non-electoral, movement building focus. I certainly don’t think engaging in national elections does much good, and it won’t help create a more favorable public image of unions. I think the labor movement should be putting more resources and energy into fights in the workplace as well as fights in the broader community (and this seems easy for public sector unions to do: e.g., rider/driver fights to expand transit; teacher/student fights for better funding and smaller class sizes; health care worker/patient fights to create more health care jobs, etc.). I don’t think labor can avoid electoral work altogether, but I think it could be much smarter about how it uses resources—focusing on local races and statewide issue campaigns, but instead of focusing on one election to the next, develop a long-term vision and work backwards from there. How do candidates or issues help build toward a longer-term vision of the economy, job creation, quality of work, work-life balance, etc.
Doug Henwood Stephanie speaks much truth.
Bruce Bernstein I haven’t read every single comment above, but I haven’t seen anyone mention the severe decline in Wisconsin AFSCME and AFT membership, as reported in the WSJ, since the Wisconsin law took effect. I think AFSCME dues paying membership in the state was cut by 66% or some similarly ungodly amount.
In Ohio, I believe the law was an across the board right-to-work law. In Wisconsin, Walker went after the public sector unions first in a divide and conquer strategy. This is a big difference in the politics.
Romney has the position that there should be a national right-to-work law.
Rachel Maddow has been making the point that AFSCME and SEUI are the only two organizations in the top ten national party funders that mainly support Democrats. And obviously the Republican strategy is to eviscerate these and other relatively “rich” (ok, middle class, compared to the corporate funders) pro-Democratic funders.
The point is not the funding of the Democratic Party. The point is the institutional base for progressive politics. It is not that the unions just fund Democrats; it is that they fund the progressive agenda, such as it is… and serve as the “institutional base.” And the main area of growth and strength has been the public sector unions and SEIU, which is quasi-public sector. The UAW and the other large private sector unions are shadows of their former selves.
Scott Lemieux Personally, I’d rather if the Tea Party and the religious right followed the advice here and abstained from electoral politics instead. Public sector unions in Wisconsin would still have collective bargaining rights, for one thing…
Nathan Newman Bruce touches on a basic point about the favorability of “unions”—a lot of the backlash against unions currently is when they are seen as purely public sector entities and you stoke the budget cutting energy of the Tea Party, which sees the public sector as bloated and privileged. Private sector unions are still pretty popular, so the question is which kind of unions the public is thinking of. You can push on why public sector unions are not so privileged but that’s a basic reality we are engaging with.
As for unions disengaging from most national electoral politics, folks do too easily discount what federal spending does for students, local economic development, food stamps, Medicaid and so on—and any union disengagement and weakening of the Dems will just screw those programs. Unions still play a critical role in keeping many basic progressive coalitions around many of those issues afloat and keep politicians supporting those issues in office. And yes, as Bruce notes, union money matters not just for the unions but all those other groups and coalitions they keep going.
But I return to what should unions be doing as unions? What campaigns could they do that would grow the union movement, especially in the private sector, and build their membership more beyond the reach of these politicians. What are the popular workplace organizing campaigns that could rebuild public support for unions?
Corey Robin Stephanie and Doug: These public fights you both advocate would require resources. Resources mean dues. A lot of the folks on the left are very disdainful about unions collecting dues. And to collect dues that go to non-workplace fights is even harder to get a membership to support. The only way I know of to do this is to make sure the members are getting good contracts for themselves—something Doug seems to be really disdainful of—AND then organizing them to support using their union resources for larger fights, which means more staff organizers and leadership of the sort that many on the left have a tough time with. This comment might be more posed to Doug than to you Stephanie—I don’t know—but it’s really for everyone: doing the non-contractual stuff that unions do—whether it be electoral or non-electoral—requires dues money and staff. But to a lot of people that means union bureaucracy which they can’t abide. How’s all of this going to work out?
Doug Henwood I’m not disdainful of contracts—just the exclusive focus on them. That aside, unions have shitloads of money. They’ve given $40+ million to largely worthless Dems this year and over $500 million over the last decade.
But also: the contract thing may be going the way of the wild buffalo. It’s less and less of an option every day. So they going to stick to the old way of doing things until there’s just one shop left, or do something different? I suspect I know the answer, but it’d be nice to be wrong.
Gordon Lafer What unions are—are supposed to be—is a group of workers who get together in order to better their own conditions, to earn a decent living and have a bit of control over their working conditions. That’s the main thing that unions are, and that is as it should be. The main need is for more people to have more of that. By its nature, of course, a union is an organization of people improving their working conditions, so of course it’s mostly about the members. It’s not like the Sierra Club or some other advocacy organization—although both the strategic reality and the moral principle of solidarity mean that unions do more than any other organization in the country on behalf of working people in general.
This seems to be what the Kochs understand and Doug—who I don’t know if I’ve ever disagreed with before but certainly do now—does not. The Kochs, Chamber of Commerce, Club for Growth and the rest of them are going after public sector unions above all because they want them out of politics. Why do major private sector corporations give a lot of money to fight public sector unions? Cause they want to pay lower taxes? Not much. Cause they want to elect Republicans? Maybe some. But the major reason is because when you look at the legislative agenda of the Chamber of Commerce for instance—more free-trade; blocking cheap drug imports from Canada; privatizing schools and ending the public right to a decent education; keeping the Bush tax cuts and lowering taxes on the wealthy even further; undoing any progressive health insurance reform; no OSHA for repetitive motion injuries; no whistleblower rights for employees; no pay equity laws for women; no effective EPA or EEOC; more cheap foreign guest workers and subminimum wages for youth; relaxing child labor laws—none of these things are union issues per se, and on every one of them, these business lobbies see organized workers, in the form of unions, as the main opposition.
This is the main reason for the attacks on unions—and if people have been paying attention they’ll see that the companies and donors behind the attacks on public unions are also funding and fomenting attacks on private sector unions through Orwellian-named “right to work”, “paycheck protection” and other laws. So the people talking as if the answer is to diss public employees are misguided in thinking the real issue is the compensation of public employees; that’s just the first strategic move of corporate lobbies whose agenda is to clear away whatever political opposition remains to accelerated inequality in the country and denying the non-rich any ability to exercise a measure of popular control over the economy.
Furthermore, Doug writes, I believe, with zero evidence or knowledge of what actually happened in Wisconsin. I believe there were tons of conversations talking to people one-on-one about exactly what he suggests—the importance of workers being able to bargain on their own behalf, of public services, of economic fairness, all of it – both in the 2011 protests and around the 2012 recall election. His proposal is…what? To have a bunch of people in the abstract and unconnected to any campaign, knock on people’s doors to educate them about economic justice? Fine – go ahead. But let’s not pretend this is some brilliant new idea or that it’s likely to be more effective than what people are already working at.
I don’t mean to be overly biting here, but the whole critique just seems divorced from the actual reality of what it is to build or have an organization of workers, or how union organizing or neighborhood organizing or economic/political education actually happens.
Bruce Bernstein Public sector unions making political contributions has a lot to do with contracts. The right and even the center criticize this as a form of corruption, but public sector unions tend to—not always, but tend to—get better contracts when they elect friendly people.
This is also true in the not for profit sector. For example, in NY State, in the health care sector. This is not the public sector per se but 1199 / SEIU has been very astute in tying the sector together and getting it funding… which results in better contracts, and also in some cases organizing the unorganized (home health care workers, for example).
There actually is not all that much new here, conceptually. The old garment unions—ILGWU and Amalgamated—actually tied the sector of small disparate shops together and were able to serve as the glue in terms of things like health care, housing, and even benefits for the industry (trade legislation, for example).
I have a feeling that lefties like Doug will poo-poo this, but I would like to see unions actually take over and run enterprises… cooperatives, etc. There is a movement called the Solidarity Economy that talks about this. Their model is the Mondragon Cooperatives in Spain. Sure, there are a thousand difficulties and contradictions with this model. But how else do unions and true popular institutions gain traction in the private sector?
The old garment unions built housing, owned a bank…
Nathan Newman $40 million in a year or even $500 million in a decade is pretty small amounts of money for unions. $500 million is something like the equivalent of 1% of the dues unions collected over a decade. (If you include staff time, I would bet unions actually spent a bit more than $500 million actually).
So it’s hardly a question of either spending money on “worthless Democrats” or spending on other things. Unions spend most of their money on basic union stuff: administering contracts, running pension funds, occasionally (and now very occasionally) paying out strike funds and so on.
I actually support unions continuing to spend money on elections, although I think it’s more cost effective to spend it mobilizing their members directly than giving out campaign contributions. But the question is not whether unions should spend the 1% or even 5% of the money they raise on electoral politics. The real question is what they should spend the 90-95% of the money they raise that doesn’t go to electoral politics?
That is the money that should be building the union movement directly in the workplaces across the country, yet mostly hasn’t done so well. But then, non-union progressives mostly don’t help. Union picket lines just don’t pull many progressives these days. I went to a CWA protest against Verizon last fall that was explicitly linked to the Occupy Wall Street movement, was pretty well publicized, and was just a couple blocks from the active OWS site, yet still it had almost exclusively labor folks there.
I actually did a bunch of work around the AT&T – T-Mobile merger, which was a chance to add basically the largest number of private sector union members at one sweep that we’ve had in decades—and a lot of progressive groups opposed the merger because they were worried about cell phone rates going up a few cents. This was a situation where 20,000 T-Mobile members would have automatically had the right to join the union movement—AT&T has probably the best card check agreement in place in the country—yet most progressives ignored the fight, or even took the other side.
Suppose instead that the unions had supported a popular campaign—media, door knocking, phone calling—to agitate, educate, and organize on the importance of the labor movement to the maintenance of living standards? If they’d made an argument, broadly and repeatedly, that Walker’s agenda was an attack on the wages and benefits of the majority of the population? That it was designed to remove organized opposition to the power of right-wing money in politics? That would have been more fruitful than this major defeat.
Since 2000, unions have given over $700 million to Democrats—$45 million of it this year alone (Labor: Long-Term Contribution Trends). What do they have to show for it? Imagine if they’d spent that sort of money, say, lobbying for single-payer day-in, day-out, everywhere.
Let’s just dismiss the second point as rhetorical overkill. The unions were fiercely attacked in Wisconsin (and Ohio and Michigan). Lobbying for “single payer” in that situation would be to simply ignore a direct political attack against their very being.
Doug’s first point doesn’t have any political focus. The movement in Wisconsin was a POLITICAL movement. It arose because of a political attack — a specific piece of legislation. The movement attempted to stop that legislation through the streets. It did a damn good job. But it failed.
It then adopted the political tactic of recall — first of 6 state senators, then of a governor and more senators. This is political struggle, American style.
Doug’s suggestion is a broad educational campaign. Fine, but as any organizer knows, this has no specific goal, no fulcrum, no target. There is no political dynamic to it. It does not mobilize people in the same way. It does not show a path to victory.
Doug ends by saying:
That means that if unions ever want to turn things around—and I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that we’ll never have a better society without a reborn labor movement—they have to learn to operate in this new reality. Which means learning to act politically, to agitate on behalf of the entire working class and not just a privileged subset with membership cards.
The irony here is that in fact the unions in Wisconsin DID act politically, on behalf of the entire working class—and Doug is saying they should not have done so.
Doug, it seems if you want to critique so toughly, you should propose an alternative POLITICAL strategy for labor to turn back the Walker / Koch class warfare political attack. Maybe you have one that is better than what they did… but I don’t see it in your piece.
Stephanie Luce But Gordon, I think part of the argument is exactly that the right is attacking unions in various ways, including through the political arena, and unions don’t seem to have enough power to stop those attacks for the most part. They don’t seem to have enough power to win strikes in many cases, and they don’t seem to have enough power to win many legislative battles. So I don’t think the idea of unions building broader coalitions around economic issues is just for charity or to do good. I just think their survival may rest on finding other sources of power. One source of power might be better relations between unions so that they honor each other’s picket lines if there is a strike. Another source of power might be better relations with those who are “consumers” of public services, so that there are stronger electoral alliances. I agree completely that it is not easy to do. And I agree that it should not just be up to union members to do this work. But I don’t see where unions expect to get their power to win in the workplace, or in the electoral arena, without a new approach.
Gordon Lafer Stephanie, you’re right that building broad alliances is often important and effective, though it’s not like this is a new idea—you’ve written about those kind of campaigns for a long time, and many many unions are involved in exactly these kinds of efforts, in Wisconsin and elsewhere. It’s easy to say more of everything would be better, but this isn’t an issue of people being blind to the benefits of this kind of effort – it’s just a question about where and how it makes most sense to allocate resources.
Seth Ackerman Unions—i.e. top leadership—run big institutions with obligations to members and a lot to lose. So what they do is mostly determined by the conditions they exist in. For example, top leadership (e.g., of the UAW) could adopt a take-no-prisoners militancy when it comes to contracts, but the result would be that they’d probably lose catastrophically. So they don’t. Top leadership could announce a total moratorium on supporting most Dems in elections, but the result would probably just be Republicans winning more elections, leading to more Walker-style assaults. So they don’t. If a change were to happen, to break the cycle, it would come from below. That’s what Labor Notes types have been plugging away at for years, and they’re doing exactly the right thing.
Seth Ackerman The real problem is what Nathan mentioned. There’s very little support from the wider grassroots left/liberals. People don’t want to go to picket lines. They don’t understand that a fight over $3 an hour or health insurance contributions is actually a struggle with far more profound implications.
Seth Ackerman You so often see people on the left making these supposedly judicious arguments about how “conventional” unions maybe used to be important to the left but aren’t anymore, because of the way they’ve degenerated. The implication—whether intended or not—is that we shouldn’t support “conventional” unions, but should “look elsewhere,” to other kinds of organizing. Obviously this mentality, which is endemic, discourages grassroots left/liberal support for “conventional” union struggles. The result, though, is that this attitude cements the very sclerosis that it criticizes. If the left disengages from unions, unions will not be engaged with the left, leaving them as nothing more than dues-collection agencies, weak, ineffective, uninspiring, etc. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it requires a certain political culture to understand that, a culture that’s missing. I’m not on the ground in WI, but maybe one silver lining from that fight is that it reengaged grassroots liberals with labor, allowed connections to be formed, etc. Or maybe not, I don’t know.
Nathan Newman Seth: And we still have all these left-liberal folks bemoaning rising inequality while ignoring the fact that de-unionization lies at the heart of the problem. If workers are ripped off at the point of production, that’s what gives the corporations all the money in profits to spend on politics to make sure inequality isn’t addressed in any other way.
Campaign finance reform is ultimately ridiculous, since big money will find a way to spend if their interests are at stake. Unions are the only significant form of campaign spending reform, because it both makes money available for progressive politics AND reduces the profits of the plutocrats so they have less money to spend against our interests.
Walking a picket line to raise wages by $2 per hour is also walking a picket line to reduce the money available to corporations to spend in politics by $2 per hour per worker. So anyone concerned about corporate money in politics should be fighting with unions. But mostly they don’t.
And so labor leaders know that if they mount a union organizing campaign, they are on their own. But if they launch a recall election campaign against Scott Walker, they get lots of allies in that electoral fight. So guess what? They choose to recall Scott Walker because at least then they have some allies.
Seth Ackerman Yes, Nathan—especially like your last point
Stephanie Luce Gordon, I agree. It is very hard work and takes resources and time. And there are lots of other pressures and immediate needs. Unfortunately, there is also still some pretty old-school thinking out there which is discouraging—i.e., union leaders who really don’t seem to think they need to work with other unions, let alone other organizations. I think that was a big factor in Wisconsin, actually. It seems to me that if you are going to go big and try for a recall, you might want to get some level of coordination about who your candidate might be and what you might be able to do as a larger coalition. Nathan’s point is a good one—that the unions got a lot more support from allies in this recall battle than they did for organizing drives (or the IAM strike in Manitowoc last fall). But a few of the big unions did not exactly function as partners in the initial protests, or in the recall process. Including “choosing” an initial candidate, Kathleen Falk, who I don’t think anyone else in the labor movement wanted, let alone the broader community.
Gordon Lafer One more thing strikes me about Doug’s column. He starts off stressing the importance of not running away from hard truths. But then the column ends up doing exactly that, by declaring that workers’ efforts to secure decent working conditions in a contract with their employer is a “dinosaur” that should be cast aside. I’m sure this is unintentional, but this seems to me exactly to be running away from the hard truth. Figuring out how normal working people can win a fair deal from their employers remains the most important thing to focus on. Because it’s gotten harder as labor laws have been so weakened, the union-busting industry so much more aggressive, and the power of money in politics so much more pervasive – does not mean the right thing to do is to give up. Or at least, if that’s what Doug or others want to do, call it what it is: that you’re giving up because the effort has become too hard for you, and don’t pretend that you’re really boldly offering some brave new strategy.
A lot’s changed in the economy, but the basic power relations between employers and employees has only intensified. The challenge is not to do something totally new, as if we inhabited a totally different kind of society. The challenge is to figure out how to do the same old things, i.e., get fair contracts in the workplace and pass laws that help the majority instead of a tiny minority. I’m not being pollyanish about what it might take to do this, and I don’t have a silver bullet. But to pretend this is not the right place to dig in and work is, I think, defeatist and delusional.
Doug Henwood I’m kind of amazed at the misreadings of my piece that I see above.
First, in other countries unions are about more than contracts, and have done a lot better job fighting for broad public benefits rather than private welfare states. Second, I keep hearing about all the great things that unions did in Wisconsin – just the sort of thing I was urging. But that was all subsumed to a stupid electoral campaign that has ended up only promoting Walker’s prestige and power. Now that that campaign is over, all the resources are going to go into re-electing Obama, who barely gave Wisconsin Dems the time of day. (He did tweet something supportive, right?) I’m talking about long-term campaigns. And third, the whole model of union organizing is dead, comrades. It’s been dead in the private sector for ages, and now it’s mortally wounded in the public sector. You can talk all you want about the sacred grail of the contract, but good luck getting one now. The game has changed utterly, and all I hear are impassioned pledges to do the status quo more enthusiastically.
Oh, and how about those pension votes in San Jose and San Diego. Huge margins to cut. Like it or not, people with shitty pensions or none at all look at government worker benefits and say “If I can’t have those, they can’t either.” Unions have to recognize that and rethink. It’s time to refocus on raising Social Security benefits for everyone instead of protecting, yes, fiefdoms.
Seth Ackerman If unions are going to not seek better contracts, why should anybody join a union? I mean, if you’re a radical, sure; it would be like joining the Socialist Party, you’d get a neat membership card and join the email list. But if you’re not already a radical, what’s the pitch? “You should join this union because it will fight for single payer”? The number of people who are interested in fighting for single payer is very small. The number of people who are interested in better health benefits—assuming they can be convinced it’s possible—is very large.
Doug Henwood I really don’t know how many times I have to say this. 1) Seeking better contracts is fine. Having that as the major goal of the labor movement is not. 2) The game has changed. There will be few new contracts. Labor needs a new angle. The old way is dead, man.
Seth Ackerman Okay, so labor should still seek contracts, but it should also be pushing for broader political change. But the AFL-CIO is already involved in myriad worthy causes—some highly worthwhile, many uninspiring, a few maybe with some limited efficacy (like lobbying). If there were some obvious and promising avenue of initiative that the unions were passing up, that would be one thing. But I don’t know what it might be. My general line is that it’s wrong to attribute the current morass to any set of “wrong decisions” by labor bureaucrats, and therefore wrong to look to some “better strategy” from them as an answer. No better strategy has been forthcoming because there is none that union leaders, as leaders, could effectively implement under the current conditions. It’s the conditions themselves that have to change and that can only come from the ground up.
Doug Henwood That “ground-up” change isn’t going to come from doomed struggles like the Wisconsin recall. I know that it’s impossible to imagine this happening but they’re going to have to give up on the electoral crap and devote their still-substantial resources to broader, longer-term fights. The AFL-CIO is actually a rather weak entity, and their dedication to those myriad worthy causes barely extends beyond press releases. As long as they and their member unions keep writing giant checks to Dems and consider that their political engagement, density will continue to fall. At recent rates of decline, private sector density will hit 0 around 2030.
Corey Robin Let me add two things to what’s already been said.
First, the American state. One of the reasons the American labor movement settled for the route that it did — pushing for employers to take action rather than the state — was that the state historically was so much more hostile to labor, in ways that were distinct from Europe. Here we had this judiciary — which, Doug, is one of your other frequent targets — that was able through injunctions to stop labor from doing much of anything. Though labor finally was able to get that judicial power taken away, to some degree (Taft-Hartley helped bring it back), labor has always had good reasons to be wary of the state route.
There’s a corollary to this: while the judiciary was capital’s friend, and could act with relative impunity, the legislative path, which had been at various points labor’s friend, was frequently — and as we see now, still is — checked. That old separation of powers thing really fucks thing up here.
So while I’m a strong supporter of state strategies, it’s wrong to act as if labor’s focus on the contract as opposed to state strategies (which of course is also overdrawn: as lots of people pointed out here, most progressive legislation is pushed by labor), is wholly voluntary. There are good reasons for it (whether or not contracts are dead).
Second, when Doug says contracts shouldn’t be the main focus of the labor movement, I wonder if he really means that. Just think of a worker in a non-union workplace. Think of how precarious, arbitrary, lawless, and, yes, feudal is her relationship to her employer. Forget wages and benefits. Just think of rules and procedures — or lack thereof. Most of us here work at home or have significant autonomy in our lives — that’s why we’re able to talk freely here all day. No one tells us what to do. Workers are told what to do all day long. A contract is one of the few things they have to give them some semblance of autonomy, that they aren’t just the playthings of their boss.
Of course that should be the main focus of the labor movement! How could it not be? Why would anyone, as Seth points out, join a union if it didn’t first and foremost give workers that sense of control over their own lives?
Now whether contracts are dead or not, I don’t know. But I think there’s a tendency to dismiss them as so much selfishness and parochialism on the part of workers (or union bureaucrats, as if workers didn’t care about these things) that just seems blind, absolutely blind, to the realities of the workplace.