What Happens If Labor Dies?
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So, alas, did many of Meany’s peers. Lulled during the years of labor’s power into thinking they’d attained sufficient numbers to keep on winning better contracts, they largely stopped organizing, devoting only 4 percent of their budgets to recruiting new members. As the economy began to grow in regions and sectors where unions had few if any members, and as employer opposition to labor increased, unions were caught flat-footed. For some years, the fact that the raw number of union members didn’t drop masked the decline in their share of the workforce, as did labor’s success in organizing public-sector workers in states and cities under Democratic control. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, however, the actual number started dropping, too. SEIU’s decades-long drive to organize the janitors who cleaned the office buildings in big cities outside the South and the Hotel and Restaurant Workers’ unionization of the mega-hotels on the Las Vegas Strip were brilliant successes, but such campaigns were rare.
In time, unions awakened to the growing impediment that labor law placed in their path. Beginning in 1965, every time there was a Democrat in the White House and a heavily Democratic Congress on Capitol Hill, labor endeavored to have the law amended so workers could join unions without fear of being fired. They could never convince quite enough Democrats, however, to overcome the Senate’s requirement for a supermajority. Efforts to change the law during the Johnson, Carter, and Clinton presidencies all came up short.
In 2010, with Barack Obama in the White House and Democrats in control of the Hill—victories to which labor had contributed about $400 million and the efforts of hundreds of thousands of volunteers—unions tried again. This time, they pushed legislation that would authorize the NLRB to recognize a union if a majority of workers simply signed affiliation cards—a process called “card check”—rather than go through an election that management had learned how to game. Once more, the effort died in the Senate.
It didn’t matter that without a change in labor law, private-sector unions might fade to oblivion. “We didn’t move a single Democrat who wasn’t already with labor to move on our behalf,” says Andy Stern, SEIU president during the 2010 battle. Though the rifts between labor and progressive movements had long since healed, unions couldn’t convince mainstream Democrats that their survival was a matter of existential importance, not just for labor but, given labor’s ability to turn out Democratic voters, for the party as well.
What explains this indifference to labor’s fate? Some leading Democrats believe their party can build an enduring majority that doesn’t have much of a place for unions. Their strategy is based on demography—that through the growing numerical strength of Latinos and Asians and the steady support of blacks and highly educated white professionals, Democrats can put together an electoral coalition that will sweep them into power for many decades. Single black women, the theory goes, vote at a 98 percent rate for the Democrats whether they’re in unions or not. As for unions’ ability to deliver white working-class votes to the Democrats—it’s not going to matter. The white working class is shrinking as a share of the electorate, and the union share of the white working class is shrinking alongside it. Who needs ’em?
But this strategy falls short in two particulars. First, it’s the unions on whom Democrats count to turn out much of the working-class black and Latino vote. Second, and more fundamentally, a coalition based chiefly on demography cannot stand, at least not for long. The New Deal coalition put together by Franklin Roosevelt, which lasted until 1968, may have been initially based in rising minority groups—Catholic and Jewish immigrants and their children—who were often as suppressed and reviled by Republican Protestant voters of that time (and Southern Democratic whites as well) as blacks and Latinos are today. But Roosevelt’s coalition, while incorporating these new groups in its circles of power, also bettered their economic lot in life.