In recent months, many prominent Democrats have spoken out in favor of some typically overlooked causes: collective bargaining and organized labor.
Asked last month how he would revive the middle class, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he would “make it easier to form unions.” In a speech at a Democratic women's group in Washington a few days earlier, Hillary Clinton said, “the American middle class was built, in part, by the right for people to organize and bargain on behalf of themselves.”
“Collective bargaining,” former Maryland Governor and potential Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley recently said, “runs contrary to [the Republican] belief that keeping wages low somehow makes America’s economy better.”
Abandoned for decades by a Democratic Party eager to cozy up with Wall Street and advance a neoliberal economic agenda, unions are once again being lauded by top party leaders. But what is behind this warm embrace?
Part of the reason for the Democrats’ praise for labor is the recent spotlight on the ever-growing levels of economic inequality in the United States. Another reason is political expediency: With the 2016 election campaign looming, politicians are pandering to a base that they normally take for granted.
But Democrats cannot afford to pay only lip service to organized labor when the moment is convenient. Unless they take real measures to shore up employees’ rights to collectively organize, the Democratic Party will be courting a major crisis, as will America’s working families.
Numbers don’t lie
The economic inequality in the U.S. has dominated the headlines in recent years. From the Occupy Wall Street movement to French economist Thomas Piketty’s bestseller “Capital in the 21st Century” and new reports on runaway executive pay, it has become clear that politicians can no longer ignore the growing divide between the most affluent and the rest of America.
However, it’s not just politicians who have come to understand that unchecked markets cannot create widely shared prosperity. Top economists, including Larry Summers, former Chief Economist of the World Bank, economic advisor to President Barack Obama and Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton, have acknowledged the importance of unions in building the American middle class.
“Workers should have the right to collectively bargain if that is what they desire,” Summers said in an interview with the Harvard Business Review in February. “I am concerned that in recent times that right has eroded because employers have been permitted to retaliate against those who seek to organize workers with impunity.”
Summers’ change of heart is as decisive an about face as one can imagine. “High union wages … are likely to cause job losses in the unionized sector of the economy,” Summers, who has long been seen as a representative of the business-aligned neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party, wrote in 1993. At the time he was steering the party away from pro-labor positions at home, while also pushing for the privatization of public assets abroad, which undermined unions globally.
Major financial institutions are making the same about-face. The International Monetary Fund, which for decades has strongly advised governments to roll back social services and make labor markets more “flexible,” has also come to the defense of labor unions.
“Historically, unions have played an important role in the introduction of fundamental social and labor rights [and that] the weakening of unions can lead to less redistribution and higher net income inequality,” IMF economists Florence Jaumotte and Carolina Osorio Buitron noted in a new report published last month. They called for a “reaffirmation of labor standards that allow willing workers to bargain collectively.”
Unless they back up their rhetoric with a concerete plan to empower workers, Democrats may soon face the power and influence of billionaire conservative activists such as Charles and David Koch without unions’ counterbalance
There is another reason why Democratic leaders are rallying around unions: They want to counter the Republican Party’s attack on unions and their members.
Republicans, corporate leaders and their lobbyists understand that organized labor is one of the few constituencies capable of acting as a counterbalance to organized money. To eliminate this hostile force, they have redoubled their efforts to defund unions and shrink their membership rolls.
They have made considerable progress in the past three years. In 2012, two former fortresses of labor power, Indiana and Michigan, allowed employees to opt out of paying union dues even when they benefit from such contracts. On March 6, Gov. Scott Walker signed similar legislation in Wisconsin, the birthplace of public-sector unionism — bringing the total number of so-called “right-to-work” states to 25.
Bruce Rauner, the newly elected Republican governor of Illinois, has also endorsed similar laws in his state, making weaker labor protections the basis for his economic development strategy. Democrats are starting to sense that they have a problem.
Unfortunately, the realization comes after three decades of taking unions for granted and refusing to heed labor’s call when they had the opportunity to advance its goals.
In 2008, unions went all out to support candidate Barack Obama and help secure a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. In exchange, Democrats did little. Obama delayed the Employee Free Choice Act, which was the AFL-CIO’s primary policy goal. This measure, which would have made it easier for workers to join unions, was eventually dropped without a show of presidential muscle.
This is part of a long pattern. In 1992, Bill Clinton pledged to support legislation banning the permanent replacement of striking workers during his presidential bid. After the bill failed with White House’s perfunctory support, the administration pushed through the pro-corporate North American Free Trade Agreement in the face of intense union opposition. The deal resulted in the offshoring of 700,000 jobs.
Continuing this trend, President Obama has now allied with the Republican majority Congress in negotiating the largest free-trade agreement in history, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka considers the TPP the latest in a series of trade deals that have served as “thinly disguised tools to increase corporate profits by poisoning workers, polluting the environment and hiding information from consumers.”
Rhetoric is not enough
Democrats’ and economists’ belated attention to organized labor is welcome. But unless they back up their rhetoric by shoring up the right of employees to freely organize and advance their interests, Democrats may soon face the power and influence of billionaire conservative activists such as Charles and David Koch without unions’ counterbalance.
Defending workers’ rights will require better protection at the state level. But it will also mean being proactive: Updating labor laws to make it easier for workers to organize; mandating real sanctions against employers who illegally fire workers for organizing; and making high labor standards the centerpiece of U.S. trade policy, rather than an afterthought. It also entails creating new rules to allow the millions of increasingly contingent and outsourced workers — who are excluded from the current system — to have collective representation.
There is an emerging consensus that the decline in unions is creating a major inequality crisis for the United States. It’s going to create a major crisis for the Democratic Party too, unless leading party leaders become more than fickle friends who offer kind words during election season, but grow distant once in office. Employees in the U.S. need to have their rights protected. Democrats have an opportunity to do just that by capitalizing on the shifting consensus on organized labor and Republican assault on workers rights.