No Left Left
Can There Be a Working-Class Left with No Unions?

Even after the defeat of Representative Keith Ellison in the race for DNC Chair, there remains pressure from the Left to pull the Democratic Party in the direction of socialist Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. But if socialism does indeed stage a comeback in American politics, one important trend guarantees it won’t look much like it did in the 1930s and 1940s. From a Bloomberg report last week:

In 2016, 10.7 percent of wage and salary workers in the U.S. belonged to a union. That’s just over half the rate it was 1983.

The main U.S. federation for organized labor, the AFL-CIO includes 55 unions that together represent 12.5 million workers, from teachers to construction workers. It’s a major source of funds and ground troops for liberal causes and lawmakers. Union leaders, whose members’ dues fund the federation, have long been divided over how the AFL-CIO should distribute its resources among priorities like promoting pro-union politicians or policies, or supporting affiliates’ unionization or contract bargaining campaigns.

Those challenges have become more acute in recent years, as conservatives have scored victories curtailing unions’ funding and power, including a Supreme Court decision banning mandatory union fees for government-funded home-health aides and a wave of new “Right-to-work” laws doing the same for private sector employees in half a dozen states. With President Donald Trump poised to restore the Supreme Court’s 5-4 conservative majority, unions are bracing for a potential ruling abolishing all public sector mandatory fees.

Such threats have prompted pre-emptive cuts at union headquarters. The month after Trump’s election, Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry informed her staff that the 2 million member organization, which is not in the AFL-CIO, was planning for a 30 percent budget reduction over the next year.

Although, as Matthew Yglesias points out, many of the most committed American socialists throughout history were middle-class professionals and not workers, the old-fashioned Left Sanders harkens back to really did derive substantial power from unionized workers. In 2017, the numbers simply aren’t there to resurrect that old labor-based movement.

Democrats blame Republicans for the decline of unions, and it’s true that the GOP initiatives like right-to-work have hurt membership. But the collapse of private-sector unions is first-and-foremost the consequence of the collapse of the blue model economy. As factory work has disappeared in America, so too have the labor unions organized by their employees. In fact, GOP efforts to diminish unions were only possible because union political and economic power was already so weak. In the old days when coal workers could turn off everyone’s heat at will, it wouldn’t have been possible to get a right-to-work bill through state legislatures.

To attract the working class, Democrats will need more than identity politics. But they also will have to think beyond their grandparents’ labor movements. President Donald Trump won working class whites through a complicated mix of anti-globalist and anti-elitist rhetoric. If Democrats are to take back the mantle of worker’s party from the GOP, they’ll need an original approach of their own.

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