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Can There Be a Progressive Movement Without Organized Labor at its Center?

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.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 11, 2004 | Permalink


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Here's a link to Labor Blog, a new group blog on labor issues, for those who're interested:


Posted by: cs | Sep 11, 2004 3:29:44 AM

Mark - You talk about Labor's role in speeking to certain economic concerns and as a lobbying force, but I think you are missing a fundamental piece of the picture. On the ground, in the campaigns, labor provides resources that no liberal interest group can match: people who will do the hard work, such as phone-banking, lit drops, door-to-door canvassing, etc. If we want to build a progressive movement that can actually win power, we need not just ideas and good ways to communicate them, we need the people.

Posted by: | Sep 11, 2004 9:27:15 AM

it seems to me that labor represented the economic interests of a large number of urban dwelling people in an industrial business environment

the evolution of business away from an industrial technology base to an information technology base and the dissemination of the automobile, the highway system, prosperity and housing and working into the suburbs and across the states created new groupings of people-interests outside the earlier "interest-representation" paradigm in which unions promoted a broad "common-good" ( wages, housing, education, healthcare, etc.)

the interest-representation groups that have evolved as major players in today's "political space" seem to represent a different kind of interest constituency and the unsurprising decline of union strength created a political power vacuum in which the "conservative movement" flourished and has become very a powerful part of the political establishment(remember when barry goldwater,the "young americans for freedom" were the new face of conservatism)

which group(s) "interest-represent" for a broad "common-good" (wages, housing, education, healthcare, etc) today?

not the sierra club, not the apollo alliance, not common cause, not NOW, not planned parenthood, etc,

unions seemed to gain power as they coalesced under a broad afl-cio umbrella

how can a comparable progressive umbrella emerge?

Posted by: james | Sep 11, 2004 11:52:12 AM

The cunning Bush administration, which will do and say anything to get re-elected, showed its concern for ordinary Americans in a election season by implementing the overtime regulations, seperating millions of Americans from their overtime pay, and announcing the largest increase ever in Medicare premiums.

What contempt for our welfare. The demise of unions is a big factor in the decline of the middle class, folks. This process is not beginning, but well underway. People have been snookered into the belief that a house in the suburbs is a ticket out of the working class. Then they get the layoff notice and bankruptcy is not far away.

Of course there cannot be a progressive movement without a labor movement! One aspect of the rightwing critique of liberals is correct. We're infected with a sense of complacency about our own welfare -- & we're letting it slip away.

What this economic decline will teach us is that the working class is expanding upwards into the ranks of the (formerly middle class) professionals. That is one place where future union strength will come from.

Posted by: camille roy | Sep 11, 2004 9:01:03 PM

Other advanced capitalist countries have significantly higher unionization rates, e.g. Canada. Polls show that roughly half of workers would form unions if they could do so without fear of employer retaliation. Our weakened labor movement is the result of weak labor laws, and a business community that learned that they could get away with flagrantly violating the minimal requirements of those laws. If progressives could succeed in strengthening legal protections for the right to organize and collectively bargain, unionization rates would be begin to catch up with other countries.

Posted by: | Sep 11, 2004 10:09:05 PM


Your conjecture that the labor movement will not recover is not guaranteed.

While I don't agree with a lot of Teixeira's analysis in The Emerging Democratic Majority, one thing he points out is that more and more "professionals" are being employed by large companies. Witness the AFL-CIO's campaigns to organize grad students in various universities. Also, there are small efforts to unionize software engineers [I suspect this is in response to the outsourcing bogeyman]; it's possible this could grow over time. Coupled with, say, lots of unionization among health care workers, there are plenty of ways for unions to re-emerge, perhaps not with the strength they had between 1950-1970, but with more than they have now.

The Dean movement may separately create a new set of "boots on the ground" for the progressive cause as well. It's not clear how many Deaniacs will stay in the business of grassroots politics, but it is very encouraging.

Posted by: | Sep 12, 2004 3:58:11 AM

Camille Roy,
The Bush administration appears to be willing to do anything in order to get elected, except govern competently. After 9-11, if Bush was serious about a bipartisan war on terror, and economic policies that were based, even lossely, on economics, he would have won in a landslide.
Unions will most likely not be as important as they have been in the past, but they are becoming slightly more effective. We should be experiencing a major cyclical change in the power of the middle class (shifting towrd more power) in the near future, but it does not have to be union-centric. The unions do need to play a facilitating role.

Posted by: theCoach | Sep 13, 2004 10:56:17 AM

I'm entirely sympathetic to the idea that there won't be a vital progressive movement without organized labor. But doesn't it sort of beg the question to say there's never been one to which labor wasn't central. I'd count feminism as a major progressive movement, maybe the most important of the last several decades. Also gay rights. Neither owed much to labor, I think. And how deep did the Civil Rights movements dependence on organized labor go? Deep enough to outweigh rank and file hostility to the movement, or the abandonment of the MFDP in '64? Then, too, the antiwar movement in the 60s ended up in virtually direct confrontation with labor.

To put this another way, would it be much different to say, there's never been a progressive movement in this country in the 20th century to which the Communist Party wasn't central, or at least important? (Civil Rights movement? check. Feminism? check. Antiwar movement? check. New Deal? a case can be made.)

I see the point of saying organized labor is different, and I think it's probably right, but I think the case needs to be put more precisely.

Posted by: McGruff | Sep 13, 2004 11:04:20 PM

The various civil rights movements (race, gay, women, etc) did not have unions at their core, that is true -- but not relevant to our current political situation. We have an employment crisis, folks. You don't fix that with civil rights or environmental movements.
Check out http://angrybear.blogspot.com/2004/09/shortfall-in-wages.html
for some stats on the unprecedented bias in this 'recovery' for profits instead of wages.

The assertion that labor does not need to be at the center of a progressive movement => in our times <= is an assertion, not an argument. Where's the beef? What social problems or issues are on the table when we talk about a revitalized progressive movement in this country? Are we not including health care, a living wage, etc?

Posted by: camille roy | Sep 14, 2004 12:32:43 PM

Most progressive movements in other countries
have relatively strong labor movements (at least compared with the USA unusually weak labor). I have some doubts on the ability of other constituencies to replace labor as a source of financing, personnel, activism, etc. On one side, some of them are pretty small demographically on their own (gays, african-americans, etc.) and only become significant when their numbers are added up. Labor, on the contrary, had a much larger base. Also, the members of these constituencies have comparatively small common interests that can motivate political action if you measure them against organized labor. Women for example, belong to different social classes, different ethnic-religious groups, live in widely different communities, etc. An individual woman probably does not has many common goals with another woman. An salaried worker, on the other hand, had a very strong common goal with another salaried worker: earn more. Also see the dynamic that conservatives have developed with corporate interests; conservatives reward corporate support with revenue-enhancing legislation, which makes corporations more economically powerful, which in turn makes their support more effective, etc. They do not only please their base, they make their base more powerful.

Posted by: Carlos | Sep 14, 2004 1:01:12 PM

If you're responding to me, Camille Roy, you're not really addressing my point--which isn't that labor needs to be at the center of a progressive movement now. That, I agree with, urgently. My concern is with a position that says labor always has been crucial to every progressive movement in the U.S., which seems to me historically doubtful, or at least very vague, and which as a result, more importantly, has the effect of making genuine political tensions among different members of a progressive movement fade into the background. If the interests of labor and of the civil rights movement, say, weren't fully consistent with each other, there's good reason to believe that similar tensions will exist today.

Posted by: McGruff | Sep 14, 2004 1:35:34 PM

I can't say I've ever seen anyone describe David Broder as "thoughtful" much less "beautiful."

The droning voice of 19th century progressivism is more like it.

Posted by: Murphy | Sep 14, 2004 5:05:49 PM

The issue isn't whether the Democratic Party or the left should "wait for for labor to solve its problems." The issue is why the Democratic Party has failed to more aggressively pursue policies which would address the problem which haunts all prospects for sustained electoral or organizing victory: the absence of a robust freedom to form a union and organize collectively for industrial democracy and social change in this country.

Posted by: Josh | Sep 14, 2004 5:06:36 PM

The labor movement is obviously having problems adapting to the vast changes in our economy and employment patterns, shifting from concentrated urban industrial mode of production to disparate service oriented strip mall jobs, etc.

While organizing companies and workplaces should obviously remain a goal, this gets increasingly hard given "right to work" laws, anti-union propaganda. So, if this is the only measure of success, the declines will continue.

If we're moving to a service economy, perhaps unions should provide... services?

It seems like perhaps the best way for unions to regain traction is to allow people to join them more in the mode of a professional association, in addition to unionizing whole workplaces.

If the anti-government forces currently in control of our government persist in their program of privatization and deregulation, this could create a gap for unions to start providing the services that government should. For example, Unions could move into providing health care insurance, if not health care itself. Families and individuals would flock to affordable health plans, and unions still have enough size and clout to negotiate huge deals with insurance companies. Hell, why not become insurance companies. Pay your "dues" for health insurance, unemployment insurance, possibly even an education voucher pool.

For example, at the end of the year, my company will go through another round of moaning and teeth gnashing over the outrageous increase in health insurance premiums. Being a small company, my boss will pass much of the increase on to us. What if I was able to opt out, take my employer contribution, and put that towards an "open-collar" union membership that provided my family with health insurance, life insurance, AND unemployment ensurance. AND it would be portable.

As Gandhi said, we need to BE the change we want to see. If we want a single payer health care system, then why not create an insurance pool so massive that it became the defacto single payer?

Although it is a much smaller example, look at what Working Assets has been able to do just by reselling Sprint long-distance: they make it easy for people to donate to progressive groups, and educate people about political issues. Imagine if your IRA statements came with bumper stickers, economic analysis, etc...

Clearly this would be a massive undertaking, but perhaps progressives need to start beating the unfettered capitalists at their own game.

Posted by: | Sep 17, 2004 1:45:43 PM

There are two problems that aren't answered by having today's labor orgs speak for all workers. Affiliation and Aggregation.

Belonging to a union is often an intensely personal act. It comes with rites of passage as public as a Bar Mitzvah, peer bonds tested by conflict, and incentives with the wallop of a paycheck. It's a tribal thing when it works. Part of your identity. Ask a teamster or firefighter.

The general public doesn't have those close ties. Not with unions. Not even with their political parties. A political context for conversation or action barely shows up.

Unions use their members' feelings of affiliation to organize and systematize individual behavior. Aggregate it, if you will. For community service. For political action. And to sustain themselves.

George W. Bush provoked citizens in opposition to participate in the political process. And their turnout has been recordbreaking.

And some organizations, like John Kerry for President and America Coming Together, have put volunteers to work and raised money. But those citizens have no equity in those organizations. No sense of ownership or control; no idea of what they are about other than this one election.

The Democratic Party must restore a sense of purpose. It must create social mechanisms that promote active membership, that stimulate energetic participation for the 47 months between Presidential elections. That make your local Democratic Party as much a part of your life as church, work, school, and sports.

Will organized labor play a part in this? Can they bring people into the small club of the politically active? Can they fight their way back into the lives of the American workforce?

Posted by: Phil Wolff | Oct 26, 2004 9:24:14 PM

In response to the anonymous next-to-last commenter, check out http://www.workingtoday.org It was created in response to the insight that there are many people who would like the benefit of unionization but are freelancers, or contingent workers. They provide access to health insurance to their members, and other benefits.

Posted by: Elizabeth | Nov 8, 2004 11:37:37 AM

The various civil rights movements did not have unions at their core...

Posted by: kate | Apr 7, 2006 8:27:28 AM