A self-described “McGovern Democrat” (“Fay”) told me that, after a lifetime of supporting organized labor, she could no longer do so because, in her own stunning words, “unions have become too powerful.” A UCLA honors grad and longtime political activist (she marched with Cesar Chavez), Fay is probably the most traditional “left-wing” person I’ve ever personally known.
She dropped this bombshell on me despite the fact (1) that labor is clearly outmanned, outgunned, and outflanked by management, (2) that private sector union density is barely 6.3 percent, (3) that the middle-class, which was “invented” by organized labor, is shrinking faster than the glaciers, (4) that thanks to some bad press and insidious propaganda, organized labor hasn’t been this unpopular since before the 1935 Wagner Act, and (5) that without some form of institutional resistance, businesses can be depended upon to run wild on the working class. My initial thought? If we lose the support of people like Fay, where does that leave us?
On the other hand, there’s no denying that the labor movement has, for want of a better term, “stalled out.” Or as Susan Sontag succinctly (albeit unfairly) put it years ago, “The American labor movement rotted before it ever ripened.” Ouch.
While there still seems to be a genuine—if weirdly idealized and unfocused—“pro-worker” sentiment in the country, there’s precious little codified social/political activism to go along with it. And in this era of well-crafted disinformation and Wall Street hegemony, evidence of an accompanying codified political activism isn’t simply a luxury. It’s a necessity.
Listed in no particular order are six factors that have contributed, and continue to contribute, to the general decline of the American labor movement.
1. Federal and state laws have co-opted much of what organized labor used to provide. People think unions are anachronistic because the government now handles the welfare of working people. Although it’s true that many job-related rules have been enacted into state and federal law, if the government were indeed truly looking after the welfare of working people, the rich wouldn’t be getting richer and the middle-class wouldn’t continue to erode.
2. Democrats have abandoned organized labor. Although unions continue to pour money into political campaigns, the Democrats continue to disappoint them. When labor complains, Democrats tell them to shut up and be patient. Don’t go away mad…just go away. When labor threatens to seek help elsewhere, Democrats laugh in their faces and say, “Who are you going to ask? The Republicans?”
3. Manufacturing jobs have been sent abroad. Because big-time manufacturing was once the gold-standard of the labor movement, and represented everything that organized labor stood for, when those jobs left (not to avoid paying union wages, but to avoid paying American wages), the heart and soul of industrial unionism left with them.
4. The propaganda is working. Astonishingly, labor’s enemies have been able to convince people that unions are corrupt and sinister. It gives us no pleasure to report this, but had it been revealed, some years ago, that the IRS was unfairly focusing on labor unions (instead of focusing on conservative extremist groups), the public not only would have accepted it, they would’ve rejoiced.
5. American individuality is resistant to collectivism. We Americans are a remarkably self-sufficient and stubbornly close-minded people. That trait is both a strength and a weakness. The 19th and early 20th century U.S. labor movement—the social/economic phenomenon that defined us a nation—was largely led by European immigrants whose cultures embraced collectivism and proletarian rights. Those days are over. An every-man-for-himself philosophy now permeates the workplace.
6. People don’t want to be identified as “working class.” It’s hard to launch a political movement led by working people when there’s only a few self-avowed members of the working class willing to step up to the plate. Understandably, given what occurred in post-Reagan America, maintaining one’s pride as a working man or woman is difficult.
Instead, many of today’s working class Americans see themselves as budding entrepreneurs, as future small business owners, as investors, as real estate brokers, as landlords, etc. Not exactly the folks you’ll be seeing marching, arm in arm, in Labor Day solidarity parades.
During my years as a labor rep, I met only two people (both of whom were journeyman electricians) who wanted their sons and daughters to follow them into factory work. What the overwhelming majority of these working people most wanted for their children was to have them go into management. Management?? WTF? Management has always been labor’s “oppressors.” Call it what you want, pal, but management jobs are better.