Last week, Kevin Drum published an article titled “Unions Are Dying. What Will Replace Them?” in Mother Jones. Drum’s piece was written in response to Evan Soltas who recently wrote “Union can no longer solve labor’s woes [but] That’s not terrible, because the way unions gave workers power created its own problems.” In Drum’s response, he said “Unfortunately, I agree with Soltas: The decline of union power is irreversible.”
Together, Drum and Soltas have taken a rather dramatic stance on the question over the future of organized labor in America. Granted, unions have suffered severe losses – especially in legislative terms – that have translated into a reduction in membership density. But does this warrant such a brash proclamation that the decline in U.S. union power is “irreversible”? It would do Mr. Drum and Mr. Soltas well to take a close examination at labor history, specifically during the days when unions were essentially illegal, when they had few friends in politics and when companies met organized workers with violence. Surely those were more dire circumstances than America’s workers face today.
So, what does Drum really mean when he says, “Liberals should continue to support the cause of labor whenever and wherever we can, but we should also understand that our most urgent task is figuring out how to replace what they used to do. That’s not something we’ve made much progress on.”
First, note that when Drum says “we” he is talking about liberals – not necessarily trade-unionists. Second, Drum acknowledges that the liberals haven’t “figured out how to replace what they [unions] used to do.” Here, we could benefit by being a bit more precise. There’s really only two major things that I can think of that today’s unions do: 1) build workers power, and 2) as a means of building that power, labor provides votes and campaign contributions for liberals.
If Drum agrees with Soltas in saying that “the way unions gave workers power created its own problems”, then it’s clear that what Drum is lamenting is the loss of votes and campaign contributions for his liberal ilk. After all, a labor union’s entire reason for being is to build power for workers. If that’s not what Drum is upset about losing, he must just be worried about losing the unions’ money. There is almost a sense of desperation in Drums words. You can almost hear him whining, ‘How will liberal staffers, lobbyists and career politicians continue to make a living paying lip service to labor without their money?’ Of course the rank-and-file union member shouldn’t despair; Drum isn’t breaking up with us. He’s just wants an open relationship. He’s certain that “Private-sector unions are all but dead, and public-sector unions are barely hanging on by their fingernails. That doesn’t mean liberals should give up on labor.”
But if the liberals aren’t ready to “give up on labor” what does it mean? It means the tail has been wagging the dog. America’s liberal political activists – specifically the hacks that spend their days doing work for the Democratic Party on the union dime – have lived large for way too long. They’re spoiled and now they’re crying because they might have to do like the donors do and work for a living. They have become so convinced that labor needs the liberals that, without them, America’s unions have no power. That’s a skewed way of looking at the labor-liberal relationship.
Again, history would be instructive to Mr. Drum. Workers didn’t rely on liberal politicians when they built their power in the nineteenth century. In fact, they were ignored or – more often – opposed by the liberal political establishment. It wasn’t until it became clear that labor was an independent force that wasn’t going to take no for an answer that the liberals decided to ride labor’s coattails. Over the years, many liberal politicians built their careers on funds and votes from organized labor but for all the labor movement did for liberal politicians, a closer look at the legislative record of the Democratic Party shows that labor was definitely putting more into the relationship than they were getting out of it.
Still labor stayed true. Even after Clinton signed NAFTA into law and Democratic legislators across the nation crossed the aisle to support “Right-to-Work” laws, even after Obama promised to walk the picket line with public sector workers and stood them up in Wisconsin, labor kept on sending in checks and turning-out votes. Now, after decades of faithful support, labor has suffered a few set-backs, and Americas liberals are considering throwing in the towel. According to Drum, rather than working to bolster organized labor, they are simply looking for a new host to live off.
Maybe labor’s relationship with the Democratic Party has run its course. Maybe it’s time for America’s organized workers to remind the politicians just who wears the pants in this family. Union members do the work, we make the money, we send the contributions and turn-out the voters and the liberals, well, they take the money. What they do beyond that is really kind of mysterious and certainly ineffective. Maybe America’s rank-and-file union workers have subsidized the blue-blood party hacks and Ivy League union staffers in the beltway for too long. Maybe it’s time to explore other options. If labor’s boat is really sinking, maybe we should toss the deadweight Dems overboard to lighten the load. Granted, labor has to be engaged in the political process now more than ever but based on insider reports coming out of AFSCME, CWU and SEIU, our unions “upper management” has all but given-up on the membership already.
No sir, Mr. Drum, liberals should not give up on the labor movement. As you’ve indicated, they can’t afford to. On the other hand, what you and yours are making clear to rank-and-file union members still trying to hold the line is that labor should give-up on the liberals.
By M. Sullivan