You can’t expect everyone to share the sensibilities of Harry Bridges or a Pete Seeger, but you can expect them, at the very least, to be able to follow the trajectory of economic history. You can expect them to acknowledge that the American worker hasn’t received a genuine pay raise (in real dollars) since 1973. Which is why it’s so frustrating to hear liberals/lefties vilify organized labor. Despite being generally anti-empire, anti-imperialism, anti-corporationism—and all that other good stuff—when it comes to labor unions, all you hear from these liberals is criticism and second-guessing.
In truth, I have more respect for a CEO who admits to hating unions because unions cost him money, than for self-indulgent liberals who pretend that labor is too raggedy-assed and flawed to be “worthy” of their support. After assuring you that they are “pro-labor in principle,” these gloating progressives proceed to list all the reasons why unions are bad. Based on what I’ve heard over the last twenty years or so, here are their three main objections:
(1) Unions are obsolete. God help us….if only that were true. Although many of the things unions originally fought for are now part of everyday work life (e.g., the 8-hour day, paid overtime, vacations, specified meal periods, etc.), the notion that America’s working class is “home free” is as ludicrous as the notion that, since passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, there’s no such thing as racism. Without labor unions, businesses would have virtually unlimited power. It’s as simple as that. The only thing stopping them would be the federal minimum wage.
(2) Unions are corrupt and undemocratic. That’s the ghost of Jimmy Hoffa talking, and, if anything on the table is “obsolete,” it’s that chestnut. Some of them are. But as labor academics have noted, if federal politics were as straight-ahead “democratic” as union politics, we wouldn’t still be burdened with something as esoteric and anachronistic as the Electoral College.
(3) Unions are anti-environment. Unions are right-wing. Unions are warmongers and flag-wavers. Pristine left-wingers are quick to point to labor’s shameful history during the Cold War, particularly in Latin America, where the AFL-CIO (under Lane Kirkland) disgraced itself by opposing homegrown, populist movements that were falsely labeled as “communist” or “terrorist.” Those charges are true. Clearly, given its hysterical, anti-communist track record, the House of Labor (nicknamed back then the AFL-CIA) has much to answer for.
But besides being ancient history, what’s any of this have to do with working people getting a fair shake? Unions represent America’s workers. They’re not senators or congressmen or cabinet members charged with crafting U.S. foreign policy, nor are they the Sierra Club, dedicated to preserving the environment. Nobody can address everything. You don’t criticize a landscape painter for being unable to play the violin. Let unions look after working people’s interests, and let the Friends of the Earth look after the environment.
Those boutique liberals who claim to be too ideologically pure to throw in with organized labor need to step up to the plate and ask themselves how they would address the growing and alarming disparity between rich and poor, and rich and middle. If they can honestly tell us, with a straight face, that legislation—additional government regulations—would be more effective than powerful workers’ collectives, then they must immediately turn in their Walter Mondale decoder rings.
DAVID MACARAY, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org