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The Labor Movement Hasn’t Won Anything Yet

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It looks very like­ly that Democ­rats will win con­trol of the Sen­ate. That means that for the first time in more than a decade, the Democ­rats will con­trol both the White House and Con­gress. The labor move­ment will and should view this as the time to col­lect on their hefty invest­ment in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. This also means that the labor unions are in mor­tal dan­ger of squan­der­ing the next two years trans­fixed by devel­op­ments in Wash­ing­ton while the real action pass­es them by.

On this hope­ful morn­ing, we should all take a moment to remem­ber the glo­ri­ous days of 2009, when Oba­ma won the pres­i­den­cy, and Democ­rats won Con­gress, and the labor move­ment won… noth­ing. In the cold light of his­to­ry, the enor­mous finan­cial and logis­ti­cal back­ing that major unions gave to Oba­ma won them only a short term reprieve from bla­tant gov­ern­ment repres­sion rather than any real progress towards a revival of labor pow­er in Amer­i­ca. It did not win them the pas­sage of the Employ­ee Free Choice Act, their top leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ty. Union den­si­ty in Amer­i­ca was 12.3% in 2009. By 2016, after two Oba­ma terms, it was 10.7%. By 2020, it was 10.3%. (In the mid-1950s, it was 35%. By the ear­ly 1980s, it was 20%.) Under both friend­ly and hos­tile pres­i­den­tial admin­is­tra­tions, union mem­ber­ship has con­tin­ued to decline for decades. Col­lect­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars from union mem­bers and fun­nel­ing it into the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty every four years has done noth­ing to solve the most press­ing prob­lems that unions face: they are slow­ly disappearing. 

And here we are again! Unions backed Biden strong­ly, vow­ing to keep the bit­ter lessons of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion in mind. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the Democ­rats who appear to have won in the Geor­gia Sen­ate races, both ben­e­fit­ed from a flood of on-the-ground sup­port from Unite Hereand oth­er unions. The 2021 ana­log to the Oba­ma-era Employ­ee Free Choice Act is the PRO Act, a very fine bill that would roll back the worst parts of America’s anti-work­er labor laws and make it mean­ing­ful­ly eas­i­er to build and sus­tain strong unions. We have won the White house. We have won the House. We have won the Sen­ate. And we have our top pri­or­i­ty bill in hand. 

So will the PRO Act become law? No. It will be fil­i­bus­tered in the Sen­ate. In order to pass it, Democ­rats would have to com­mit to doing away with the fil­i­buster, and Joe Manchin?—?now the key­stone of the Sen­ate?—?has said he will not do that. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­ate vic­to­ry means that Biden will be able to get his judges, and he’ll be able to get his cab­i­net sec­re­taries con­firmed, and as a con­se­quence the reg­u­la­to­ry appa­ra­tus of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment will be more favor­able towards the inter­ests of work­ers than it would oth­er­wise have been. But ulti­mate­ly none of the juici­est reforms of the PRO Act, like elim­i­nat­ing ?“right to work” laws and legal­iz­ing sec­ondary boy­cotts, will come to pass. 

Of course it is good for orga­nized labor that the Democ­rats won. I’m not try­ing to be a down­er. I am try­ing to put the util­i­ty of the nation­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty in its prop­er con­text. For the labor move­ment, most of the invest­ment in Democ­rats amounts to an insur­ance pol­i­cy: We have to back Democ­rats because even if they don’t do any­thing for us, they are not active­ly try­ing to destroy us. Total Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment amounts to noth­ing but a tem­porar­i­ly neu­tral play­ing field for labor. It does not get us any­thing. It just makes con­di­tions some­what more con­ducive to get­ting things for our­selves. That is the part that often gets for­got­ten, as unions sit back and con­grat­u­late them­selves after Elec­tion Day. The myopic focus of the labor estab­lish­ment on nation­al pol­i­tics is like spend­ing all of your mon­ey on home insur­ance and hav­ing noth­ing left over to actu­al­ly build a house. 

Pol­i­tics fol­lows move­ments. Not vice ver­sa. We drag elect­ed offi­cials along after we have made the demand for change so strong it can’t be ignored. The labor move­ment in Amer­i­ca is weak because not enough Amer­i­cans are part of the labor move­ment. You can’t fight cap­i­tal­ism when only ten per­cent of the peo­ple are on your team. The labor move­ment must grow. If it can’t grow with­in the hos­tile forms dic­tat­ed by cur­rent law, it must grow out­side of those forms. 

Union lead­ers can wake up today and bask in the knowl­edge that they got their vic­to­ry. They should also mar­i­nate in the knowl­edge that this vic­to­ry will not buy them a sin­gle new union mem­ber. Polit­i­cal dona­tions are a pro­tec­tion rack­et for unions. On the oth­er hand, mon­ey spent on orga­niz­ing is nev­er wast­ed. If we spend the next two years hyp­no­tized by Con­gress and the PRO Act and get­ting ready for the next midterms, two years will pass, and union den­si­ty will con­tin­ue to decline, and we will be weak­er than we are today. We should instead look out towards the 90% of work­ing peo­ple who do not have a union, and ask: How do we get them one? 

We will be told today that we won in Geor­gia. The state of Geor­gia ranks 47thout of 50 in union den­si­ty. Bare­ly four per­cent of work­ers there are union mem­bers. What has the labor move­ment actu­al­ly won for the peo­ple there? How much will their lives be changed in the next two years?

The elec­tion is over. Fall out of love with pol­i­tics, and fall in love with orga­niz­ing. Please. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 6, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where.


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