In 2008, unions had worked tirelessly for Obama's election in the hope that a Democratic president backed up by a heavily Democratic Congress could change the law that made organizing American workers so difficult. With the upset victory of Republican Scott Brown in the race for the vacant Senate seat from Massachusetts, however, those hopes were definitively dispelled. The failure to reform labor law almost certainly means that that the half-century decline of unions in America -- from representing nearly 40 percent of private-sector workers at the midpoint of the 20th century to representing just 7 percent today -- will continue apace. It means that the corresponding stagnation -- and periodic decline -- in the incomes of working- and middle-class Americans will likely continue as well.
But the failure of labor-law reform was hardly the only disaster that befell unions in 2009. Amid the greatest economic downturn since the 1930s, many thousands of unionized manufacturing, construction, and public employees lost their jobs, sending the percentage of unionized workers to record lows. Public support for unions also plunged, with both the Gallup and Pew polls showing a decline in public support of between 15 percent and 20 percent over the past several years. (In the Pew poll, those who had a favorable view of unions declined from 58 percent in 2007 to 41 percent in 2010.) Two developments fueled that decline: first, the travails of the Big Three automobile companies, for which one of the most prevalent explanations was the excessive labor costs that the United Auto Workers had inflicted on those companies (an explanation that relied on mislabeling the companies' obligations to their millions of retirees as existing wage costs). The second development, which bodes ill for the future of public-employee unions, is the rising backlash within a largely nonunion private sector against a still substantially unionized public sector, which has managed to retain the kinds of benefits (such as defined-benefit pensions) that were once routine in the private sector but that vanished as private-sector unions declined in size and clout.
Yep. Yep. What is to be done, though? Realistically, what is to be done?
If nothing else, the experiences of 2009 seem to have taught most unions that the Democratic Party is their good friend during campaigns when the candidates need their help but isn't always there when the time comes to reciprocate -- and that sometimes they need to play hardball with Democrats. That's the lesson of Trumka's meeting with Obama and of the unions' support for Arkansas Lt. Governor Bill Halter's primary challenge to Wal-Mart's own senator, Blanche Lincoln. Unions need a supportive government to help them organize and create a thriving working class. If that requires getting tougher with their allies than they've customarily been -- well, it's about time.Absolutely, fine. But can "getting tough" -or getting tuff- also mean some form of participation outside of Democratic primary and caucus action? Could we get tuff somewhere besides the District of Columbia? Those who know me know that I have a large crush on the District of Columbia, but not because I think that's where labor needs to be doubling down on its tuffness. D.C. is a good place for Dischord Records to get tuff, but a good place for unions to help pass health care and work in coalition with other folks to advance a progressive course towards economic security that legitimizes social democratic government in the minds of voters. There's gotta be a venue where labor can get tuff - some workplace, say - besides the District of Columbia, and there's gotta be a day besides Election Day when democracy in general, and the workplace democracy of our union movement in particular, is made to matter.