David Broder had a beautiful, thoughtful column yesterday about the significance of the decline of the labor movement as a political force. He starts by recounting the surprise of a younger reporter at learning that when Broder began covering Congress, the most significant lobbyists were those representing organized labor, and they didn't just advocate on traditional labor issues but were the leading force on civil rights, federal aid to education, housing, and other progressive causes. Indeed, one of the interesting things I learned from a book that I mentioned at length in my most recent American Prospect column, Julian Zelizer's On Capitol Hill : The Struggle to Reform Congress and its Consequences, 1948-2000 was that the most influential non-elected figure in liberal politics through the 1950s and 1960s was Andrew Biemiller, who represented the AFL and then the AFL-CIO. As Broder notes, labor today may be more closely aligned to Congressional Democrats, but is far less effective, and on a far more limited agenda.
Broder's column made me think about a question I was asked four or five years ago, and that I sometimes revisit in my head. At a conference sponsored by the Economic Policy Institute, I agreed to be on a panel made up of four people from foundations -- the "funder's panel" that is often the dreariest but best-attended part of a conference. (I hate being on funders' panels and sometimes refuse to do it.) In the Q&A section, Joel Rogers of the University of Wisconsin (and various other affiliations) asked: "Do any of you seriously believe that it is possible to have a real progressive movement in this country that doesn't have a strong labor movement at the center of it?"
Now that's a provocative question to ask anyone, and particularly a group of people from big liberal foundations, because while many of us think we are helping to build a progressive movement, most of us have very limited exposure to organized labor, and little understanding of its strengths, diversity, and history. Often that's because foundations themselves are creatures of American capitalism, intended to smooth only the egregious excesses of unfettered capitalism, by focusing on poverty or urban decay, rather than confronting the fundamental conditions of the great mass of workers or advocating a shift in power. In other cases, it's simply because our experience with academia or non-profits doesn't bring us into much contact with unions or union members. A colleague from the Ford Foundation made basically those points, and I don't remember my other colleagues' answers.
Nor do I remember my own, for certain. I think I said Yes. That is, I could envision a progressive movement without organized labor at its center. But I'm totally ambivalent on the question. Broder's column tells part of the story -- there never has been a progressive movement in the U.S. that didn't have labor at the center, and the ups and downs of progressive change have roughly coincided with the shifting power of labor to stand up to capital.
On the other hand, cycles sometimes end, and organized labor in the traditional sense may never recover its political clout. As the economy shifts from manufacturing, the unionized percentage of the private-sector workforce continues to decline despite much-ballyhooed organizing victories, especially for immigrant workers in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The labor movement has gained some political clout since the mid-1980s because it is more effective at delivering its own members than it was in 1984 when union members in the Midwest became "Reagan Democrats," but as it moves to represent more and more of the truly disadvantaged workers, especially immigrants, it does not increase its share of the electorate.
Given the depth of labor's difficulties, then, perhaps the reason that the answer to the question is "yes" is simply that we can't wait for labor to solve its problems, and maybe labor never will come back in its traditional form. Other elements of a progressive infrastructure -- such as environmentalists, the women's movement, mobilized consumers, and the voters now organized through loose transactional networks such as moveon.org rather than traditional membership groups -- have a presence in Washington and in our political life that could not have been imagined back in the days when Biemiller strode the halls of Congress, speaking for everyone. Yet those progressive groups do not speak to the economic issues that are the center of a progressive agenda and cannot speak for the families most struggling in the current economy. On the other hand, labor's agenda alone does not speak to all the elements of a progressive movement, such as women's rights and gay and lesbian rights. Still, there are efforts to build strong coalitions in which labor plays a part, such as the Apollo Alliance, a campaign to invest in energy independence which, if nothing else, can bring labor and environmentalists together for a cause.
One approach for labor is to view its role differently. Rather than making its political voice dependent on its success in organizing workers at the workplace, it could view itself as more of a voice for all workers, whether they happen to be union members or not. The AFL-CIO's efforts this election to reach not just members of its unions, but those who demographically resemble union members is one example.
At the end of the day, whatever the political strength of organized labor as we know it, there is no progressive movement unless there is some large, politically relevant constituency organization that speaks not for middle-class liberals, but for those left behind in the economy. It's just possible that some of the large-scale organizing efforts around the election, such as ACORN's Project Vote, and many others, might form a mass constituency of new voters that, coupled with labor, might be able to form a politically powerful bloc -- if it can use its power consistently in Congress and state legislatures. That's not a formula for a progressive movement without labor at the center, but one in which labor doesn't have to carry the burden for everyone else.