Demonizing Organized Labor And The Road To Fascism

The word ‘union’ occurs five times in Jedediah Purdy‘s Jacobin essay ‘How Trump Won.’

On the first two occasions, Purdy invokes unions as part of an analysis of the demographics of Trump voters:

[U]nion voters abandoned the Democrats dramatically

Clinton was much weaker than Obama with union-household voters: he won them 58–40, she only 51–43. That’s a sixteen-point loss.

Then, Purdy goes on to speculate why union voters might have voted thus:

[L]ower-income and union voters [developed] a post-2008 sense of economic abandonment by the Democrats based on how the party has actually governed in recent years, including both the trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and NAFTA and a finance industry that it strongly embraces.

A chunk of those voters are working people who, fifty years ago, might have been getting their basic political information from a union, and are now getting it from a conspiracy-minded far right that convinced them they had a civic duty to vote against the corrupt liar in the race.

On the fifth occasion Purdy makes note of Richard Rorty‘s prescient remarks about a possible evolution of American politics:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else. At that point, something will crack.

Unions and their workers have cottoned on to one essential fact about so-called American liberalism and progressivism: its extremely thin patina is revealed by its attitude toward labor unions. You might be a liberal when it comes to climate change, same-sex marriage, and the reproductive rights of women, but chances are you are united with conservatives in believing ‘bosses’ and ’employers’ should be able to ‘hire and fire’ their workers as they please. Without this, you believe that workers will not be motivated to work; that incompetent workers cannot be weeded out; that workers will seek out laziness and complacency; that they will wreck public and private sector budgets with their extravagant contracts and retirement schemes. Unions–like teachers unions which prevent brilliant reformist pedagogical schemes from being implemented, public sector unions which destroy municipal budgets–are the causes of all social and economic ills.

With these attitudes towards the right of workers to indulge in collective bargaining, you reveal a very poor understanding of power and how it is acquired and exercised. You show yourself willing to let one economic class be immiserated and disempowered even as another one is simultaneously enriched and empowered.

All too many who fancy themselves social progressives or liberals–and who find themselves impatient with the protections and benefits union demand for their members–need a reckoning with the possibility that they are merely technocratic elites who find the lower classes a little too grubby for their taste and wish they could whip them into shape somehow through the latest management consultancy schemes. There is a common, shared, set of American values that unite liberals and conservatives and it includes the following principle: workers are lazy and can only be motivated by fear of dismissal. From this the corporatization of American social and political values follows. From this follows contempt of populism, of the expressed sentiments of those who cannot speak the technocrat’s language.

The abandonment of the working class and organized labor is America’s greatest scandal–and it has been for a long time. Once upon a time, unionized workers–like in the Lehigh Valley–lived in houses, drove cars, and sent their children to colleges, secure in the knowledge that the American Dream was working for them, that the upward mobility of the next generation was visible in their own lives. There is no such comfort now, and none is forthcoming. The economy has been financialized, manufacturing of tangible commodities sent overseas, unions disbanded and demonized, wages sent plunging, new systems of values put in place.

The insecure, nonunionized worker is perennially on edge, worried about losing his or her job; their wages fall without contracts to hold them up; long-term economic planning is impossible. Scapegoats for misery are demanded; some will be found. by any convoluted reasoning necessary. Relief from fear and paranoia is sought; perhaps in the form of a strong man promising deliverance.

The union makes us strong; without the union, workers seek strength elsewhere.

Donald Trump And Organized Labor’s Death Wish

Over at Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi makes note of a distinctive and troubling feature of modern American political life, the seeming death wish of American organized labor:

Every four years, some Democrat who’s been a lifelong friend of labor runs for president. And every four years, that Democrat gets thrown over by national labor bosses in favor of some party lifer with his signature on a half-dozen job-exporting free-trade agreements.

It’s called “transactional politics,” and the operating idea is that workers should back the winner, rather than the most union-friendly candidate.

This year, national leaders of several prominent unions went with Hillary Clinton – who, among other things, supported her husband’s efforts to pass NAFTA – over Bernie Sanders….Trump is already positioning himself to take advantage of the political opportunity afforded him by “transactional politics.” He regularly hammers the NAFTA deal in his speeches….

Unions have been abused so much by both parties in the past decades that even mentioning themes union members care about instantly grabs the attention of workers. That’s true even when it comes from Donald Trump….You will find union members scattered at almost all of Trump’s speeches. And there have been rumors of unions nationally considering endorsing Trump….

Indeed. Never mind that the candidates unions would consider endorsing would then want to distance themselves as much as possible from organized labor. (As Taibbi also notes, Trump thinks Michigan autoworkers are paid too much and that in general, “wages are too high.”)

I have written before on this blog about the self-destructive, seemingly self-hating antipathy that American workers have to organized labor. The phenomenon Taibbi points to is another matter altogether. Here, unions themselves are engaged in behavior which is willfully, inexplicably self-destructive.  Perhaps this behavior reveals a particularly virulent strain of Stockholm Syndrome (it is very hard, after all, to leave abusive relationships and seek help); perhaps it’s a manifestation of the thing Freud called a ‘todestrieb.’

Consider for instance, the news that Jeff Johnson, the head of the Washington State Labor Council–affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which has not yet endorsed anyone for president–was allegedly pressured by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to not speak at a Bernie Sanders’ campaign event. The AFSCME, one of the largest public-sector unions in the U.S. and a member of the AFL-CIO, endorsed Clinton for president in October. As the article linked to above notes, the AFSCME is perfectly within its rights to slap down on a state labor federation pending approval from national AFL-CIO. Still, it might be asked, why endorse candidates who send union jobs overseas to non-unionized workplaces?

Desperate political times call for desperate actions. Unions are under assault everywhere; membership is shrinking nation-wide. One might ask though, of all the actions available to organized labor, why would it endorse candidates so damaging to its members’ short-term and long-term interests, both economic and political? Especially when the decline of unionization in the American workplace has so extensively been identified as a primary cause of falling wages and rising economic inequality?