“I could hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half.”
— Jay Gould, Wall Street financier, 1886
It’s not a happy time for labor unions. The institution that gave us the weekend, vacations, pensions and health insurance, and is credited with having more or less “invented” the middle-class, is now viewed as anachronistic and lame or, worse, parasitic and corrupt.
If Wes Craven were to make a horror movie about the economy, labor unions would be cast as the zombies. We walk the earth, we are sentient, we appear menacing; but we are neither alive nor dead. We are the American economy’s Undead.
Unless there’s a strike, racketeering scandal or rumor that Hoffa’s body has been found, organized labor tends to be ignored by politicians and mainstream media. There’s nothing particularly revealing in this neglect, other than showing that garden-variety union business doesn’t generate much interest-not among the movers and shakers, not among the moved and the shaken.
This changes come election time. Every four years, like clockwork, unions get nudged into the limelight, as national audiences are treated to media analyses and predictions of that coveted, elusive prize: the “labor vote.” And 2008 will be no exception.
During the 2004 primaries, as Democratic candidates toured the factories and union halls of Blue states-with the AFL-CIO remaining tantalizingly uncommitted, its 13 million members awaiting their “marching orders”-there was intense speculation over who would win labor’s endorsement. ABC’s Peter Jennings called Howard Dean “labor’s man.” CNN’s Chris Matthews said Richard Gephardt was labor’s “best friend.” PBS’s Mark Shields described John Kerry’s labor record as “tepid.”
Although the AFL-CIO-organized labor’s version of the Pentagon-cautiously withheld its endorsement until fairly late in the campaign (when it declared, anti-climatically, for Kerry), several prominent unions had come out early and aggressively for Gephardt and Dean, well in advance of the targeted Iowa caucus.
Iowa had been advertised as a showdown between the stolidly protectionist, anti-NAFTA Gephardt (who had won in Iowa in 1988), supported by steelworkers, machinists and other “smoke-stack” industries, and the ultra-hip Dean, whose endorsement by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), America’s largest union, was supposed to signal a sea change in labor’s national agenda.
Of course, instead of a union-driven victory for either Dean or Gephardt, Mr. Blue State himself, John Kerry, pulled off the upset, contributing to front-runner Dean’s stunning fall from grace, and Gephardt’s abrupt departure (he withdrew two days later).
What the Iowa Democrats did was no surprise. They did what defiant working people have been doing for 40 years-exposing bloc-voting for labor candidates as the urban myth it is. Indeed, anyone who still believes that “friends of labor” are less apt than the average voter to flex their political independence hasn’t been paying attention.
Those “Reagan-Bush ’84” bumper stickers seen in union parking lots-even in the wake of Reagan’s peremptory firing of 11,000 striking air-traffic controllers-didn’t get there by accident. They were put there to show union muckety-mucks that the membership doesn’t give a flying gee whiz about “trickle down” solidarity. No one’s going to tell them how to vote, thank you very much. Which is a pity.
For the record, there hasn’t been anything resembling a unified labor vote since 1964, when LBJ crushed Barry Goldwater. This was back in labor’s glory days, when membership hovered at 30% (it’s 12% today), when the UAW faced negligible foreign competition, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters still ruled America’s highways.
But by 1972, following years of radical politics and social upheaval, it had become apparent that the Democratic Party, long regarded as labor’s patron saint and benefactor, had drifted so far to the cultural left, become so diffuse and confoundedly “inclusive,” that it no longer automatically spoke for the rank-and-file.
As a consequence, unions found themselves representing a new breed of member: the fiercely independent, anti-corporate, pro-labor, anti-Communist, “Roosevelt Republican.” A walking-talking ideological paradox.
Accordingly, as union members openly bailed on the Party, the Democrats returned the favor, withdrawing their support of labor’s core agenda, and running for cover the moment anyone accused them of being “anti-business” (the Mark of Cain in politics). Even academe, long an ideological ally of the labor movement, eventually lost interest.
That awkward juxtaposition of Chardonnay-intellectuals and the beer-and-pretzel crowd had always been suspect, bringing to mind Oscar Wilde’s description of an English fox hunt: “The unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.” In any case, today’s left-wing academics seem to have more sympathy for Turkish dissident poets than striking auto workers.
So, how much influence will an AFL-CIO’s endorsement have in ’08? Arguably, it will fall somewhere between the Teamsters’ historic embracing of Ronald Reagan, in 1980, and the UAW’s perfunctory nod to Michael Dukakis, in 1988. In other words, it’s anyone’s guess, as always. Which is a pity.
DAVID MACARAY was president and chief negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org