Liberalism Without Unions?

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tags: unions, textbooks, liberalism, SEIU

Nelson Lichtenstein is the MacArthur Foundation Chair in History and the  director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

An SEIU member in 2009. Credit: SEIU International.

Updating your history textbook? There is a lot of guesswork involved. For me, writing the last chapter, which tries to bring everything up to include yesterday’s headlines, often seems a lot more like soothsaying that anything else.

Certainly this has been the case as I revised and updated my synthetic history, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor, which Princeton University Press is republishing this month. How do you know what events and movements, what ideas and political enthusiasms are of truly historical import and which ones will just pass into a kind of nostalgic remembrance? Occupy Wall Street undoubtedly put some fundamental issues of financial power and social inequality on the agenda, but did it actually inaugurate a new kind of politics in the U.S.? Likewise, the dramatic demonstrations that convulsed Wisconsin during the early months of Scott Walter’s governorship demonstrated that the labor movement and its supporters were not about to acquiesce quietly in the evisceration of their trade unions, but did these rallies and occupations signal the last battle in this fight or a renewal of militancy and the emergence of a new cross-class coalition?

For me such questions were summed up in, well, a question mark or the lack thereof. The last chapter of my book was first entitled “Obama’s America: Liberalism Without Unions.” But I could not decide if I should add a question mark at the end of that chapter title, which would preserve just a shred of hope that a rebirth of American liberalism really would demand that unionism find a path to its own revitalization and renewed growth. The unions today enroll a smaller proportion of the workforce and are certainly weaker in the corporate economy than at any time since the First World War.

For several weeks, as State of the Union went through final editing, I thought to myself that political honesty and historical clarity demands that I assert the truth as I saw it. Once the 2012 elections had passed, it seems entirely plausible that we have come to the point where a permanent liberal majority existed in this nation, but it hardly requires a robust labor movement to sustain it. The cultural and demographic revolutions that have liberated gays, made Latinos a decisive voting bloc, elevated an African-American to the presidency, and made the Republicans hegemonic only among those white people who live in the states that once composed the old Confederacy seem to insure that the Democrats, even liberal Democrats, are going to be the natural ruling party for the next generation. Can anyone doubt that a Hillary Clinton presidency will do anything but reinforce such a political and cultural drift, whatever the machinations of the GOP and the conservatives in blocking her own liberal agenda in Congress and the state legislatures?

But of course, what would be the content of that liberalism if trade unionism ceased to exist? Two kinds of labor stories that have captured headlines during the last few weeks tell the tale. On the one hand, President Obama has repeatedly tried to make issues of income inequality and “middle class” living standards an issue that the nation should address. In his own reflections upon the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the president remarked that if the nation has made much progress on insuring civic equality and ethno cultural diversity, it has failed to create the “good jobs and just wages” that were also integral to King’s definition of civil rights progress. Obama’s speech embodied what I think has become nearly hegemonic among most Democrats and many who stand even farther to the right: economic inequality and the erosion of working-class living standards are a cancer slowly destroying the health of American democracy. Indeed, the remarkably favorable coverage which most in the press have offered the recent strikes of fast food workers seems to testify to the understanding that something must be done to resolve this debilitating growth of social and economic inequality. Adjusted for inflation, the demand for a $15 dollar an hour wage in the fast food industry is, in the year 2013, only slightly higher than the $2 minimum wage that A. Philip Randolph and Bard Rustin made sure were part of the 1963 March on Washington demands. And once you factor in the computer-assisted revolution in labor productivity in the fast food industry, today’s strikers are actually asking for less than what the marchers of half a century ago demanded.

But if Obama and other Democrats recognize that a new, hegemonic liberalism cannot simply be constructed out of the demographic changes taking place in the American electorate, they can find little role for organized trade unionism in resolving this conundrum. Middle class public sector union workers -- and here I do mean the sort of middle-class school teachers, sanitation workers, and firemen making $50,000 or $60,000 a year -- have been put in the fiscal cross hairs by Democratic mayors from Los Angeles to Chicago. As actually existing institutions defending a shrinking number of truly middle-class jobs, the Democrats rarely defend the unions themselves. In the run up to the 2012 election President Obama offered the union insurgents who occupied the Wisconsin statehouse and then sought the recall of Governor Walker barely a word of encouragement. And earlier this summer the president chose a Tennessee distribution center operated by Amazon, one of the most vicious, low-wage, anti-union and fastest-growing employers in the nation, as a site of a speech endorsing his economic program for the middle class.

So what about that question mark at the end of the last chapter in my textbook? I could not leave it off. The idea that we may be entering an era of liberalism without a trade union movement seems to fly in the face of nearly two centuries in the history of democratic rights and social progress on both sides of the Atlantic; and in the contemporary world the working-class search for citizenship, democracy and a better life has been demonstrated again and again from South Africa to South China. In 1963 socialists and trade unionists provided the organizational infrastructure that made the March on Washington possible; today the Service Employees International Union pays the bills for the fast food worker uprising. And so the chapter title “Obama’s America: Liberalism without Unions?” is not merely an appeal to laborite sentimentality, but has some traction in the grand arc of our history.

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