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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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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.

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.

Can a new Democratic coalition all but devoid of a union presence and subject to the growing influence of corporate America and the financial elite do the same? Can it restore equitable growth? That would be squaring a circle. Already, some Democratic mayors, among them Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel and Newark’s Cory Booker, are building coalitions that array their city’s corporate elites and minority communities against their cities’ unions. The irony here is that their cities’ unions are largely responsible for expanding the middle class within those minority communities. Nonetheless, this municipal version of the Democrats’ top-bottom coalition could prove to be the model for the Democratic Party of the future. By ceding control over taxes, trade, and worker rights to the party’s corporate funders, however, this model omits a plausible vision of how to reconstruct broadly shared prosperity. Absent worker power, you can’t get there from here.

V. The Murky Road Back (Or anyway, to someplace)

Washington teems with liberal think tanks that produce plausible policy papers on how to rebuild the economy, and magazines like the Prospect that publish articles suggesting remedies for our economic woes. What Washington and America, what liberals and Democrats lack are institutions with enough power to rekindle class conflict and challenge class dominance. The ideas in both the labor movement and liberal America on how to build such institutions—be they unions or some new entities that do the work that unions have done—are few and fledgling. “If the next big idea was readily at hand,” says Wilma Liebman, who chaired the National Labor Relations Board between 2009 and 2011, “someone would have thought of it.”

Nobody has yet, but here are some provisional approaches.

One set of ideas derives from successful campaigns waged by workers and their allies in liberal cities and states over the past 15 years to win increased wages, inner-city hiring agreements, union recognition, new parks, and clean-air standards. The laboratory for this experiment has been Los Angeles, once an anti-union town that was transformed into labor-friendly terrain by the mobilization of the city’s vast immigrant community. There were two primary architects of this transformation: First, Miguel Contreras, who headed the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, an association of more than 350 local unions, from 1996 until his death in 2005. Second, Madeline Janis, an attorney who at the behest of Contreras and his wife, hotel union leader Maria Elena Durazo, established what was first known as Los Angeles’s living-wage coalition, and today is the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE).

 
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