During the Obama years, a widely circulated political cartoon depicted archetypal progressive and conservative cities. The progressive city was tidy and pleasant, populated with things like organic grocery stores, Planned Parenthood clinics, and union halls. The conservative one was disheveled and ugly, housing polluting industries, gun stores, and fundamentalist houses of worship.
Caricature, indeed. But it was revealing for what it said about the place of labor in the conventional left imagination. Few US industries are highly organized today, but many of those that are wouldn’t find a place in the progressive dreamland. Think of extractive industries like oil and coal, weapons manufacturing, police, border patrol, corrections, farm-equipment assembly, and the like. Much of this takes place in parts of the country that are pro-union and otherwise rather conservative.
Save for the likes of police brotherhoods, unions in these areas continue to lend support to the Democrats and the official left—but only because Republicans have refused to budge from the antipathy for organized labor’s cause that has characterized the GOP arguably going back to the 19th century. That leaves workers seeking union coverage in an unenviable spot: The party they are currently attached to, the Democrats, is often pro-corporate and culturally downright weird, while the other party remains as hostile as ever to collective bargaining, even as it increasingly makes “pro-worker” noises.
Unlike Britain’s Labour party, the American Democratic Party doesn’t rest on the foundational touchstone of unionism. But in the 20th century, organized labor came to form the party’s activist core. It is labor-union activists who staff phone banks, walk door to door promoting candidates, and provide the lion’s share of candidates’ institutional endorsements. Labor leaders have formed a considerable block of Democratic National Committee superdelegates. This institutional anchoring of labor has persisted even as the party’s corporate and financial-sector donor base and constituency have expanded. Corporate money dwarfs union PAC funding. Yet union members’ role as campaign foot soldiers is supported by their animating faith in labor as a cause and a community, and it can’t be replaced with money.
Meanwhile, the two main parties have largely switched constituencies. Farmers and workers were the core of the Democrats’ New Deal constituency. Now Republicans dominate in rural America and among white, working-class voters and a growing share of non-white workers. Not long ago, college-educated professionals were more likely to be Republicans. Now Democrats have as their base the highly educated, the urban bourgeoisie, the young, and African-American voters. They also have the begrudging support of activists of various progressive causes, as well as the continuing but declining support of union members, especially those employed in the public sector. This is a core constituency with which Democrats can only barely win an election in a good year. The problem for Democrats is that elements of their core constituency appear intent upon alienating the very people whose support they most need: rural and working-class Americans.
But if Democrats are failing to serve the working class, Republicans aren’t exactly capitalizing on labor’s alienation, either. Indeed, amid all this constituency shifting, unions have stayed in Democrats’ corner. Why? For union officials, one reason explains it above all others. Almost all Democratic officials and candidates are either friendly to collective bargaining and project labor agreements, or aren’t openly hostile to them; they can’t say the same about Republican officials.
I have done the election-season door-knocking and phone-banking, always for Democrats, and I will do so again. I have also heard plenty of other union officials say they wish they had more than Democrats to choose from when making endorsements. They understand that supporting candidates hostile to unions makes for, well, a bad bargain.
Still, when Republicans are friendly to labor, they tend to get some labor support. Most locals have members who are more politically conservative than the institutional union. They realize what almost nobody who either supports or opposes unions dares to say: There is no natural or necessary alignment between the cultural politics of contemporary progressivism and the enduring values of organized labor. Labor could again be something more resembling what it once was: the defender of the working-class and middle-class family against economic exploitation and unjust coercion in the marketplace. Could be—but isn’t, largely due to a Republican leadership class that still treats bosses as its real constituency, even after the ballot-box realignment of 2016 and 2020.
One old conservative saw is that unionism may be begrudgingly tolerated in the private economy, but it has no place in the public sector. According to this view, the absence of profit-making incentive, combined with the likelihood that the union will effectuate an institutional capture of the employer, makes public-sector unionism bad policy. When you scratch the surface, the crispness of this distinction evaporates. Few public officials have the appetite to tell police officers and firefighters that it harms the public good for them to negotiate with their employers over workplace rules affecting safety and health. Municipal transit operators unquestionably have rights to elect a representative for collective bargaining if they are employed by companies contracted by the municipality. What difference does it really make if a municipal transit agency, which is a public employer, employs them directly? Does that mean it is just for them to be at-will employees, with action against them unreviewable by a neutral arbitrator?
The heterodox conservative policy organization American Compass released a “statement on a conservative future for the American labor movement” in 2020. American Compass is onto something in taking stock of the fact that unions, like religious and civic organizations, build social capital and promote healthy communities. While a welcome turn in conservative policy circles, by limiting its scope to private-economy workers, American Compass misses an opportunity to promote the legitimacy of unionism and collective bargaining generally, including in the public sector. Collective-bargaining regimes for public employees differ widely in the United States, and public authorities are in charge of designing the type of labor relations that will serve the public interest.
At first glance, calling for respect for collective bargaining as the baseline for a new politics of labor looks like a demand that Republicans abandon their platform and adopt the opposition’s. It isn’t that simple. Today’s progressives, as we noted, aren’t neatly and solidly pro-union, either. The progressive movement has come after unions, too—police and other law-enforcement unions, to be precise. It is entirely possible to object to police tactics without calling into question officers’ collective-bargaining rights. Yet the view that police unions are bad actors now permeates progressive-dominated popular culture. For example, a recent episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, a long-in-the-tooth program that has grown nearly unwatchable for its didactic woke-ism, instructed us that “union protections,” along with the “good ol’ boys network,” were the reasons a bad cop got promoted.
The Democrats’ union-member problem is partly cultural. Biden won 57 percent of votes from households that included a union member, compared with 40 percent for Trump. This was double Hilary Clinton’s dismal eight-point advantage in 2016. Looking back at the other Clinton can help us understand what has gone wrong. While the 1990s-era “New Democrats” were in the pocket of Wall Street, the Clinton-Gore administration’s cultural politics actually hit a sweet spot. It was broadly tolerable to all but the most extreme, both conservative and libertine. The United States was multiracial, and we were one people, and that was good. We were in the mental world of John McWhorter, not Ibram X. Kendi. Likewise, it was wrong to persecute and scapegoat gay and lesbian Americans. Abortion was to be “safe, legal, and rare.” The strategy recognized moral qualms about abortion yet considered banning the procedure too extreme. This was all far less absolutist than what the GOP offered, yet it made enough of a nod to tradition to be palatable to working-class and rural voters. This was instrumentally rational political behavior. Even in his losing bid for the presidency in 2000, Al Gore won swaths of counties one can’t imagine being competitive today. That the Clinton-Gore approach avoided pandering to every “marginalized identity” was a strength, not an oversight.
How the Democratic Party managed to lose so many of its own voters in such a short time should be its most serious object of study. This is cause for an “autopsy” on why the Democrats have lost serious ground not just in Iowa and West Virginia, but more alarmingly states like Florida. Instead, this is one thing Democratic officials are terrified to discuss, because the answers would implicate the causes the contemporary cultural left holds most dear.
The virus of postmodern identity politics has been thankfully slow to infect most unions. I suspect this is because it’s so frustratingly un-concrete. Read a page of bromides generated by the diversity-industrial complex, and you sense you have read nothing at all. But every word in a union contract means something. I am hopeful that the best features of labor—solidarity among members, rejection of invidious discrimination, and commitment to due process—will inoculate unions against the excesses of institutional wokery, drawing on the non-identitarian orientation to social justice in unions’ DNA. (Yet this may be a long-shot hope with respect to at least some unions, which are increasingly captive to woke-ism, though it doesn’t render their economic grievances any less righteous.)
Consider a thought experiment to see why progressive woke-ism and labor unionism are far from naturally complementary. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has recently been beside himself about how the company can succeed only if it has a “direct relationship” with its workers. The mega-firm has embraced among the most grotesque union-busting tactics known to corporate America. Yet the progressive elite hardly bats an eye at patronizing an employer trying to thwart a grassroots union drive. But just imagine if Schultz were to tweet that males patronizing his coffeeshops should use the men’s room, and females should use the ladies’ room. Only a decade ago, such an announcement would have been a bizarre curiosity, its intended meaning and motivation unclear to the general public. Today, it would undoubtedly inspire a mass boycott.
So what path forward for organized labor in the 21st century? The answer: a full-speed program to support worker organizing and collective bargaining that deliberately keeps a distance from what Sahra Wagenknecht, in a book reviewed in these pages, terms “lifestyle leftism.” It would take discipline to sustain, but it isn’t that hard to imagine a labor movement that exists somewhat apart from the broader progressive movement, and is often but not always aligned with it. This has the potential to be a much larger and stronger labor movement. Similarly, we should have the political imagination to see the ongoing realignment of political constituencies as dynamic and ongoing. Organized labor has for decades been in a defensive crouch politically because of the Republican hostility toward the essence of unionism: collective bargaining. There is no iron law of nature that this must continue.
Labor’s clout has fallen as it became just another interest group in the Democratic coalition, just one more attraction in the archetypical progressive city, alongside the organic-food boutique and the abortion clinic. It can and must break free to become something more.