Friday, February 18, 2011It's no secret that Republicans have long disliked labor unions. The recent attacks on public employees is only the latest episode in a decades-long campaign to delegitimize, marginalize, and ultimately destroy every union in the country, public or private. From a political point of view I can't fault their motivation or their sense of timing. With so few workers in the private sector covered by unions, and with state budgets in such dire straits, it's an opportune time for Republicans to finally rid themselves of a key Democratic voting bloc. Despite the protests, I suspect that they will ultimately succeed. Frankly I'll be surprised if the unionization rate in the U.S. doesn't drop into the low single digits over the next decade or so.
Why so glum? My nature perhaps, and the fact that these are discouraging times. But more importantly I don't have a great deal of confidence that the Democratic Party will do anything to stop it. As with abortion rights or gun control, Democrats have stopped fighting very hard for unions. They're pretty much absent from the public debate on these issues, which means that one one side you have a barrage of relentless propaganda and on the other....nothing. It's difficult to sustain popular support for a position under such circumstances. Just look at how many elected Democrats are playing footsie with neoliberal reforms in education like merit pay and charter schools - reforms that are largely lacking in evidentiary support and strike directly at the heart not just of teachers unions, but of the very idea of public education.
Now it's not that it wouldn't be easy to make a case that we should stand up for the rights of workers to organize. The national leadership of the party (I'm talking to you Obama) should land in Wisconsin, join the protest, and give a speech arguing that every worker in this country should have the right to look their employer in the eye, that it's an impossibility to win these battles individually but that they can only be won together. It's the same problem we're facing in so many spheres of American life - the idea that things will get better if we all just go it alone, or wait for the magic of the market to solve our problems for us. Life doesn't work that way. That's how you fight a political war against conservatism - make it about bigger stakes, challenge people to rise above their own narrow self-interest, identify the enemy.
But that's not going to happen. We'll have a press release or two, and some noises about how unfair it all is, and then the Democrats in Washington will go to another fundraiser and collect donations from Goldman Sachs and Northrup-Grumman and talk about how important it is to have a "good business environment." I mean really, look at what lack of regulations, no unions, and low wages has done for Mississippi!