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Who Screws Labor?

Brad Plumer and Chris Bowers both seem to think that Democrats don't pay enough attention to the needs of the labor movement. I was going to explain that this is kind of off track, but Nathan Newman who bows to none in his pro-labor advocacy got it right:

No, in this case, Bowers first impulse is right. The problem here is not with the Democratic leadership but with its non-labor base of voters, who don't understand the issues and thus don't campaign hard to educate their fellow voters. The ongoing union-busting in the airline industry has gone barely unmentioned by most liberal blogs and one outrage after another comes down from the National Labor Relations Board without comment. If similar decisions were happening on abortion or race, it wouldn't be blogged from the far ends of liberal opinion outlets, but most liberals just don't give a damn.

No, the political leaders (who need labor help at elections) are actually ahead of much of the base on core labor issues. It's the liberal opinion leaders, not the elected ones, who need to clean up their act and take labor issues more seriously on a day-to-day basis.
I should say, though, that I think this is a change for the better that's already under way here. Certainly the lefties at The Nation like unions just fine. The American Prospect's editor at large, Harold Meyerson, writes all the time about unions and is quite the expert on the subject. Even better, he's been a regular columnist at The Washington Post for the past couple of years now. More surprisingly, even the even the liberal New Republic waxed eloquent about the joys of unions a couple of weeks ago, prompting Kevin Drum to agree and call for more people to pay attention.

About a week and a half ago, I was busy castigating MoveOn.org for failing to demonstrate more pomo liberal / labor liberal solidarity by getting involved in the Social Security fight only to quickly discover that MoveOn was about to announce its new partnership with the AFL-CIO. So the trends, I think, are pointing in the right direction, with people coming together and swiftly recognizing that the entire progressive community is facing a "hang together or hang separately" sort of situation here notwithstanding some disagreements about international trade. I believe that the DLC's Ed Kilgore even chimed in with an "amen" after the TNR piece, so there's really no one left outside the warm unioney embrace. Certainly I haven't caught wind of a good union-green blowup for several years now.

Now normally I'm like a walking caricature of your stereotypical limosine liberal, but I hasten to point out that my Hollywood elite father is a member of the Writer's Guild of America East, AFL-CIO and we've always been a proud union family.

January 24, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Since I normally agree with Chris Bowers on just about nothing, it's nice to find something to agree with him about.

But now that we've enjoyed our kumbaya moment on the left, can we get back to arguing about Dean?

Posted by: Petey | Jan 24, 2005 4:14:02 PM

But, what does it mean to be "pro-labor"? Does it really make any sense to talk about these issues like labor is a monolithic bloc. The old manufacturing unions have radically different interests from the growing service unions, which in turn have different interests from the public sector unions that have increasing power in the labor movement. Take immigration issues: manufacturing and other old guard unions tend to oppose liberalizing immigration, but some of the service unions that organize illegal immigrants would find liberalization in the interests of them and many of their members. And then you have Andrew Stern dissing the teachers union line in talking about what needs to happen so public schools better serve his members' children (see: http://www.eduwonk.com/archives/2005_01_02_archive.html#110485379824854811) So, what does it mean to be pro-labor? If it just means protecting the rights to organize and related issues, that's one thing, but I think people tend to mean something else.

Posted by: flip | Jan 24, 2005 4:27:55 PM

"The old manufacturing unions have radically different interests from the growing service unions, which in turn have different interests from the public sector unions that have increasing power in the labor movement."

All very true.

"So, what does it mean to be pro-labor?"

Hopefully, it means focusing more of the party's energy on economic issues, and less on social issues.

Hopefully, it means the lefty blogosphere (outside of the oft-neglected Max) remembers the lunchbox core of the party it too often forgets.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 24, 2005 4:49:19 PM

While there are many differences within labor (immigration and globalization being two general areas), there are a lot of issues about which labor is united. Besides the right to organize, these include the minimum wage, protection of pension funds (which are often looted during buyouts), government support during contract disputes, and enforcement of workplace-safety and other labor laws. Non-specifically union issues always supported by labor include support for education and various other programs supporting labor and the lower middle class. And Social Security (which didn't used to be an issue).

Perhaps, after the New Democrats had succeeded in weakening the unions to the point that the Democratic Party itself was moribund, they realized that a problem had arisen. I don't remember them supporting unions much during the Clinton years.

BTW "Unions" and "labor" aren't quite synonymous. Some unions are satisfied to protect their own members without regard for non-union workers, so a pro-union stance isn't always enough.

One of Bowers points, not addressed by his critics IIRC, was simply that pro-choice, anti-union New Dems are not read out of the party the way anti-abortion, pro-union Dems are. An overstatement, but lots of Democrats (and as Newman says, especially in the middle class rank and file) are unembarassed about being virulently anti-union, whereas anti-abortion Democrats have had to learn to keep a low profile.

Kucinich and Wellstone are two Democrats who tended somewhat toward the labor side of the labor issues / social issues divide, BTW.

Posted by: John Emerson | Jan 24, 2005 4:52:36 PM

whereas anti-abortion Democrats have had to learn to keep a low profile.

Who's the Senate Minority Leader again? I completely agree about the labor stuff but this "small tent on abortion" thing must stop.

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Jan 24, 2005 5:14:20 PM

So, what does it mean to be pro-labor?

I thought it was code for anti-free trade.

Doesn't being pro-labor require you to be anti-NAFTA, etc? Are there any Dems calling for repeal of NAFTA?

Posted by: Al | Jan 24, 2005 5:22:02 PM

Who's the Senate Minority Leader again? I completely agree about the labor stuff but this "small tent on abortion" thing must stop."

It must stop where it's being overstated, as in the evergreen Bob Casey slur.

But it must also stop where it exists in practice as well. We do feel like a smaller tent on the issue than the other side.

We should take lessons from the GOP on its jujitsu in loudly proclaiming the beliefs of its base while at the same time giving prominent and deferential roles to dissenters like Schwarzenegger and Giulliani to let soft opposing believers know it's OK to come into the tent.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 24, 2005 5:41:28 PM

Al, isn't what you thought pretty stupid? Didn't people ahead of you -- for example, me -- mention some of the other things. But it's always nice to know what the Washinton Times means by pro-labor.

Matt, it's not imaginary. As Nathan said, the problem is more with the Democratic opinion people (and middle-class rank and file), and I often hear such people making egregiously loud anti-labor anti-union statements worthy of Al himself -- whereas I do not here the same level of intensity coming from anti-abortion Democrats.

Tom Friedman, who still calls himself a Democrat, praised Reagan's union-busting to the skies. He's a very extreme case, but a lot of the New Dems also became very nasty while they were pushing the party rightward.

Googling "pandering + 'Democratic Party'" gives you nice little anthologies of mixed winger/ New Dem attacks on the Old labor Dems.

Posted by: John Emerson | Jan 24, 2005 5:51:10 PM

"but a lot of the New Dems also became very nasty while they were pushing the party rightward"

The New Dem / Labor battles of the mid/late 80's had almost nothing to do with being hostile to labor's issues in the nation, and almost everything to do with a revolution toward labor's too prominent public role in the party.

Unlike today, labor had very bad fav/unfav ratings among the electorate, and the perception was that having a labor perceived candidate like Mondale or Gephardt as the face of the party was dragging it down to defeat.

But even those on the New Dem side of the divide weren't opposed to labor's issues, with the one eternal exception of free trade. It was always a question of stagecraft, not policy.

By the time of Clinton's nomination, those battles were mostly over, and labor felt part of the Clinton coalition. It's important to remember how important the health care fight was for labor, and while not narrowly about organized labor, how important Clinton's interest in the detail of economic progressivity was, with things like the EITC.

And labor benefited under Clinton. Real income at the bottom of the distribution curve went up for the first time in a generation. Organized labor's fav/unfav ratings finally rebounded from their long trough to the point where they are no longer a political liability today.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 24, 2005 6:09:42 PM

We seem to be having a bit of collective amnesia today. If the Democratic Party is finally going to let labor out of the doghouse, that's a good thing, but let's not say that nothing ever happened. This particular blog is the place where I remember seeing the most egregiously anti-labor and labor-oblivious statements -- coming not from Al, but from Democrats. One example is just people saying how things aren't really that bad because after all, abortion rights and a few other social issues are still OK.

But hey, if we have to pretend it didn't happen at all in order to quit doing it, cool.

No fault, nolo contendere, seal the court records -- done.

Posted by: John Emerson | Jan 24, 2005 6:38:05 PM

John, I completely agree about the labor thing. Lots of folks on our side just don't get it. So you're right that anti-abortion Dems have to keep a lower profile. And Petey, I think we're in agreement as well on the "jujitsu" thing. The Dems need to learn to get credit for their big tent--the GOP hasn't given any pro-choicer a national role as powerful as Reid's (see also the public humiliation of Specter). So I am not sure that there is any problem other than one of perception here; we feel like a smaller tent, because everyone keeps saying we are.

But this a sidelight--I agree with all the stuff about labor which is the main point here. I just jump on the "small tent" thing because I think such comments can exacerbate the problem of perception.

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Jan 24, 2005 7:11:38 PM

"The ongoing union-busting in the airline industry has gone barely unmentioned"

Well, I for one am not a defender of the union practices at the incumbent airlines, nor do I wish to rig the market against new entrants or new technologies to keep those practices going. If that's what's on offer, count me out.

Pro-labour means generous unemployment benefits, a right to healthcare and some consultation with the employer. It does not mean keeping your old job despite trade or technological change. That's the idea behind the Swedish unions (European unions in general) and its good enough for me.

Posted by: Otto | Jan 24, 2005 7:27:24 PM

Al, isn't what you thought pretty stupid? Didn't people ahead of you -- for example, me -- mention some of the other things.

OK, so there are some other things. But, seriously, isn't anti-free trade (or pro-fair trade, or whatever the PC leftie term is these days) a pretty big part of being pro-labor?

Do you really expect all the Dems who used to be free traders back in the Clinton heyday to suddenly become anti-free trade? (I realize that many Democrats -- like MY and KD -- expect fellow Dems who used to think that SS was a "looming fiscal crisis" to throw that belief overboard in favor of the new "there is no crisis" theme... I'm just asking if the same is expected in the free trade area.)

Posted by: Al | Jan 24, 2005 7:33:44 PM

"This particular blog is the place where I remember seeing the most egregiously anti-labor and labor-oblivious statements -- coming not from Al, but from Democrats."

I think you're slightly conflating two separate issues, John.

In addition to the 80's New Dem / Labor battles discussed above, which are long over and done with, there has also been in recent years an unrelated undercurrent of some labor hostility and lots of labor indifference coming from the self-identified "netroots".

Like you, I applaud sealing the court records on any such issues. There is no fundamental reason for them to continue.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 24, 2005 7:34:15 PM

Question: Which issue/positioning, more than any other, defines one's pro-labor bona fides? Answer: how vigorously one opposes trade deals. Why is it that the greatest pro-labor president in the country's history, one Franklin D. Roosevelt (please no arguments here, nobody's even a close second), was also adamant in his support of trade agreements? (because in addition to being a great politician he was a great leader). Unlike FDR, today's pro-labor Democrats (and Republicans) don't lead on labor issues, they pander.

Posted by: P. B. Almeida | Jan 24, 2005 7:35:23 PM

I've that feeling that a couple, maybe three, maybe more, things most significant are being moved about the table here. The idea that there are anti-labor democrats is shocking. How can it be that there are democrats who don't understand the role of labor in society? How is it that some such think we can have a just society without labor being fairly paid? Could this be those who are of liberal ilk on certain social issues but want to hire cheap domestic help and pay little for their lattes? Those who drive through decaying cities on their way downtown who can't remember when blue collars had good wages, owned their houses and kept them neat? Those who didn't understand why Gavin Newsom, a hotel owner, stood with the hotel workers? Maybe they are those we first began to notice around 1980 who went to public schools through university but didn't want to pay taxes for someone else's to do so.

And, looks like someone figured out some of the truth about some of the unions: they can't deliver the vote, the leadership may be selling out the members and the members often vote counter their own interest. Just like the rest of America, union members aren't very well informed. What difference do unions make? Very little. They are not really a factor.

Kind of like Pastor Niemoller's "First they came for the Jews .....", all seem together in this denial: cooked unemployment, illegal immigrant labor, love of the cheap import provided by offshore, but what about when it comes their turn? No problem when the blue collar jobs went, engineers jobs, aah, but when their's, the chemist's, the lawyer's, the doctor's go off shore; will they enjoy the savings quite so much?

Maybe none of these new democrats are old enough to remember what is like before. Perhaps it wise for them to take a look around, to look at other countries where the workers are kept down. See if they can find Aynnie's utopia. Hell, just go to Cleveland or Detroit, or for starters East Oakland or 16th and Mission in SF.

Posted by: ken melvin | Jan 24, 2005 7:45:09 PM

This point has been alluded to, but it bears emphasis: it isn't Democratic political leaders OR liberal opinion leaders who are anti-labor, it's (a substantial number of) Democratic rank-and-file.

I'm pretty sure this is true, though I don't have polling data at my fingertips. The main piece of evidence I can think of is the success of Republican governors in strongly blue states with strong public sector unions (eg, CA, NY, CT, MA). Anecdotally, my own experiences in white collar Blue America corroborate it, as do the comments on many liberal discussion boards.

I can only speculate as to why this is. Labor is such a small percentage of the labor force that it may be seen as a special interest, pursuing issues like trade that a lot of people don't care about. This perception may be exacerbated by the fact that the core labor issues--labor relations laws, labor standards laws--are in a long-term stalemate with neither labor nor management making major legislative gains in recent memory. Also, union members get things that nobody else gets--pensions, job security, time off, health insurance--and people are jealous. Also, the economic interests of non-unionized taxpayers are opposed to those of public sector unions.

Posted by: AF | Jan 24, 2005 7:48:10 PM

Otto,
I believe that when we speak of massive union-busting at the airlines we're speaking of things like US Airways trying to use bankruptcy court to abrogate existing contracts. These two sentences sum it up:

"Mitchell also is to rule on the airline's request to throw out the union contract covering the airline's mechanics and baggage handlers. US Airways wants to replace the contract with a less expensive one."

I think pro-labor means at the very minimum respecting existing contracts. Maybe "generous unemployment benefits, a right to healthcare and some consultation with the employer" would make that unnecessary, but we don't have that either.

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Jan 24, 2005 8:06:20 PM

Damn you Yglesias for placing me on the same hemisphere as Al, but I recall you being a free trader, and not a fair trader. You and Brad DeLong.

I am glad to learn otherwise.

Posted by: jerry | Jan 24, 2005 8:24:35 PM

We are all in the same boat. Manufacturing has been slaughtered by imports from developping economies where you can get workers for a ten dollars a day, IT and various other technical lines of work are going to get slaughtered by outsourcing.

Posted by: Don Quijote | Jan 24, 2005 8:50:39 PM

Good post, Ken Melvin. I also remember a time when Americans were concerned with each other. Americans need to stand up for each other again, because no one else is going to do it. Chinese have other Chinese to stand up for them, Indians, etc.

Ultimately, we are all in the same boat and the sooner we realize it the better.

Posted by: la | Jan 24, 2005 9:02:26 PM

Wow I just happened upon a great new Indian blogger, Mitra Igolitondli!

Posted by: jerry | Jan 24, 2005 9:07:16 PM

"Maybe none of these new democrats are old enough to remember what is like before"

I remember what it was like before, in the 50-70's when labor was respected, had a voice at the table, and the Party supported them.

It was real fucking good.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jan 24, 2005 10:18:43 PM

Matt, bankruptcy court is all about throwing out existing contracts. The unions aren't being singled out for particular screwage in this case.

Posted by: Jake McGuire | Jan 25, 2005 12:02:19 AM

Damn you Yglesias for placing me on the same hemisphere as Al, but I recall you being a free trader, and not a fair trader. You and Brad DeLong.

I am glad to learn otherwise.


Well, that's really the crux of the matter. I saw Matthew say Dems should be more pro-labor. I did NOT see him say that Dems should be fairtraders rather than freetraders.

How 'bout it Matt?

Posted by: Al | Jan 25, 2005 12:39:26 AM

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