I think I've made that sad joke before, but my life has been largely a three decade front row seat at a phenomenon that seemed to be all of the talk recently due to the results of the Wisconsin recall. To be honest, I don't think it was quite the momentous event that many have painted it, from Ezra Klein to Kevin Drum. Rather, it was just one more story in what has been a long, brutal, and often ignored war. Wisconsin was actually to me a bit heartening -- not the results obviously, but the fight it showed, the grass roots energy, the unwillingness to take no for an answer. I do not believe in glorious defeat or other attractions of beautiful loserdom, but I damn sure would rather go down with a fight than endure what Rich Yeselson at the New Republic described as the "slow motion death spiral" -- something for which I have had a ring side seat.
I have thought about this stuff so much for so long that it is difficult to fully organize my thoughts, but here goes: First, Ezra's suggestion that there is some other type of coalition that can stand in labor's stead strikes me as questionable, even though I share his fear that the labor movement lacks the heft now to really push its agenda and that it is more likely to decline than grow in the existing political and economic environment. The labor movement is unique in that it is not just a "special interest" -- it is virtually the only political player that I can think of that pushes a broad variety of legislation, even where it does not directly or exclusively benefit its membership -- everything from the minimum wage (not too many union members are affected) to mandated paid time off (again not typically a problem for union members) to civil rights legislation to job safety regulation (which is far more important for non-union workers). Ezra's notion that the liberal community can coalesce against all special interests as a strategy struck me as unusually weak thinking for him. It's a kind of parody of good government abstraction which will have zero attraction or effectiveness in the world of power.
Second, the decline of organized labor has been ongoing steadily for quite a long time. Private sector union density has gone from roughly a third of the workforce in the 1950s to today's scant 7%. This has not been an accident. It has been part of a concerted effort between business interests and right wing politicians that never really went away (remember Taft-Hartley was passed in 1947) but that garnered significant momentum in the late 1970s -- when economic stagnation destroyed the short-lived modus vivendi that had existed in segments of the industrialized economy -- and has accelerated in ferocity since then. .The American labor law regime offers incredibly weak protection to workers and business interests and their reprehensible lackeys in the management labor bar have spent decades now cynically violating the rights of workers, secure in the knowledge that any penalties would be minimal, assessed long after the offense occurred, and cost-effective. All attempts to reform the law over the past fifty years have died under concerted Republican opposition and, of course, the filibuster (where conservative Democrats have often dealt the fatal blow.) I see no real reason for optimism while the law remains as it is.
To some extent the decline of private sector unionism was offset to a degree by the rise of public sector collective bargaining. Bargaining in the public sector flourished largely because most jurisdictions did not emulate their private sector counterparts -- most public sector workers who wanted to join unions faced no intimidation or concerted campaigns to stop unionization. (This era would seem to be drawing to an end with the rise of Walker-like tactics.)
I think that public sector unionism is not a fully satisfactory substitute for private sector unionism -- and resonates less in our capitalist culture. In my mind the NEA or AFSCME will never be the equivalent of the UAW or United Steelworkers of another era -- in part because the latter actually had the ability to shut down significant parts of the economy back in their heyday. These industrial unions represented millions of workers at a time when the working population was considerably smaller, they fought brutal battles against employer violence to win recognition, they negotiated landmark contracts that helped created the American middle class, and they were on the cutting edge of social change -- especially the UAW, which was a force for civil rights and broader social justice as well as the economic advancement of its members. Who will stand in the shoes of the UAW when it comes to fighting the good fight for an array of peoples and interests down the road? I have no good answer to that question, but sadly, I think it is a crucial one to ask.
Finally, I need to express a little bit of bitterness to my fellow lefties who are my contemporaries or a bit older. I have enjoyed the renewed vogue for organized labor that has characterized much of the liberal community over the last few years. I was especially heartened by young bloggers showing interest in a movement that had largely gotten the back of the hand from a lot of liberals over the previous couple of decades. And it's nice to see Joe Nocera put in a plug for them while praising Tim Noah's The Great Divergence." But I have to admit that there's a pretty big part of me that wonders where the hell Nocera and all of the others who are now bemoaning labor's passing were back three decades ago, when the assault began in earnest. I chose my side way back then -- I remember trying to hustle my resume at the UAW's Washington office in 1982 before I got admitted to law school. They smiled in good natured amusement as I tried to cold call them and sell my services cheaply in the midst of the horrific Reagan recession. As Eric Alterman points out in this excellent piece, back in those days it was pretty damn hard to sell most liberals on unions. They were deemed old-fashioned, irrelevant, the province of uncool, fat old white men -- when I expressed my desire to work for the labor movement, all manner of liberal people I met wondered why.
I really don't know what kind of a future unions have in this country. I am out there pushing for them every day and will continue to do so, but I cannot say I am overly sanguine about their prospects. What I am sure of is that liberalism without unions will not be the same and that the quest for broader economic justice will be immeasurably hampered if we cannot preserve them and then reverse to at least some degree their decline. The Republicans, strangely enough, understand their significance and thus, will stop at nothing to try to kill them. It is too bad that more liberals didn't recognize their value back when it would have been a lot easier to protect them.
[Feel free to treat this as an open thread as well if you wish.]