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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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  • Suzy Dixon

    Interesting piece. But as the article intimates, I don’t think the left exists as we knew it growing up.
    There’s the standard establishment/corporatist, super unpopular Democrat, or the super unpopular, uber left communists (who just failed to take over the party)
    The multiple years of failure of the DP and now the civil war splitting and further weakening the party really necessitates that we examine it in its component pieces.

    • Andrew Allison

      The component pieces don’t bear examination [grin] The Democratic party has clearly lost sight of it’s raison d’etre and unless it figures out its place, if any, in the 21st Century is headed for oblivion. As Prof. Mead regularly points out, the Blue Model is irretrievably broken. More importantly, social democracy as a whole is based on ever more government control of the economy which, as the decline in non-public employee well-being here and in Europe shows, is a failed model.

      • KremlinKryptonite

        The level of projection coming out of the Democratic Party has always been high but the last few years it has been insane.
        As soon as they started talking about Trump as some amalgamation of decades of ugly politics in the GOP, and saying that “he’s only popular amongst the far right” I knew it was over for the Democratic Party in 2016.

        Decades of bad and ugly strategy using identity politics and wedge issues created the faction of the Democratic Party that’s now ripping it apart on the far left haha

  • Joey Junger

    It’s pretty simple. Everybody likes benefits, and will vote for those, provided the trade-offs aren’t too great. Trump’s supposedly a foaming-at-the-mouth fascist but what he believes, say, on immigration (probably the most polarizing issue in America) is no more radical than what everyone from FDR to JFK to even Bill Clinton said or thought. It’s just common sense.

    A large cohort of people who vote for republicans or call themselves conservative at this point are New Deal democrats, or Great Society democrats (I know a lot of conservatives, and they all like “market” solutions for inner-city problems, like enterprise zones), But these people aren’t going to vote for people who knee-jerk side against the police in favor of thugs who attack them (i.e. Obama and Holder) because, at the end of the day, they’re not suicidal. Progressives are suicidal or at the very least extremely self-loathing/masochistic, and so most people don’t want a part of that dwindling coalition. If the democrat party regains its mind and its soul, it will siphon off votes from the right-wing populists. If not, then they will have to keep importing third-world rabble in order to win elections.

  • Ken Moon

    When I was growing up, a union job was the holy grail, a guarantee that you would make far more income and benefits than your non-union neighbors.

    But these jobs were impossible to get, unless your dad was in the union or another relative was in a high position in a union.

    It was human nature for the union workers to want to keep their booty within as small a group as possible, but this unfortunately (although predictably) led to a gap between the lucky union workers and the struggling masses that the unions were supposed to be advocating for.

    Union members wrote this off as simple jealousy and said “if you want to share in the bounty, get your own union job, but I deserve all the goodies I get because…”

    As private sector industrial employment collapsed, the unions went after the government workers of all types, because then they could “negotiate” for more and more stuff, with no pesky profit/loss considerations as in private industry. This one-sided approach worked marvelously for keeping unions big and politically powerful, but signaled their final abandonment of America’s blue-collar and rural workers.

    Then 9/11 happened, and suddenly, firefighters and police were like gods, and cities and states fell all over themselves to heap well-deserved praise on them, along with astronomical jumps in pension promises, which were easy to make because the politicians who passed them would be retired by the time the bill came due (the bills are now due and unpayable).

    Look at Jacksonville, Florida, a mid-sized city in a right-to-work state with conservative Republican domination in politics. Just this week, the city finally settled a fight with the police and firefighters’ unions to switch from a defined-benefit plan to a 401k-style plan with a generous employer match for new hires.

    It took and immediate pay raise and a match of 25% just to move the new hires onto this plan. The existing employees get to keep their pension plan, which is guaranteed to make much more than the stock market can deliver, with the taxpayers making up the difference.

    It doesn’t look like very many cities and states have the political will to even attempt to do what Jacksonville did. This deal required concessions from the unions that they did not legally have to make, and included a voter-approved sales-tax increase as the residents’ buy-in to the deal. And this deal still leaves a multi-billion dollar budget hole due to past shortages, which will take about 50 years to pay off, if not more, while more obligations pile up each year their pension fund fails to get an 8% return).

    The people of this country need an honest discussion about how bad the public pension debt is, and work together to give these public servants the respect and resources they need, without bankrupting the rest of us.

    Jacksonville bit the bullet and at least tried to do something positive to partially address future debt pileup. I’m sure there are other cities and states that have done likewise.

    This problem threatens to bankrupt the entire nation (if you think that’s hyperbolic, read up and see how big the numbers are. And prepare to lift your jaw off the floor 🙂

  • Gary Hemminger

    I believe that the progressive left has some difficult work ahead. If you make combating global warming your main ideological construct, this doesn’t bode well for blue collar, energy intensive jobs. If you also make identity politics a key part of your platform, how does this help get working class whites on your side? If social justice drives your policies, then how can wage and job growth as a whole be improved? If transgender rights are the most important civil rights issue of our times, how does this help the working class? If open borders are a tenant of your platform, how does this assuage those concerned about immigration?

    These are all core to the progressives platforms and ideology. I don’t think they are going to be willing to give these up. And I don’t think they are going to hide these from the electorate.

    • Ken Moon


      Don’t you know that when you’re busy saving the planet and bending the moral arc of the universe, the concerns you stated are less than meaningless?

      Get with the program!

      I agree that for the first time, the progressives are so enamoured with their policy proposals that they’re not even bothering to feint toward the center to get elected. It will be an interesting experiment, and we’ll see the results in 2018 and 2020.

    • LarryD

      Back in the 1970s, the New Left (scions of upper-middle class) replaced the Old Left. The American Left has switched from proletarian socialism to bourgeois socialism. It’s all about the bourgeois class interests, which amount to keeping any threats to the bourgeois class status suppressed. Hence, no-growth environmentalism, social justice, identity politics, feminism and abortion. And the proletariat be dammed. Marx would condemn them all as heretics. The modern Left has been subverted by its class enemies. And we are back at Wigan Pier, again.
      George Orwell, playing devil’s advocate describes the British Socialist of his day:

      The first thing that must strike any outside observer is that
      Socialism, in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the
      middle classes. The typical Socialist is not, as tremulous old ladies
      imagine, a ferocious-looking working man with greasy overalls and a
      raucous voice. He is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years’
      time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been
      converted to Roman Catholicism; or, still more typically, a prim little
      man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaller and often with
      vegetarian leanings, with a history of Nonconformity behind him, and,
      above all, with a social position which he has no intention of
      forfeiting. This last type is surprisingly common in Socialist parties
      of every shade; it has perhaps been taken over en bloc from. the old
      Liberal Party. In addition to this there is the horrible — the really
      disquieting — prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered
      together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words
      ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every
      fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature
      Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England. One day this summer I
      was riding through Letchworth when the bus stopped and two
      dreadful-looking old men got on to it. They were both about sixty, both
      very short, pink, and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was
      obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George
      style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts
      into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could
      study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on
      top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say,
      glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured
      ‘Socialists’, as who should say, ‘Red Indians’. He was probably right —
      the I.L.P. were holding their summer school at Letchworth. But the point
      is that to him, as an ordinary man, a crank meant a Socialist and a
      Socialist meant a crank. Any Socialist, he probably felt, could be
      counted on to have something eccentric about him. And some such notion
      seems to exist even among Socialists themselves. For instance, I have
      here a prospectus from another summer school which states its terms per
      week and then asks me to say ‘whether my diet is ordinary or
      vegetarian’. They take it for granted, you see, that it is necessary to
      ask this question. This kind of thing is by itself sufficient to
      alienate plenty of decent people. And their instinct is perfectly sound,
      for the food-crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself off
      from human society in hopes of adding five years on to the life of his
      carcase; that is, a person but of touch with common humanity.

      To this you have got to add the ugly fact that most middle-class
      Socialists, while theoretically pining for a class-less society, cling
      like glue to their miserable fragments of social prestige. I remember my
      sensations of horror on first attending an I.L.P. branch meeting in
      London. (It might have been rather different in the North, where the
      bourgeoisie are less thickly scattered.) Are these mingy little beasts, I
      thought, the champions of the working class? For every person there,
      male and female, bore the worst stigmata of sniffish middle-class
      superiority. If a real working man, a miner dirty from the pit, for
      instance, had suddenly walked into their midst, they would have been
      embarrassed, angry, and disgusted; some, I should think, would have fled
      holding their noses. You can see the same tendency in Socialist
      literature, which, even when it is not openly written de haut en bos, is
      always completely removed from the working class in idiom and manner of
      thought. …

      George Orwell, the Road to Wigan Pier chapter 11

  • FriendlyGoat

    The Republicans of Eisenhower’s day never imagined that they could get church people to vote away pensions, labor laws and unions while dramatically reducing high-end taxes to the point of reconstituting a new gilded age at the top. The reason they did not imagine such a political climate in their time is that church people were presumed too smart for it and actually were too smart for it. Well, now they’re not.

    • Anthony

      An addendum if you will permit: “there is little doubt that the first Republican president in two decades was deeply suspicious of statism, focused on the dangers of drift in that direction, and sympathetic to the concerns of the business community. Yet President Eisenhower, along with other leading Republicans, embraced the mixed economy. He insisted that ‘unions’ have a secure place…Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”

      What changed – transformation of American capitalism and American politics perhaps? That is, our present predicament is a legacy of fundamental changes _ “in the economy, in the beliefs that guide our leaders, in the associations representing American business, and in the Republican Party.”

      • FriendlyGoat

        Yes, we have had a transformation in both American capitalism and politics. The more we cut high-end taxation, the wider the wealth divide and the less the lower end of that divide understands what the heck is going on. So, their votes can be much more easily purchased on OTHER issues—-and they have been for quite some time now.

        • Anthony

          An aside, I read the Post this morning and thought that it was terribly confounding (mixing Blue Model politics, unions, workers, partisanship, socialism, Sanders, Ellison, etc. in a melange of conflating). So, I appreciated your specific reference.

          But to your point: organizing for so-called red America – “this machinery has three key elements: Christian conservatism, polarizing right-wing media, and growing efforts by business and the wealthy to backstop and bankroll Republican politics. The tight alliance of conservatives Christian voters and the GOP —forged over two decades ago but still a central fact of modern American politics–has given the GOP a substantial base of middle-income voters who side with the party mostly for noneconomic reasons. Because these voters generally care more about the party’s positions on abortion, gay marriage, and other social issues than about its increasingly conservative economic stances, Republicans have had greater freedom to head right on economic issues without worrying as much about the electoral support of their least-well-off backers.”

          A thought passed on to me: the Republicans have managed a feat of political alchemy – turning extreme policy stances into success within a generally moderate electorate.

          • FriendlyGoat

            I just call it miseducation on a massive scale. The budget process of 2017 is going to alarm some of them.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    The Labor Gang Monopolies should be broken up by the Antitrust laws. The Public sector Labor Gang Monopolies are especially vile, being Monopolies within the Government Monopoly, and they have 2 times the suck because of it.

    It’s the “Feedback of Competition” that provides both the Information and Motivation which forces continuous improvements in Quality, Service, and Price in free markets. Those who work inside a monopoly therefore have neither the Information or Motivation to work smart and efficiently, and have become collectively known derogatively as useless “Bureaucrats”.

  • lukelea

    Trump may be in the process of creating a new labor party. Another kind of collective bargaining.

  • J K Brown

    “GOP initiatives like right-to-work ”

    You mean restore individual liberty? Unions were responsible to reducing free men to the condition of women a hundred years ago, wards of the state. Now wage earner has their wages and hours set by their guardian, the State.

    For instance, it is a primary principle that an English free man of full age, under no disability, may control his person and his personal activities. He can work six, or four, or eight, or ten, or twelve, or twenty-four, or no hours a day if he choose, and any attempt to control him is impossible under the simplest principle of Anglo-Saxon liberty.

    Yet there is possibly a majority of the members of the labor unions who would wish to control him in this particular today; and will take for an example that under the police power the state has been permitted to control him in matters affecting the public health or safety, as, for instance, in the running of railway trains, or, in Utah, in labor in the mines. But freedom of contract in this connection results generally from personal liberty itself; although it results also from the right to property; that is to say, a man’s wages (or his trade, for matter of that) is his property, and the right of property is of no practical use if you cannot have the right to make contracts concerning it.

    The only matter more important doubtless in the laborer’s eye than the length of time he shall work is the amount of wages he shall receive. Now we may say at the start that in the English-speaking world there has been practically no attempt to regulate the amount of wages. We found such legislation in medieval England, and we also found that it was abandoned with general consent. But of late years in these socialistic days (using again socialistic in its proper sense of that which controls personal liberty for the interest of the community or state) it is surprisingly showing its head once more.

    p 213
    You can have regulation of the hours of labor of a woman of full age in general employments, by court decision, in three States (Massachusetts, Oregon, and Illinois), … but the Oregon case, decided both by the State Supreme Court and by the Federal Court in so far as the Fourteenth Amendment was concerned, after most careful and thorough discussion and reasoning, reasserted the principle that a woman is the ward of the state, and therefore does not have the full liberty of contract allowed to a man. Whether this decision will or will not be pleasing to the leaders of feminist thought is a matter of considerable interest.
    Muller v. Oregon. 208 U. S. 412.

    –Popular Law-making: A Study of the Origin, History, and Present Tendencies of Law-making by Statute, Frederic Jesup Stimson (1910)

  • Eurydice

    I don’t understand the title. “Working class” is just a category and categories can be redefined. If unions disappeared tomorrow there would still be people working. If the point is that Democrats can no longer count on their traditional constituencies, then yes, of course – please take another swat at that dead horse.

    • Government Drone

      You made the same mistake that I did, reading the headline so that “Left” meant “Remaining”. An interesting Zen question (i.e., if there are no strikes, are there unions?), but the story is about whether there will be a left-WING working class.

      • Eurydice

        Thanks, silly me to assume that “left” and “right” can mean something other than political orientation. Next I’ll be misinterpreting street signs…no right turn…

  • f1b0nacc1

    It would be instructive to take a long look at the UK, where the Labour party is actively (almost aggressively) abandoning labor in order to better embrace it’s new paramour, identity politics and gentry liberalism. Sound familiar? One of my daily recreations is to read the Guardian, with special emphasis on their opinions page Comment is Free. Lots of silliness, though these folks actually mean it!

    Watching the old bolshies square off against the gentry liberals really does provide for a good laugh at times…

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