Unions: Our Last, Best, and Final Hope

File this under the We Couldn’t Have Said It Better Ourselves Department: Op-ed columnist Joe Nocera articulated on the very respectable pages of the New York Times what many of us have known for years: Unions are good for the economy. Well, no – make that, unions are essential for the economy to work for everyone.  Nocera, the famously contrarian business writer, talks about his picket-line-walking parents and his union-solid Rhode Island birthplace – but how, as a member of America’s post-war educated class, he came to view organized labor “with mild disdain.”

The madeleine that stokes his remembrance of union things past is The Great Divergence, Timothy Noah’s new book about income inequality. After confessing to holding an outlook once similar to Noah’s early views of labor as “a spent force,” Nocera now agrees with him that liberals have turned their backs on unions with terrible consequences. Citing Noah’s claim that the decline of union membership has a neat, statistical corollary in the collapse of middle class incomes, the Times columnist follows up by quoting Harvard economist Richard Freeman’s assertion that the cratering of union membership unambiguously accounts for 20 percent of the present income gap in America.

“This makes perfect sense,” according to Nocera. “Company managements don’t pay workers any more than they have to — look, for instance, at Walmart, one of the most virulently antiunion companies in the country.”

Nocera concludes his column with a line that might have been borrowed from no less a radical economist than Paul Sweezy. “If liberals really want to reverse income inequality,” Nocera writes, “they should think seriously about rejoining labor’s side.”

Far from it, liberals – and even union members – seem to be abandoning and undermining labor. We only have to look at the dismal results of the Wisconsin recall election to see the evidence. There, National Public Radio and others report, exit polls revealed that 38 percent of union-household voters cast ballots to retain the state’s paranoiacally anti-labor governor, Scott Walker. Why this disconnect?

Some union members are solid Republicans, for a host of reasons beyond union identity. “You can’t assume just because a person is a union member, they are also a Democrat,” Kristin Hansen, an Obama campaign volunteer, points out in the NPR piece.

the frying panOther union voters, who would previously have leaned towards the Democrats, may be disenchanted with the donkeys. For one thing, the White House has kept labor at arm’s length since the morning after election day, 2008. They barely paid lip service, for example, to labor’s prime directive since 2007 – passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), legislation that, among other things, would have made forming a union just a little more efficient – and democratic – by protecting pro-union workers from employer reprisals.

EFCA was nothing radical — it didn’t seek to overturn Taft-Hartley or force company employees to watch multiple screenings of Norma Rae. Getting it passed, however, meant everything to the unions.  Nevertheless, many of labor’s erstwhile congressional allies were too cowed by the conservative assault to lift a finger for the House and Senate versions of the bill.

Finally, labor’s struggle to endure may be a self-perpetuating state. Its losing streak — from EFCA’s death on the vine to the Wisconsin recall debacle — means that unions are now locked in a spiral of existential battles for survival in which every election drains them of resources and morale. Even when unions defeat cynical “paycheck protection” initiatives, they must devote more money and effort to defeat them than the corporatist forces spend kiting these measures. This means unions are doing less of the things – like organizing, standing up against the worst of big business and lifting jobs into the middle class – that would directly benefit the working people whose support is sliding away.

steve mikulanThis translates into a grim calculus in which unions are diminished with every election cycle and have less muscle to offer in the fight to retain the White House. While unions remain the biggest source of election campaign money and boots-on-the-ground volunteers in voter drives, they are losing members and clout. As Noah and Nocera suggest, now is not the time for liberals to keep unions at arm’s length, but to embrace them tighter than ever.

Steven Mikulan
Editor, The Frying Pan

Posted: Thursday, 7 June 2012


  1. says

    Facts are difficult things. This article is devoid of crucial ones. In the first place it wasn;t liberals who pushed away from the unions. Quite the opposite, begining with the mccarthey hearings and moviong forward tot he election of 1968, unions didn’t just push, they shoved liberals away and heaped abuse upon them while doing so. The were once a force for racial integration, social cohiesion and even were in a time when that was unusual, at least gay nuetral. That all changed when unions in the 1960’s picked a side in the culture wars and went with the conservatives, their natural enemies.
    Secondly, American labor didn’t lose my generation because we became college educated. They lost my generation because again they gave us as a generation the extended stiff arm of fellowhip. Of all the tradesmen I know of my Generation NONE of us are union members. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to join, it was that we were made painfully aware that there were only so many organized shops, only so many union slots and since our grandfathers were not in the union, we were not welcome, period. So the unions failed to organize the housing industry during the largest housing expansion in history. Funny thing ALL of us, even though slapped in the face by the unions, wish we could join. most of us who have our own companies would go union IF the UNION would co operate and let us do so, but they demand now we go back and do the apprenticiship they would not give us before before they will allow us to go union. Crazy.
    And in many industries the union movement has allowed thos industries to be de unionized, the industry filled with non citizen low wage workers and then unionized gaining workers some betterment in conditions but wages and benefits often not even when adjusted for inflation, below those of the 1970’s. They pound their chests in victory at these “gains’.
    Unions, like every other institution in America, have lost their purpose and become all about themselves and not the people they are supposed to serve. Unions as theya re now are not a hope for the nation, they need fundamental re examination, re organization and re invigoration.Until that happens they will not be a growing vibrant part of the American labor sector.

    • says

      But I have to admit, we, those of us who have skills, were all trained by Union members moonlighting on other jobs. They transferred their skills to us. If it wasnt for those guys solidarity with the craft and the people who hungerd to learn it, union card or not, we would be just as unskilled as the average construction worker is now.
      Although I am pissed at the Union leadership, I know I and my fellows owe the union a great deal. Just the concept of tradespeople earning a decent living and not dieing by age 40 I owe to the Union Movement. All those old now long dead guys who taught us skills, we all owe that to the unions too. But we didn’t abandon the unions, they abandoned us, just like they are doing now to younger workers by having split benefit rolls and split wage scales.

  2. says

    I wish you were right, but the union I’m a member of shot itself in the foot twice, same way, 20 years apart, with the result that 20+ years ago, 80% of the membership qualified for health care, and today, 80% of the membership doesn’t.  The leadership didn’t know what they were up against either time and they went with the idiot brigade both times.  Wave the worker’s red flag as you go down to defeat through moron stupidity, boys.  Twice.

    Past that, in all the years since the passage of the Wagner Act, the American labor movement has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity to advance the cause of the American working class.  In the Second World War, the unions allied with the bosses to oppose the Executive Order that desegregated the defense industry, and never accepted the entry of women into the workforce during the war, spearheading their removal as soon as possible, since all they ever looked at was the immediate economic needs of their members, having adopted the Gompers strategy of economic trade unionism over the European model of political trade unionism.  Following the war their “allies” in the fight against expanding the unionized workforce stabbed them in the back with Taft-Hartley and they never really fought back, and didn’t fight Right To Work, since they were afraid of being called communists, and because the leadership of the unions hated the leftists who had created the CIO (Let’s recall how many of the top guys in the AFL-CIO were willing stooges for the CIA, screwing their fellow trade unionists around the world in the name of the Anti-Communist American Empire until their treason to the working class was exposed in 1966).  Through the 1950s and 1960s they never took a chance to organize the unorganized.  They hated Cesar Chavez.  In 1967 I had an argument with my cousin, a bureaucrat in the machinists union, who told me I was wrong to oppose the war since it “created lots of jobs.”  He and I never spoke again after I asked if his membership was fine with sacrificing their sons in that worthless war for “all for those jobs.”

    In 1973, the politician I worked for, then the new chairman of the then-new California Coastal Commission, was poised  (from the information I had given him) to kill the then-unbuilt San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant (the one that’s been in the news recently for all its screw-ups, and which has never worked as advertised, and has been as bad as we all said it would be 40 years ago), until he got a call from the head of the California AFL-CIO telling him that if he killed “all those jobs” he wouldn’t get anywhere with his plans to run for statewide office the next year.  “All those jobs” turned out to be as big a number as “all those jobs” will be for the Keystone XL these morons are supporting nowadays, but I suppose there will be “lots of jobs” of some sort trying to clean up the radioactive mess that San Onofre is now that they’re going to decommission it.

    And of course all those guys with those “good jobs” due to the war started voting Republican for “shared values” against all us “rotten hippie traitors” in 1972 and then they became “Reagan Democrats” because he “shared their values” while he killed PATCO.

    And this week the idiots couldn’t get the 2 million people who signed the petitions to recall Scott Walker to get out and vote (that would have been a majority and he’d have been out, if they had) because they didn’t have “enthusiasm” for Barrett since he wasn’t “their candidate” – as if they had some chance of something better from Walker if he won, after they lost 55% of their membership since March 2011. Bunch of morons who can’t see past the end of their nose, but that seems traditional in the American union movement.

    So pardon me, but the truth is if the American unionized working class wants to know who shot them in the foot repeatedly for the past 70 years, they need look no further than the nearest mirror.

  3. says

    I greatly believe in Unions and thank them for the fact that we have things called weekends, vacation and all too infrequent -paid  time away from work.

    I’ve been more concerned about Union strategy as of late. There have been a number of focused efforts on Wal*Mart that seem to have tapered off. In Sacramento -there is increasing pressure on Raley’s being exerted on the profit side by both Unions and Wal*Mart. Soon, Raley’s workers may be on strike. The problem is the Unions should have been picketing outside of as many Wal*Marts as possible. So a business like Raley’s has to compete with non-Union stores from a price perspective -while profit margin and growth shrinks. 
    While striking and picketing can be an important weapon in the contract negotiation process -lets not forget who the real enemy is. When I see picketers at a family-owned grocery chain (that has substantially high ratings in terms of how they treat their employees) -and there is a Wal*Mart 1-2 miles away -I ask myself why aren’t the picketers and Unions making a coordinating effort against Wal*Mart instead?

    I fear the result of a Union strike -is that it will make some of these smaller stores prime takeover opportunities for Wal*Mart -and what then?

    I think Unions really need to get together and rethink overall economic and political strategy -and to operate (as Nate suggests below) progressively.

  4. says

    It wouldn’t hurt for the Unions to be a bit more progressive either ~ I’m a proud SEUI 721 member but the first few years of my employ I wasn’t and NO ONE I spoke to at the Union Hall , seemed to care as I wasn’t yet a card carrying member .

    They wanted me to pay a cash bribe to join for God’s sake .

    Apathy works both ways .

    The Union is nthing without the member supporting it and giving back in help , few seem so inclined in the SEIU .

    -Nathan Hall , Union ’till I die .

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