Kevin Drum Gives Up on Unionism: Isn’t it odd that the defense of unionism on the left by Paul Krugman and Mother Jones‘ Kevin Drum focuses almost exclusively on labor’s role as “countervailing” political power to business–especially its role in supporting the Democratic party with money and manpower? Time was pro-labor economists argued mainly about the actual effect of unions within individual firms and industries–they raised wages, we were told, not only redistributing profits but providing workers with a “voice” that even resulted in increased productivity. You don’t hear these arguments that much anymore. After the collapse of two of the three big UAW auto firms–beaten in the market by non-union American factories run by Honda, Hyundai and Toyota–the idea the unions actually help employers compete has apparently become too implausible for Drum and Krugman to advance with a straight face.
Hence the emphasis on labor’s potential “countervailing power” on the larger political stage. According to Drum
a labor-oriented Democratic Party almost certainly would have demanded a bigger stimulus in 2009. It would have fought hard for “cramdown” legislation … to help distressed homeowners, instead of caving in to the banks that wanted it killed. It would have resisted the reappointment of Ben Bernanke as Fed chairman. These and other choices would have helped the economic recovery and produced a surge of electoral energy far beyond Obama’s first few months.
Even if you buy this somewhat fevered alternative history, though, Drum faces a problem: Unions don’t have the power within the Democratic party Drum would like them to have, and they aren’t about to get it anytime soon. Unionization in the private sector is now below 7%. It used to be more than 33%. Union households “have seen their share of the electorate halved between the 1976 and 2008 presidential election, from 34 to 17 percent.”
Drum knows all this and, amazingly–on an issue that is usually saturated with liberal nostalgia–he pulls the plug. It is “too late,” he concludes. After unions went into a “death spiral” in the late 1970s, “union density had slumped below the point of no return.” Organized “labor has become a shell of its former self.”
Unions, for better or worse, are history.
That’s the tricky thing about the “countervailing power” argument. If unions are valuable not because of what they actually do in the economy but because, in their extracurricular activities, they can support the left against “the influence of business interests and the rich,” as enhanced by Citizens United–and if the unions are manifestly withering and failing to perform that function, then erstwhile left wing labor supporters are perfectly justified in abandoning unionism to the ashheap of history while they look or other, newer ways of accomplishing the “countervailing” purpose unions once served.
Drum says portentously that finding this new “infrastructure of economic populism” is the “central task of the new decade.” But it’s actually not that difficult to see what it might be. The internet has already empowered organizations like MoveOn.org to provide both dollars and volunteers to Dems through a structure that need not have anything to do with organized labor. (Here in California, the Courage Campaign has the same idea, though it hasn’t come close to pulling it off.) Why picket when you can click it?
If MoveOn and its imitators can perform unionism’s Dem-funding role–just as OSHA can perform unionism’s workplace safety role and Obamacare can perform unionism’s health-insuring role–then who needs unionism again? The left can let it wither–which, at least in the private sector, simply requires letting events run their course.
When I ran for U.S. Senate in the California Dem primary last year, the one pro-union argument I had trouble answering was the “countervailing power” argument. At the time, it looked as if the threat from rich big spenders in the state was bigger than it turned out to be. In the end, self-funders Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina lost, and lost convincingly. (If anything, in blue, blue, blue, California we still need someone to countervail the unions’ power.) But on a national level, Mother Jones seems right.
When it comes to the “central task” of abandoning unionism, while searching for an alternative source of Dem support, I stand in solidarity with Comrade Drum.