Powerlessness of Unions Is Loss to Us All

Volkswagen Rejection May Signal Limits of Obama Coalition

A Lost Voice: Union activists protest outside a Whole Foods Market store.
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A Lost Voice: Union activists protest outside a Whole Foods Market store.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published February 28, 2014, issue of March 07, 2014.
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Experts say it was all inevitable, but it ain’t so. Germany faced the same problems of technology and globalization, yet its unionization rate today is 18% and its unemployment recently rose to 5.5%, just as ours was falling to 6.6%. Ditto Canada (unions: 25%; unemployment: 7%) and Norway (unions: 55%; unemployment: 3.5%). And none of them remotely approach our inequality.

What sets America apart? Our four-decade national experiment in free-market fundamentalism, deregulation and tax-cutting. And the results are in: It doesn’t work. The rising tide didn’t lift all boats. Only the yachts rose. The dinghies got swamped.

But there are other reasons for labor’s decline, and they’re essential to understanding Chattanooga. The labor movement emerged during the 1930s as the engine pow ering the historic New Deal coalition. Carried along in its wake were movements for black and Jewish rights, civil liberties, women’s rights and more. Labor set the agenda for a generation.

Then came the 1960s. The New Deal coalition was blown apart by the mutual loathing of the white working class and the youth counterculture. In 1960, working-class whites voted 55% Democratic. By 1972 that dropped to 35%. It’s stayed near there ever since.

The 1972 elections saw the beginning of a new, post-labor Democratic Party built on coalitions of minorities and cultural identity groups. The white working class fled to the GOP to defend its cultural and religious values. Unions continued to support the Democratic Party, not because the Democrats particularly looked out for union interests, but because they weren’t openly hostile as the GOP was. That loyalty only increased white workers’ suspicion of unions, compounding the unions’ recruiting woes.

As the rise of television advertising drove campaign costs through the roof, Democrats became as dependent as Republicans on big money. Unions, never a match for the tycoon class to begin with, were left in the dust. And the more Democrats came to depend on wealthy liberals committed to secularism and avant-garde cultural change, the deeper the white workers’ alienation grew.

The politics of the Obama age are transforming the landscape yet again. The last few presidential elections have seen a steady decline in the proportion of whites in the electorate. Pundits from both parties now predict that unless Republicans somehow retool their message to appeal to immigrants and minorities, they will be shut out of the White House for the foreseeable future.

The paradox is that the Democrats’ dependence on minorities and the young puts them at a disadvantage during midterm elections. Midterm turnout is always lower than in presidential years; among Democratic voters it’s way lower. Voters totaled 129 million in 2008, but dropped to 86 million in 2010. The Republican vote fell from 60 million in 2008 to 45 million in 2010, but the Democratic vote fell from 69 million to 39 million. That is, Republicans lost 15 million voters, while Democrats lost 30 million. Even allowing for 7 million whites shifting rightward in 2010, that’s still a huge disadvantage.

That’s partly because key Democratic voting blocs are less attuned to politics. But it’s also because of Republicans’ turnout machine that gets voters to the polls. Democrats used to count on unions to do that for them.

Thus Democrats have a natural advantage in the White House, but Republicans have a natural advantage in Congress. Given the growing cultural and ideological gap between the parties, that’s a recipe for Washington gridlock far into the future.

It also spells trouble for the cultural and social causes that have dominated Democratic politics a generation. As abortion providers are learning to their grief, progress on racial and gender-related issues depends on Democrats winning. And Democrats can’t maintain a majority based on race and gender. They need the working class to pull the locomotive. If they can’t put unions back in front, they could lose everything else.

Chattanooga was supposed to offer a glimmer of hope. No such luck.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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