Look for the union label

At a time when it feels like the middle- and working-classes are increasingly under siege, the story of public employees standing up for their collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin (and now Ohio!) is one of the more inspiring things I’ve seen lately on the American political scene. Maybe the example of recent events in the Middle East played a role here?

Some links:

John Nichols: Live Reports from Ground Zero for Labor Rights

Public Employee Union Protests Spread from Wisconsin to Ohio

Wisconsin Gov. Walker Ginned Up Budget Shortfall To Undercut Worker Rights

Labor’s Last Stand

Which Side Are You On?

There has been some debate lately about what role, if any, organized labor should play in the politics of the 21st-century Left (to the extent there is such a thing!). I think that if left-wing politics are supposed to be a politics of and for working people, then you need strong unions. Unions are important not just for the benefits they provide directly to their members, but also as a political counterweight to the interests of capital. If working people don’t organize and stand up for their rights, they’ll continually be at the mercy of those in power, dependent on whatever crumbs they see fit to let fall from their table.

3 thoughts on “Look for the union label

  1. I have my doubts about unions. After watching what two very different unions did to each of my parents, neither of whom seemed to receive any great benefits from the “efforts” of the unions to which they belonged, I’m deeply skeptical about what unions actually do. I understand that, in principle, they’re “for the working person,” but in practical reality they often seem to be more about (1) dues that pad the union leaders’ salaries, (2) picketing that accomplishes next to nothing, unless we count microscopically incremental changes to a given contract as huge victories, (3) rivalry with other unions (as I saw, in particular, with my mother’s job: she belonged to a small union that worked for a much larger union, and that larger union frequently took advantage of her union), and (4) the promotion of stagnation and incompetence.

    Couple that with the nonsense I see happening routinely in countries like France and South Korea, where transportation unions (France, les syndicats) and auto workers’ unions (South Korea, 조합/johap) strike and act out violently (especially in Korea’s case) on a regular basis, and I have trouble seeing what unions are good for.

    That said, I’m not for abolishing unions; I do believe that workers need to stick up for each other, and that the labor/management divide is a real and significant issue. But a lot has to change before I can be convinced that unions are clearly a good thing. A good start might be for union leaders to be more accountable to union members, and for something to be done about the Mafia-like mentality that causes such blinding hatred toward scabs who, far from being Judases, are often just people who need to feed their families. Unions shouldn’t eat their own, but they so often do. More compassion, please, and less of the black-and-white, in-group/out-group mentality. My two cents, anyway.

  2. Hi Kevin–I agree with you: unions are prone to corruption and abuse just as any other human institution is. Maybe it’s a Churchillian, the-worst-there-is-except-for-all-the-alternatives kind of situation.

    What I think is clear is that (1) unions are largely responsible for many of the improvements in the lives of workers during the 19th and 20th centuries that we now take for granted and were instrumental in the creation of the social safety net, (2) there was significantly more economic equality during the heyday of union influence (I think that’s a good thing), and (2) without unions, there is no plausible candidate ( at least that I’m aware of) for providing an institutional counterweight to the influence of the rich in our politics.

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