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May God Have Mercy on the Union Leadership

chicago dyke's picture

I'm being glib in the title of this post, but if I've ever felt the need to use "slaughtered" and "destroyed" in a sentence after reading a blog post, this is it. No, silly, not physical violence, but in the intellectual sense: I think NO's comment at the bottom sums it up best:

...why in hell should any politician deliver for unions? implied "ever again?"

One will have a very difficult time defending some decisions and leadership in the unions after reading this devastating post. Don't read it as about Edwards. Take out his name and insert the candidate of your choice; it could've happened to any of them.

Unions in America have been in a decline for over 60 years. Union membership has dropped from almost 35% of all workers in 1945 to less than 15% today. In fact, union membership has declined to almost exactly the same percentage as it was in 1930 before FDR took power and encouraged the growth of unions. The first crucial battle the unions lost came after FDR died, when over Truman's veto the Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947. Truman called the Taft-Hartley Act a "slave labor bill".

Since then unions have lost critical battle after battle

; the mainline old unions centered around industrial concerns like GM and Ford have shrunk to a tiny fraction of their former self; and despite the efforts of the SEIU unions and others, new economy workers mostly have not been organized.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), created by the Wagner Act in 1935 as independent agency of United States Governments holds the official mandate to conduct elections for labor union representation and to investigate and remedy unfair labor practices.

Under the Bush administration, the NLRB has:

made it impossible for large numbers of workers to join unions(pdf);
potentially reclassified many workers as supervisors (including many nurses) in order to remove them from unions;
passed numerous rulings which treat employers in one way, and unions in another.
Unions have spent the last 7 years under assault by the Bush NLRB.

The union movement, it is fair to say, is in many respects in its weakest position in over 60 years.
Another 4 or 8 years of a Republican presidency could doom American unions, pushing them below 10% and subjecting them to more and more hostile NLRB rulings, which will cripple what ability they have to organize. Even a moderate Democratic president who halts the slide at the NLRB but doesn't reverse it will leave unions in a shaky situation.

Unions, even more than the US itself, need a new FDR. Without FDR unions would have never had their day and since FDR unions have been in a long steady decline. It's been nothing but downhill, whether under Republicans or Democrats, and absent a President who really cares about unions there's no reason to believe that decline will stop.
Unions were in, 1930, in almost the same shape they are now. Bad economic times, combined with the right president, turned it around for them and for America and made the times good again. But it took the right President as well--British unionization, for example, increased in the Great Depression, but kept increasing till the late 70s(pdf).

What government took away, fertile conditions for organizing and pro-union policies, government can give back. And since much of what matters is determined by the Labor Relations Board and the president has a great deal of say over its makeup, the most important factor for the fate of unions (absent a repeal of Taft-Hartley) is who the President is.

With the right President, and the right NLRB, the union movement can have it's renaissance, it's 11th hour resurrection. Without it, unions may dwindle into the long, long night. And that wouldn't just be a tragedy for union members: because of how unions raise the boats of all workers, the decline of unions would be a tragedy for America.

All of the Republican candidates would be awful for labor, and differ only by the degrees of the horror they would unleash.

Amongst the Democratic candidates it's safe to say that Hilary Clinton, who has as her main advisor a union buster and whose husband did very little for unions, would be a largely status quo President. Her board would be decent, she'd be bad but not awful on trade, and she wouldn't sink a lot of personal capital into union issues.
As with many things with Obama, it's hard to determine how good or bad he'd be, but one has to have their doubts about a Democratic candidate who argued that union advertisements in Iowa were unacceptable, and who acted as if union money were the equivalent of corporate money. Certainly there are those who see unions and corporation as little different--but they aren't friends of unions.

John Edwards has spent the last four years working with unions, walking their picket lines and making their cause his. He's clearly the most pro-union of the three remaining candidates; his primary issue is economic justice and he believes that corporations have too much power. His campaign, from the very beginning, was predicated on union support.

But unions didn't reciprocate.

Lists of major union endorsements make this clear. AFL-CIO unions predominantly endorsed Clinton, and in fact more major unions endorsed Clinton than anyone else, with Edwards coming in second in the endorsement stakes. Most recently Nevada's largest union, the culinary union endorsed Obama and is working hard for him in that key swing state.

Now let's imagine a world in which labor had taken a strong stand and endorsed the candidate who was most pro-labor, John Edwards. Edwards came in second in Iowa, behind Obama by 8%. It is hard to believe that if unions had come in, say 4 months ago, and used their ground machine (still, even today, probably the best organizing machine in the Democratic party) that they couldn't have swung the election 8 points.

What could unions have accomplishd for their own cause?--Edwards' victory in Iowa and the standard surge in the polls that comes from winning Iowa. More importantly, Edwards would have suddenly been the story coming out of Iowa and would have had a ton of media coverage. In general, as people learn more about Edwards they like him more and more.

On to New Hampshire. Who knows if Edwards would have won there with union support, as it was a very fickle primary. But let's assume not.
Next state: Nevada, where John Edwards is currently polling third, but again within 6 percent of the leader, Barack Obama, and only 3% behind Clinton. Nevada is a huge union state, with early organizing from union allies plus the boost from winning Iowa it is is impossible to imagine that Edwards would not now be blowing out the polls in Nevada.

At that point, with Nevada, Edwards would have won two of the three initial states. It is hard to imagine that his national numbers wouldn't be much, much higher than they are now. It might be a two way race, it might be a three way race, but no matter what he'd be in contention, and maybe even a favorite.

And here's the thing--neither Clinton nor Obama, should they win now, will feel a massive debt to Labor. The endorsements were useful and appreciated, and they helped. But they weren't desperately needed. The payback will be a slightly better NLRB, but not enough to save American labor.

But an Edwards presidency would owe everything to the unions, and John Edwards would know it. And he would have campaigned with an explicitly pro-union campaign--if he won the nomination, and later the presidency (don't forget his electability numbers are far better than Clinton's and as good or better than Obama's), he would come into power with a pro-union public mandate.
Neither Clinton (experience) nor Obama (non-partisan change) will come into office with a mandate to help unions.

I can only assume that labor read too many polls and made too many political calculations. Unsure of who would win they went with the "inevitable" candidate (Clinton) instead of the one who had spent 4 years working for and with them. And as a result, if Obama or Clinton win, Unions are going to get a Democratic president who appreciates their help (just like Bill Clinton did) but who isn't really willing to go all out for them (just like Bill Clinton didn't).

The irony here is that if labor had taken a strong stand and put their own best interests first instead of triangulating and currying political favor, the strongest pro-labor candidate would be in the lead today.

Unions would have had a good chance to elect a massively pro-union president--who would have owed them his presidency.
Imagine that alternate world.
Now instead, imagine what four more years without solid support for all American workers and radical reform at the NLRB will mean for you, your pocketbook, and your family.
Decisions like these are what has made the American union movement what it is today.

Links at the original, that's just some dem fine writing Ian. Someone give this man a high paying writer's job at the WSJ.

Anyway, there's some spirited comment there too, and all I can add is that this is what happens when you let government be about, for, and of faceless unelected lobbyists. It's all just a system of personal favors and squabbles and sex games for most of them.

erases polemic and invective.

Reform is going to have to include some reform of those who are currently presented as "speaking for us" on certain issues, labor is not immune to this fact.

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Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

My dad used to work in printing press factories. He used to be part of a union, and then made his way up into middle management, and then started his own business.

One thing he used to say to me when I was a teenager without any real understanding of class and politics, is "it's ok to support the goals of union members, but you just don't want to be one of them." His overall point was that you don't want to aim to be working class, but his secondary point was how unions were in decline, and were making stupid leadership decisions.

I'm with CD in that I just don't understand why certain interest groups pick candidates that don't support their interests. It's like NARAL supporting rape-gurney Joe Lieberman in the CT primary. Unions have been consistently bad in picking the wrong candidate for many decades now.

Anyone know how the Union vote breaks down between Democrats and Republicans? I always remember it being not nearly as strongly Democratic as I thought.

Submitted by lambert on

You don't. If you don't want to give readers a reason to read your comment, have at it, say I.

[x] Any (D) in the general. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

as well as do math problems. corrente: the stern and firm blog with regular intellectual exercise and a healthy, low fat diet for your brain. /pushes granny glasses up nose/ now eat your vegetables, om.

almost useless. Why? It's pretty simple really. We've become a nation of sheeple. Fearful, anxious, ignorant and with no desire to be anything else.

Let's do a Gedankenexperiment for a person trained in Physics these used to be a big deal, not so much since the ReThugs gutted the school system, about who we are talking about. Who is the typical union member today? Some big hulking dude who works in a steel plant? Not hardly. She's about 4' 8" tall and empties bedpans for HCA and she belongs to SEIU. Those big guys don't have jobs anymore because they bought the Kool-Aide St. Ronnie was sellin' about the niggers and the hippies in the 70s and 80s and got themselves 'Jonestowned'. Andy Stern and his posse are doing' good things organizing unions who still want to be unions and represent their members. I've met many of these diminutive, in physical size, folks and please believe me when I say that the SEIU membership know who is in their corner and....

Just who ain't.

Which is most of the freakin' jelly-assed tools who head the old-line unions.

People are wising up but the ReichWing is always rolling out new 'product' as the Obama 'campaign' shows.

So what am I talking about? I'm talking about how things are going to get much, much worse before the millions of white, 'white collar' morans who think because they punch a keyboard instead of wrestle molten steel or swing a hammer, I was UBC once upon a time, that they don't need a union. Libertarianism, politics for teenagers, is getting it's brief moment in the sun with Obama and Paul but they'll be chucked under the bus soon enough.

I'm talking about class warfare, with guns, which is just around the corner. Many in the rank and file are learning for the first time that their 'leadership' just like the Democratic Party Leadership so many progressives put their trust in are....

Not to be trusted.

Take John Edwards the most populist candidate in decades and a slick talking one term Senator with no policy position other than 'trust me' along with a tired retread of the Dead Loser Caucus who's 'experience' is having her husband get blow jobs at the office while his party bends over for NAFTA and obliterate him electorally while the workers of the nation...What?

Oh, yeah...watch the playoffs.

I have a bad feeling that when we think back some years on on what John Brown said:

I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood.

That is will prove to be all too true of the current brewing civil war. This one to be fought between those who have and those who have nothing. Government, rather the people in it, is insisting on it's prerogative to be as corrupt, as useless and intrusive as Hitler's Germany or the Tzar's Russia if yer stuck on the Godwin Rule, which I ain't, and I'm starting to be of the opinion that voting, at least in this environment, isn't enough to cause these 'conservative' wingers to hesitate and listen to reason.

Be pretty ironic if Mao had the last word over St. Ronnie. If you Oborg don't get this part try teh Google.

In the end CD I don't think God will have mercy on 'union leadership' on Barrack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, John McCain or any of the blood-sucking parasites who infest to the exclusion of all else our political ecology.

Nor us for that matter.

I might not sound too hopefull here but with Obama going down in NV I think we've dodged the bullet. People understand that The Hill ain't no progressive so we have a chance to keep our 'brand' alive and relevant. Something Obama would surely have damaged, perhaps heavily.

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

titter, AC. (and plz realize which one i mean). ack, spend not your dayz in l'hopital, it drains U.

sigh, this isn't the right time to have this exchange. i'll come back to this later. peace out.

do people even understand what you're saying? that's the only coherent q i can come up with as response. i think, "no."

Submitted by lambert on

Contact me via the contact form or at

lambert_strether.corrente AT yahoo DOT com

I need to explain a little bit about framing. Thanks!

[x] Any (D) in the general. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.