Labor May Not Need ‘Saving,’ But We Still Have A Long To-Do List

This is part of TPM Cafe Book Club for Jake Rosenfeld’s What Unions No Longer Do.

We hear a lot about “saving the labor movement” these days. If not because some state government or perhaps the Supreme Court is poised to dismantle yet another legal protection for labor unions in general or some specific set of unionized workers in particular, we’re talking about some possible victory for workers and whether that win will revive the entire movement.

I applaud Jake Rosenfeld for challenging the idea that any one group, even public sector workers, will “save the labor movement.” We’re going to need a heck of a lot of wins in a lot of different places in order to reverse the trend labor has taken over the last few decades, and no one solution will produce them all. I also applaud him for taking the time to write a deeply researched book that proves the positive effects unions have had on and for working people.

It’s in Rosenfeld’s piece on “Politics in Our Non-Union Age” that I find the most I want to respond to, though I hope here to touch on several other points he’s made. He quotes our co-book-clubber Richard Yeselson, noting that an opposition to unions is the most consistent trope of conservative ideology over the last century with good reason. The attacks on unions have been consistent, strong, and vicious since the first group of workers decided they would have more power if they banded together, because workers’ power is always a threat to the power of the boss. As Adolph Reed pointed out recently, the labor movement is the most threatening to the elite precisely because it “basically can’t be accommodated to neoliberal economic policy.”

We should understand, then, that attacks on labor are not just a small facet of today’s conservative ideology, but central to it. We should understand that they are not about preventing people from voting for Democrats (though often Democrats just as likely to help to dismantle unions while handing tax break after tax break to the wealthy bosses, isn’t that right, Rahm Emanuel?), but about taking political and economic power from working people. Driving the Democratic party into the waiting arms of Wall Street and other wealthy donors has been part of the goal all along as well.

As Rosenfeld points out, labor’s political power doesn’t and never really did come from money (as recent articles arguing about the relative influence of one union worker and one Koch brother make clear). The movement’s power instead came from getting regular people involved in politics, motivating them not just to vote, but, as Damon Silvers of the AFL-CIO told me back in 2012, to be poll watchers, volunteers, to “pound the pavement” for their chosen candidate or for a political issue in between elections. In other words, to become the infrastructure of campaigns and voting. Democrats, Silvers noted, often “see the labor movement as a piggy bank and not as a social institution, not as the name we give to all these real people. When these real people are inspired they can work wonders. And when they’re not, and they’re feeling disillusioned and betrayed it’s very difficult to motivate them.”

Rosenfeld argues too that the labor movement’s reliance on the public sector to keep up its numbers is problematic in several ways, one of them being that public sector workers are already more likely to vote. I agree with several of the points Rosenfeld’s made about the public sector, but I am grateful to Ned Resnikoff for pointing out that workers who are relatively privileged in some ways are less so in others—the public sector, particularly education, is filled with women workers, and the public sector has always been a place where black workers and others who face frequent discrimination could find a job. Rosenfeld takes pains to note that the workers in the public sector “look different” from their private sector counterparts, but in this piece at least, neglects to point out one very key way.

Rosenfeld begins his piece on public sector workers by talking about home health aides, whose rights are under attack in Harris v. Quinn — and who are workers who are by no stretch of the imagination privileged, relatively or otherwise. This is one of the lowest-paid professions in the country, and home health aides are doing (deeply gendered) work that has no upward career trajectory, even if it is vitally important for our aging population.

That gendered labor is important to mention here because it affects how public sector workers bargain. As Rosenfeld notes, the union wage premium is higher for private sector workers than it is for public—perhaps because many public sector workers, unlike private, face the challenge of bargaining not against a distant executive, but against the local budget, against, as many opposed to union rights like to whine, the taxpayer. When workers whose job is caring for others make demands for themselves, they are uniquely damned for being “selfish.” As education writer and author of a forthcoming history of the teaching profession Dana Goldstein has explained, the idea that teachers are caring was brought into existence in the first place to justify hiring women, not men, to do the job in public schools, because women were cheaper to hire.

Women’s moral superiority, in other words, was an excuse to pay them less. Goldstein also noted that teachers still make less than other college-educated workers.

Furthermore, many of those public sector workers are doing the kinds of jobs, like teaching or home health care, that leave them bargaining over issues outside of the issue of pay. Teachers are instructive here — the famous Chicago Teachers Union strike was as much over working conditions as pay, and in recent months teachers in Portland, Oregon and St. Paul, Minnesota followed that lead in focusing on issues like class size, high-stakes testing, and wraparound services in their contract negotiations.

Kate Bahn, an economist and blogger who studies teachers’ labor, tells me, “The economics of education literature has shown that teachers just haven’t prioritized their earnings, although they certainly deserve fair pay. Consistently, teachers have been found to not respond to pay incentives as much as they value school conditions in their decision of whether to work as a teacher, where to work, and whether to respond to incentive-based pay schemes like pay-for-performance. Likewise, unions don’t affect teacher pay levels as much as you might expect, since teachers tend to value other aspects of their work and their workplace more than their earnings.”

The value of unions, once again, is not only seen in increased wages.

I want to thank Resnikoff also for thinking big in his piece and opening the door for me to do the same. As Rosenfeld has noted, unions at their best fought for political goals that would help the entire working class. The labor movement, as the saying goes, brought you the weekend.

No one issue, no one campaign, no one victory will save/revive/rebuild the labor movement. Organizing is not easy, cheap, or quick. Furthermore, a 21st-century labor movement is going to look very different from a 19th or 20th century one — the workforce has changed, as have the jobs that exist and the way they are structured. An auto factory used to be staffed with full-time union members making a living wage; these days, they might well be underpaid temps managing robots with zero security instead. The fastest-growing sectors are low-wage service and home health care—fields that are mostly staffed by women, many of them women of color.

But it would perhaps be good for labor to demonstrate its value once again as a political force that cannot be bought with big campaign donations, even if it is a campaign for something that would improve the lives of millions — regardless of whether they are union members or not. A campaign for something like a universal basic income, perhaps, which would allow workers to better bargain for higher wages because they’ll have the option of exiting that job.

Or, since we all love the weekend so much, perhaps it’s time for another campaign for shorter working hours. The ten-hour and then eight-hour day movements unified workers across sector and skill level, race and gender in their demands for more free time: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will” was one popular slogan. Such a push always came with the demand that pay would remain the same—eight hours’ work for ten hours’ pay. With unemployment remaining high, economists like Dean Baker have repeatedly argued for a better distribution of leisure (and, of course, of wealth) as a way to solve the problem of a lack of jobs.

These are big dreams, but why not aim high?

Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast.

Photo: Shutterstock/michaeljung

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