I had a bit of insomnia last night, so I was reading an article in the Atlantic online that deals with at least two of the subjects in this diary's title. The article itself was fairly short, looking at the trend line of union membership in this country over the past century. It was the readers comments that I found most illuminating and thought provoking. Over the course of the discussion that ensued issues were raised that touched on a lot of events that have shaped both the power of Organized Labor, but also its relationship with the Democratic Party, and its bifurcation between those in the public sector and the private sector. I think it is well worth checking out...especially the comment section:
Who Killed American Unions?
It prompted me to think about some of my own perceptions and attitudes relating to public workers' unions, the political party I self identify with, and why it is that so many Democrats have ambivalent feelings about their Party... why it is that, for example, the percentage of people who self identify as Democrat or Republican has declined, even as partisanship has increased, while the percentage of those claiming to be Independents has risen.
I thought I'd share some of the thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head...I'm not sure there's a cogent argument here...just some observations. The motto here is "more and better Democrats". It's obvious what more means, but perhaps less clear what "better" means. Like beauty...that becomes more subjective.
Looking back, I think I can safely say that I was generally more enthusiastic in my support for the Democratic Party when I was younger than I am today, at the age of 55. I think it's fair to say my feelings about unions have evolved as well. How have your attitudes changed, at least those of you who read this who have enough years under their belts to experience some evolution?
One of the comments that most made me shake my head in sad affirmation was this:
What killed the unions is that the democratic party turned on them after 1968. They became the enemy and they lost any real political representation. When the democratic party abandoned class politics for tribalism, unions didn't fit with that model.emphasis mine
Now, there are some problems with that simplification, which another commenter addresses, but I believe the broader point about the Democrats abandoning class politics in favor of identity politics is largely valid, and, for me at least, helps explain some of my personal disaffection with the Party over the years.
One of the right wing talking points that most irks me is the charge that Dems engage in "class warfare" and/or the "politics of envy." We hardly engage in class warfare, and haven't for quite some time. In fact...I'll go further, and suggest that one of the reasons I still identify as a Democrat is because I associate the Party with a struggle for economic justice that they engaged in much more forcefully decades ago than they have in the past 20 years. It's sort of why I'm still an Oakland Raider fan, though not so avidly...I remember the Kenny Stabler and Fred Biletnikoff years, and conveniently forget about the JaMarcus Russell period.
Whether 1968 was the exact turning point on not, it seems our Party did begin to follow a different tack at some point around then or shortly thereafter with respect to what it stands for, who it stands for, what it fights for and how it promotes itself. To me it seems that my Party has in some ways abandoned a cohesive political philosophy in favor of an electoral strategy that relies, instead, upon a potpourri of positions that appeal to different groups. Put another way, if the Democratic Party were to look at a Seurat painting, today it sees only the individual dots of paint on the canvas, whereas before its focus was the on the canvas as a whole.
Clearly, Labor doesn't enjoy as prominent a seat at the Democratic table as it once did. One only has to think back to conventions of years (decades?) past, or consider the effort that is currently put forth by politicians to curry the support of Labor Leaders. As membership in unions has declined, so has Labor's political power. And when you look more closely at union membership, public worker unions are now probably the most healthy sector of organized labor. In terms of who has more clout and gets the most attention by Democrats, it's fair to say that the Head of the UAW's star has waned, while the stars for the Heads of AFSCME, SEIU and NEA have waxed.
Upon considering the reasons behind voters' willingness to punish unionized workers at the polls, and especially unionized voters who vote against labor, it is useful to remember the divergent paths that organized workers in the private and public sectors have been traveling down. They have different experiences, and in many ways the Democratic party has acted like the proverbial 3 monkeys that neither hear, see nor speak no evil. I can see how union members in the private sector have watched their fortunes decline over the past 40 years, while public workers have largely maintained theirs, and also how they process the manner in which Democrats have largely acquiesced to, if not actually helped formulate, trade and industrial policies that have led to their decline, and feel today like, as Tommy Smothers famously said, "Mother (Democrats) always liked you best."
That's where resentment sets in, and solidarity breaks down. And Democrats are at least partly to blame for that. Of course, there is a chicken and the egg dilemma that comes into play. Auto workers were strident about only driving American cars, to the point where Toyotas or Datsuns (Nissans) weren't allowed in the employee parking lot. But how many of them went home and plopped down in front of a Sanyo TV, grabbed a beer from a fridge made overseas, and changed into a T Shirt made in Malaysia, shorts made in Honduras, and flip flops made in the Philippines? How many unionized electricians, plumbers or construction workers extolled the virtues of union labor, while purchasing services themselves based entirely upon price?
As for the general public's antipathy towards public workers, unionized or not, one only has to consider the typical interaction one is likely to have with them. An encounter with a policeman is rarely positive, and usually leaves you measurably poorer in terms of a traffic citation, at the very least. A trip to the DMV can most often be appropriately described as Kafkaesque. Firemen put out far fewer fires than they did many years ago, but their ranks haven't thinned. Much of the federal stimulus money after the Great Recession was intercepted and usurped by state and local governments to pay make their own payrolls and keep public employees busy...not jump start the private job market. Most of the "shovel ready" projects seemed to be basic public maintenance, and many of the shovels that you saw in the neighborhood or along the roads were being leaned upon.
One commenter to the Atlantic article notes the obvious:
The power of unions is based one the ability to strike and use solidarity and intimidation to prevent scab labor.This is true...but what has the Democratic Party, in all honesty, done in the past 35 years or more to protect and enhance that tool in Labor's toolbox?
This comment is also pretty accurate:
The relationship between unions and the party has been pretty complex since '68, and both sides share a lot of the blame. I definitely sympathize with your view of what's gone wrong with the Democratic party. It's still somewhat representing the interests of working people, but it's drifted a long way from its Jacksonian roots, however screwed up those were.One of the things I'm bemused by with respect to the OWS movement is the difficulty it has had in getting either the public at large or the Democratic Party to fully embrace the concept of "We are the 99%" As a society, we have lost much of that ability to feel solidarity or commonweal with one another. And as a Party, the Democrats long ago stopped seeing their constituency in such monolithic terms. They don't see any group called "the 99%" For decades now, they have only seen the 12% that belong to unions, the 50.5% that are women, the 13% that are Black, the 15% that are LGBT, the 23.9% that is Catholic, the 2% that is Jewish, the percentage of registered voters in battleground states that are Hispanic, etc, etc, etc.
There's a good deal of disdain for working people in the Democratic Party today. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are rightfully unacceptable to party leaders and donors, but these social issues have come to dominate over economic issues that matter to working and middle class Americans, and in some ways they've made it easier for the party to adopt a neo-liberal economic agenda which doesn't recognise the legitimacy of unions.
And in so doing, they have found it harder and harder over the years to speak in a cohesive, consistent manner on policy issues. I'm still married to the Party...but it no longer feels like a traditional marriage.
I'm just one of many in a polygamous arrangement, and it isn't "my night" again until Friday after next.
Anyway...those are just some random thoughts of my own that the Atlantic article provoked. How about you?