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What Happens If Labor Dies?

The only way unions can regain their strength and provide a counterweight to corporate power is if liberals join the fight.

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Perhaps the unions’ greatest contribution has been their success at keeping their own white working-class members voting Democratic. Ever since the mid-1960s, when Democrats supported laws and programs to help African Americans, white working-class voters began to turn away from the party. Only the unions kept them in the Democratic fold. In exit polls dating back to the early 1970s, white working-class union members have voted Democratic at a rate 20 percent to 30 percent higher than their nonunion counterparts; among white working-class men, the margin is even higher. Unions’ election-time messages, whether conveyed by mail, e-mail, phone, or at the worksite, offer a persuasive counter-narrative to the Rush Limbaughs and Bill O’Reillys, who also focus their attention on white working-class men. The de-unionization of the white working class lets Limbaugh and O’Reilly go unanswered. It makes it harder for Democrats to win states like Ohio and Wisconsin.

Unions also lobby the presidents and members of Congress they help elect not just for their own causes but for progressive legislation generally. In 1965, the AFL-CIO played a crucial role in persuading both Democrats and Northeastern Republicans, whose districts were then home to tens of thousands of union members, to vote for Medicare, the Voting Rights Act, and anti-poverty programs. More recently, labor threw its weight behind the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law.

Labor’s other main contribution to the liberal cause has been—well, its contributions to liberal causes. Over the course of their history, to be sure, many unions have been estranged from progressives. The resistance of the building trades to racial integration and the support most unions gave to the Vietnam War are well known. But the most powerful union in the era of union power—the United Auto Workers under Walter Reuther from 1947 to 1970—functioned almost like a European social democratic party, seeding virtually every movement that emerged in the 1960s. The UAW supplied the money and the buses for the 1963 March on Washington and provided financial assistance to Cesar Chavez’s nascent farmworker union and its grape boycott. It gave start-up funds to Students for a Democratic Society, the National Organization for Women, and the first Earth Day. Today, the Service Employees International Union supports the immigrant-rights movement, while the AFL-CIO contributes to a range of progressive organizations.

No other progressive movement has anything approaching the level of resources that unions enjoy through their collection of member dues. In 2008, SEIU spent more than $60 million in its campaign for Barack Obama and congressional Democrats. This year, labor is likely to spend about $400 million on the election. Without assistance from unions, many liberal organizations will find themselves with severely reduced resources. They will be compelled to seek even greater support from foundations, which cannot legally fund overtly political activity. If unions fold, liberal America will not merely be weakened. It will be crippled.

III. Union Decline—A Whodunit

As conventional wisdom has it, unions declined because the industries in which they’d been strong could no longer afford them once globalization opened American markets to foreign competition. Unionized autoworkers and steelworkers couldn’t defend their pay levels against workers in China and Mexico who could turn out comparable products at a fraction of the American wage.

Indeed, during the past ten years, the growth of global markets has loosened the bonds between many of America’s largest corporations and the entire American economy. In 2001, 32 percent of the revenues of the S&P 500 came from abroad. By 2008, that figure had risen to 48 percent, as the rapidly growing middle classes of nations like China and Brazil began purchasing more. With rising markets abroad, U.S. businesses can afford to be less concerned with maintaining the purchasing power of American consumers—which means the wages of American workers.

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