President Obama will win this November. Despite levels of unemployment and anemic economic growth that would normally doom an incumbent, America’s first African-American president is go- ing to occupy the White House for another four years. And he will do so not because he fulfilled his most resonant campaign promise of 2008 – to end partisan gridlock and red/blue antagonism – but because that very polarization now works just enough in Obama’s favor to keep him in office. Given the radicalism of the Republican Right, the intense political divisions have generated an electorate that is largely frozen in place, but with enough on the Obama side to enable the president to squeak home.
None of this offers the Left much to cheer about. Obama care will finally get a chance to demonstrate its fiscal and medical effectiveness and the vision it offers of a more humane society. But the reality of this election season is that American conservatism remains on the offensive and that even in the aftermath of an Obama victory, there seems little space, ideologically or organizationally, for the Left and labor to offer the kind of visions that once seemed on our agenda. Putting them there is the prime task of radicals and socialists, especially in the aftermath of the election. We will not have quite the opportunity of four years ago, but we will have a chance once again.
The unions spent at least $300 million to elect President Obama, and in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania their ground-level mobilization of members and friends played a decisive role in these swing state victories. The grand logic of a progressive renaissance was this: enact a health care law, which would make bargaining easier, and then push through the Employee Free Choice Act, which would en- able unions to capitalize upon the somewhat more benign organizing climate created when thousands of employers in the service and retail sectors found that the federal government, through its expansion of Medicaid and through subsidies to low-wage workers, had relieved them of a substantial proportion of their labor costs.
But this scenario collapsed with stunning rapidity, and with a familiarity that has become all too depressing. For half a century, labor has gotten an opportunity to reform the labor law and strengthen its own institutional power about once every dozen years or so, during those all too rare electoral moments when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency. Whatever the details, a certain political logic seems to have become embedded: during those brief windows of liberal legislative opportunity, organized labor often plays a key role in electing Democrats and in advancing social democratic reforms, such as financial regulation, a more progressive tax regime, and health care innovations, including Obama care, that nudge the polity in a social democratic direction.
But on the federal level labor has repeatedly failed to win any legislation that strengthens organized
labor’s institutional capacity for growth or for the exercise of what economic and political leverage it still commands.
Politically, all this leaves labor exceedingly vulnerable, which became manifest immediately following the 2010 Republican electoral sweep. Why did so many Republican governors and legislators, in once solidly labor states like Ohio, New Jersey, Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin, seek new legislation that would cripple public sector unions and marginalize labor’s remaining political clout? The proximate cause was the fiscal crisis that has gripped most states in recent years. But their decision to attack the entire institution of public sector collective bargaining arose from a peculiar configuration of union weakness that offered opportunistic politicians, including some Democrats, a target they could not resist.
At first blush, labor’s weakness looks like strength. Public sector workers now compose more than half of all unionized workers in the United States. Their union density stands at some 37 percent nationwide, but in states with public sector collective bargaining laws, it rises to well above 60 percent. But this relative success among public sector workers in Northern and Western states has been ac- companied by an absolute collapse of private sector union- ism and, perhaps even more important, the equally dramatic disintegration of the private sector social safety net that non-union workers could once rely upon.
Right-wing populists want public employees to become just as miserable and insecure as the rest of the working population. As Wisconsin governor Scott Walker argued during the battle in Madison, “My brother is a banquet waiter and occasional bartender at a hotel. He pays nearly $800 a month for his family’s health insurance and can put away only a little bit toward his 401(k). He would love the plan I’m offering to public employees.” The point, concluded Walker, is that “we can no longer live in a society where the public employees are
the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots.” Walker’s victory in the June recall had many sources, but his capacity to mobilize this sort of populist resentment was undoubtedly decisive.
One reason that such sentiments have gained traction arises out of the dramatic decline of private sector unionism and the distortion it has generated in the political landscape. As a result, the American labor movement is now, in terms of both sheer numbers and social dynamism, one of public sector workers. But public employees are different. Union or not, they have more education, are more engaged in civic life, and already vote at levels well above their private sector counterparts. When these workers are unionized the prob- ability that they will vote increases by less than 2.5 percent. They are a Democratic Party constituency, but unionism per se has had relatively little to do with it. However, for private sector workers the unionization dividend is almost three times larger. These workers become far more politically engaged when represented by a union, after which they are also more likely to vote Democratic. And then when they are represented by a powerful national trade union, the bot- tom half of the working class has a voice that can be heard in Congress.
The collapse of private sector unionism may well have had as great an impact on the Republican Party as on the Democrats. Liberal Republicanism arose in the late Depression years, when GOP politicians realized that trade unionism had become a potent fact of political life. These were the “sophisticated conservatives,” as C. Wright Mills defined them, who wanted the union impulse confined to the realm of apolitical collective bargaining. Thus the auto executive – and moderate Republican – George Romney declared Walter Reuther “the most dangerous man in Detroit” because, unlike the original Jimmy Hoffa or other business unionists with whom the elder Romney bargained, the UAW sought not just better contracts, but also an influential political role for labor’s mil- lions. So the liberal Republicans are dead, not just because of the culture wars, but because there are so few union workers to whom they feel constrained to appeal.
The rightward lurch of the Republicans has also been manifest in the way the libertarian assault on government itself has transformed and hardened their opposition to unionism in the public sector. For decades, the chief conservative critique of public sector unionism arose from fears that the exercise of workers’ strike power would challenge the sovereignty of the state. But in recent years, this charge has been turned on its head. Public sector unions are ostensibly too powerful because they sustain a strong state, not because they subvert it. Indeed, with public sec- tor strikes (like all strikes) virtually non-existent, Tea Party Republicans now claim that these unions are the chief obstacle to the dismantling of what remains of the New Deal state. Indeed, to many conservatives, public sector collective bargaining constitutes a conspiracy against the public, an institutionalized source of corruption that unnecessarily increases the demand for government services.
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has certainly opened the floodgates for even more Right-wing campaign spending. But more important is door-to-door voter mobilization, and the Court’s ruling makes it possible for labor to directly spend dues income to influence the general public without going through the Democratic Party. Indeed, national Democrats are fearful that labor will spend more on local and state races, which seem even more crucial than national politics when it comes to the specific issues that engage public sector workers.
The national implications are two-fold. First, the 2012 election will resemble that of 2004 far more than that of 2008. The search for and persuasion of undecided voters will be relatively less important to an Obama victory this time around. The mobilization of the Democratic base is crucial, and the trade unions will play a crucial role in those Midwestern states that have become so decisive in recent years. Moreover, Obama will campaign as a social democrat and an economic populist. This election will be about class fairness and the legitimacy of government as regulator of the economy and guarantor of the welfare state.
But a defense of trade unionism will not figure prominently in the Obama appeal, regardless of its mobilizing potential. And from the perspective of the national Democrats, there is a very good reason for this. More than half of all union members in the nation are concentrated in just seven states. But there are also crucial states in which unionists are few and the political culture rabidly anti-union. In Virginia, North Carolina, Arizona and Florida, where Obama and the Democrats hope to lock down a national victory, union density rises no higher than seven and a half percent. Here, unionism is an alien concept with virtually no public advocates, even in the Democratic Party. Labor and the Democrats will undoubtedly mobilize thousands of staffers and pour millions of dollars into these swing states, but union- ism itself will not receive legitimization.
The Left needs its own voice! I was not a fan of the Occupy movement. Despite its somewhat successful effort to return the stark inequalities in American society to the policy agenda, the Occupiers remained ideologically incoherent and programmatically vacuous. But whatever the shortcomings, a huge swath of liberal opinion greeted the Occupy impulse with the same sort of gratitude found in those desert travelers who finally reach fresh water. The unions did everything they reasonably could to keep Occupy going, but there is a huge vacuum that an activist Left can fill. The time for such a mobilization will come just as much after the re-election of Barack Obama as before. t
With Elizabeth Shermer, Nelson Lichtenstein is the editor of The Right and American Labor: Politics, Ideology, and Imagination (2012). He teaches history at the University of California, Santa Barbara where he also directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy.
This article is from the Fall issue of Democratic Left, produced by DSA. You can get copies from DSA.
The special Labor issue includes the DSA position on the fall elections posted on Talking Union last week. Additional articles from this Labor Issue will follow on Talking Union.