Follow-up to yesterday’s post on the Wisconsin recall (“Walker’s victory, un-sugar-coated”).
I’ve been amazed at some of the tendentious misreadings of the piece that have made the rounds, mainly from left labor people. My favorite is that I just wasn’t aware of all the door-knocking and retail campaigning that union forces were doing over the last few months. Two points about that. One, months isn’t enough. I’m talking about years of education, organization, occupying. Face-to-face talk, direct action, all manner of things. And two, all that actually existing door-knocking was subsumed to a stupid electoral campaign—one whose defeat has only elevated Walker’s status and power. All those resources are now doubtless going into the Obama campaign—Obama, who did no more than tweet support for Barrett at the last minute!
Which reminds me of another thing—a pervasive, macho tendency in union culture to dismiss anyone who isn’t “in the trenches” as a pansy or an out-of-touch pointy-head. Outside analysts just don’t know all the great work they’re doing! Well, you know, it’s not really working out so well. Maybe all that time in the trenches just leaves you with a mouthful of dirt.
Another reaction was to think I don’t care about workplace issues. Of course I do. Workers, especially in private companies (though the post office isn’t much better) live under an authoritarian regime that offends their dignity every day. Unions can be a crucial defense against that. But the heavy emphasis on the contract and the workplace has led to a narrowing of vision, and to a perception among the 88% of the workforce that’s not unionized that unions don’t give a damn about them.
In other countries, unions are about more than contracts, and have done a lot better job fighting for broad public benefits, like pensions and health care. Our unions look too much like they’re fighting to defend their own private welfare states and not fighting to expand the public ones. They look like that because they all too often are. There’s no more disgraceful instance of this than the behavior of the Service Employees International Union around health care. SEIU’s former president, Andy Stern, dismissed single-payer as a Canadian import—while making common cause with then-Walmart CEO Lee Scott to try to craft a more distinctively “American” scheme. As one SEIU staffer told Liza Featherstone (“Labor Head Andy Stern Has Some Unusual Corporate Bedfellows”) [disclosure alert: she’s my wife], Stern “doesn’t hold social democracy in high regard.” Also, as Bob Fitch argued, unions typically take their cue on political matters from their employers. SEIU represents a lot of health care workers—and health care providers would hate single-payer.
The Wisconsin results overshadowed voter approval—by wide margins—of public sector pension cuts in San Diego and San Jose. Sad to say there’s not much of a sense of solidarity in America these days. Seeing generous retirement and pension provisions, the masses don’t say, “I want those too!” Instead, they say, “They can’t have them either!” It’s not clear that pouring more resources into fights to defend pensions will yield any good results against a 65–70% consensus on that.
Regardless of what I think about contracts and benefits, though, the old model is dead. Private sector unions are virtually gone, and those that remain are negotiating concessions. Public sector unions were safe for a long time, but now they’re on the chopping block. Dems will chop more slowly than Reps, but they will chop nonetheless. A lot of what I hear from even good union people amounts to an intensified dedication to the status quo. But that won’t work. Unions have to shift their focus from the workplace to the community at large, from private benefits enjoyed by a few to public benefits enjoyed by everyone, or they’re doomed.