Not With a Bang, But a Whimper: The Long, Slow Death Spiral of America’s Labor Movement
June 11, 2012
Many commentators have correctly observed that the reelection of Governor Scott Walker is a grave blow to unions, especially public sector unions. They went all in to defeat Walker and, despite the great outpouring of protest last year against his collective bargaining bill, he won by a greater margin this time than he did in 2010.
But something else was exemplified by the Wisconsin results. It’s not that unions can’t win a defensive fight. Ohio proved otherwise—a resounding 23 percent rollback of an anti-collective bargaining measure for public employees similar to that enacted in Wisconsin. (Alec MacGillis hasdiscussed some of the reasons why Ohio’s results differed from those in Wisconsin.) And it’s not as if unions don’t still have significant political strength. Barack Obama and other Democrats need the union household vote (roughly 25 percent of the electorate) to vote Democratic at its customary 60 to 65 percent in several key Midwestern states (and Nevada, too) in order to win.
No, the real underlying story is that unions are losing their institutional legitimacy in modern America. The problem isn’t that most people hate unions. The problem for unions is that most people don’t care about them, or think about them, at all.
SURE, CONSERVATIVE activists and plutocrats do think about unions. They understand that unions put more money and power into workers’ hands, at the expense of management and owners—and more money into the hands of Democratic politicians, at the expense of Republicans. Now that the Soviet Union has fallen, there is no more consistent trope of conservative ideology stretching back over a century than a nearly pathological hatred of unions.
What’s different now is that the cord connecting union organizing and activism to broad currents of the American public has been frayed nearly to the breaking point. Unions always had powerful enemies, but they also had a broad institutional legitimacy grounded in their ubiquitous presence within economics, politics, and even culture. (Who can imagine today a hit Broadway show like The Pajama Game of the 1950s, or a popular film like Norma Rae of the 1970s?) When union membership peaked in the mid 1950s at about 35 percent, it was disproportionately weighted to the Northeast, the Midwest, and California. But that meant that in those regions—the most populous in the country—either a worker was in a union himself/herself, had a family member in a union, or, at least, had a friend or neighbor in a union. People, for better or worse, knew what unionsdid and understood them to be an almost ordinary part of the workings of democratic capitalism.
Most important, they knew, for better or worse, that unions had power. Sixty years ago, the UAW or the Mineworkers or the Steelworkers, not only deeply affected crucial sectors of an industrial economy, they also demanded respect from broader society—demands made manifest in the “political strikes” they organized, whether legally or not, to protest the issues of the day. Millions supported these strikes, millions despised them—but nobody could ignore them. The charismatic leaders of these unions, men like Walter Reuther and John L. Lewis, were household names to most Americans. Jimmy Hoffa was thought by many to be a “thug”, but his union, the Teamsters, could stop interstate commercial transportation in the country. Such was the power that John Sweeney, the former president of the AFL-CIO, sought to evoke when he assumed office in the mid 1990s on a platform of union reform and growth. Sweeney was not a great public speaker, but he did use one great line that always got boisterous cheers before audiences of union members (including me). He would speak about the enemies of the labor movement and say something like, “Well, they’re calling me a ‘big union boss.’ All I can say is: it’s a lot better to be a big union boss than a small union boss.”
Today, by contrast, with several notable exceptions—the housekeeping workers in Las Vegas’s casinos, the UPS drivers, the hotel workers of New York City, pockets of militancy among the Latino immigrant community in Los Angeles—the sources of union strength are diminished. Membership is much smaller and declining, workers aren’t aggressively seeking to join unions. And the most famous union president today is probably the recently retired Andy Stern of SEIU. Stern has had a 60 Minutes segment dedicated to him, and has been featured in major magazine profiles; he was a frequent visitor to the Obama White House; he is smart and dynamic. But how many Americans today know who Stern is? Five percent? That many? The fact is, the SEIU, as resourceful and influential as it is, can’t make a serious claim to power over the American economy—janitors and nurse’s aides today can’t bring the economy to a halt, as autoworkers, steel workers, and truckers could claim to be able to do in the 1950s…