I put Middle Earth Journal in hiatus in May of 2008 and moved to Newshoggers.
I temporarily reopened Middle Earth Journal when Newshoggers shut it's doors but I was invited to Participate at The Moderate Voice so Middle Earth Journal is once again in hiatus.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Unions and Progressives

Harold Meyerson has a long and impassioned plea to liberals to focus on the labour issue over at The American Prospect. I’ve seen many of the arguments and details elsewhere, but he does do a good job putting all of it together in this column. The story of the decline in organized labour and its effects on working class wages and benefits should be one everyone is familiar with, though far too many still aren’t.

The only thing I think he missed was the effect that this concentration of wealth at the top and the weakening of the middle class has in regards to our current financial troubles, which Ryan Cooper noted at the Washington Monthly.

Wealthy people tend to save a lot more, which they want to invest someplace. But because the masses have less to spend, it’s harder to find profitable real investments with much return on them. (Even if you’ve got a good idea, it’s harder to make a profit selling it if people have less money to buy it.) Thus before the last crisis the creditor class lent that money out to the middle class in the form of cheap mortgages, which fueled an enormous housing bubble. Before that they were bidding up an enormous stock bubble in tech companies.

In this view, the reason we seem to have had weak growth, and one bubble after the next in the last 20-30 years (and the reason conventional monetary policy lost traction during the 2000s, with rates staying low for years and years with little effect) is that with flat wages among the masses and enormous hoards at the top, there is too much money chasing too few places to put it.

Beyond just the effect that unions and their loss has had on wages, Meyerson points out that unions have been pivotal in GOTV campaigns and other efforts that tend to further support liberal and progressive causes, and probably most importantly, being the only real force the middle class has with sufficient resources to at least attempt to counterbalance the wealthy business owners and corporations that pour money into maintaining and expanding the concentration of wealth at the highest levels.

Not that this means that all, or even any, unions will also have the same priorities as liberals or progressives, and Meyerson does note where this has caused friction between the two and has led in part to the disconnect between progressives and labour, and the lack of real liberal support for labour issues in the more recent past.

The post opens with a short litany of recent Republican victories in the war against labour in Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin after the 2010 elections swept them into power, even if the voters in Ohio managed to overturn that particular law (and, as of yesterday, a judge has thrown out the Wisconsin law, though if it is appealed to the current Supreme Court. or worse, a court that a President Romney can stack with another partisan Republican or two, they’ll likely find entirely constitutional). What struck me about that time was the relative lack of coverage or even words of support from many progressive blogs. Things have been somewhat better during the Chicago teacher’s strike, (though the less said about the so-called “liberal” pundits on said issue, the better).

This tendency to overlook organized labour as a progressive force to be supported and protected has caused me no end of annoyance, particularly when I see it from those who talk about building an alternative power base away from the two ruling parties in the U.S., though as Meyerson points out, this lack of caring extends to the mainstream of the Democratic party itself, though for an entirely different and not terribly defensible reason.

What explains this indifference to labor’s fate? Some leading Democrats believe their party can build an enduring majority that doesn’t have much of a place for unions. Their strategy is based on demography—that through the growing numerical strength of Latinos and Asians and the steady support of blacks and highly educated white professionals, Democrats can put together an electoral coalition that will sweep them into power for many decades. Single black women, the theory goes, vote at a 98 percent rate for the Democrats whether they’re in unions or not. As for unions’ ability to deliver white working-class votes to the Democrats—it’s not going to matter. The white working class is shrinking as a share of the electorate, and the union share of the white working class is shrinking alongside it. Who needs ’em?

But this strategy falls short in two particulars. First, it’s the unions on whom Democrats count to turn out much of the working-class black and Latino vote. Second, and more fundamentally, a coalition based chiefly on demography cannot stand, at least not for long. The New Deal coalition put together by Franklin Roosevelt, which lasted until 1968, may have been initially based in rising minority groups—Catholic and Jewish immigrants and their children—who were often as suppressed and reviled by Republican Protestant voters of that time (and Southern Democratic whites as well) as blacks and Latinos are today. But Roosevelt’s coalition, while incorporating these new groups in its circles of power, also bettered their economic lot in life.

Can a new Democratic coalition all but devoid of a union presence and subject to the growing influence of corporate America and the financial elite do the same? Can it restore equitable growth? That would be squaring a circle. Already, some Democratic mayors, among them Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel and Newark’s Cory Booker, are building coalitions that array their city’s corporate elites and minority communities against their cities’ unions. The irony here is that their cities’ unions are largely responsible for expanding the middle class within those minority communities. Nonetheless, this municipal version of the Democrats’ top-bottom coalition could prove to be the model for the Democratic Party of the future. By ceding control over taxes, trade, and worker rights to the party’s corporate funders, however, this model omits a plausible vision of how to reconstruct broadly shared prosperity. Absent worker power, you can’t get there from here.

Meyerson’s final section is on how to rebuild the labour movement and rekindle interest in class issues, though I didn’t find it exactly confidence inspiring. I do hope there are some better thinkers and strategists out there with plans on how organized labour can make a comeback, since without it, I don’t see a very happy future for the vast majority of workers in the U.S.

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