Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Labor and the Left

This past Saturday, longtime (albeit retired) lefty blogger Freddie de Boer came out of his self-imposed retirement to lament a paucity of "true" leftists in the professional, "establishment" blogosphere.  Many professional establishment bloggers eagerly took the bait, and some who consider themselves progressives took a bit of umbrage (among them Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum).  Some debate focused on the nature of establishment blogs--to me, they're just another establishment medium, and noting that views outside the Overton Window are not well-represented in establishment media is stating the obvious.  There aren't many guys wearing Harley-Davidson jackets and riding leathers attending black-tie events in Georgetown, either.  And certain viewpoints, such as real honest-to-goodness socialism (as opposed to fake "socialism" of the kind that allegedly ensnares the entire Democratic Party) are simply not permitted to be held by Very Serious People.

Even the tamer progressives who are so permitted, generally have to couch their arguments in the language of equity.  The sort of leftist rants commonplace elsewhere in the West, wherein the rich are held to be dirty rotten scoundrels who deserve to be taxed through the nose and are lucky that they don't get worse, are simply excluded from "serious" political discourse.   On other hand, equivalent arguments on the right--that the poor are lazy unworthies who don't deserve the pittance they do get from the government, are far too commonplace in our political conversation.  And many right-wing ideas that were dismissed as kookery as recently as a few years ago, now get mainstream attention.  (In some cases, the attention is mostly ridicule, but if your a political agitator, it's better to be ridiculed than ignored).

Of course, there are plenty of trade unionists, anti-corporatists, socialists, communists, and other Haters of Baby Jesus And Betrayers Of America™ in the wider blogosphere for your reading pleasure.  But you won't find them drawing paychecks from the likes of The New Republic.

The dastardly neoliberals

What was more interesting, I think, was the debate on the left's relationship to organized labor.  Freddie pounded a stake in the ground, stating that any progressive worthy of the term ought to, a priori, support organized labor in the US.  Many of the aforementioned A-list bloggers frequently take positions critical of labor; and its common on the left to brand those who fail to toe this line as "neoliberals"--a term, like "yankee", is frequently intended to be an insult.  Matt Yglesias, in particular among the blogerati, has been the subject of this line of criticism.  Yglesias defended himself on the charge of insufficient progressivism, noting that many labor unions (particularly in the public sector) frequently block or oppose reforms that would benefit the poor as a class, but which would reduce their own members' pay or benefits.

This is, of course, not a new debate.  Many bloggers on the transit beat, yours truly included, have periodically complained about transit unions, especially ones with compensation packages that are far more generous than one finds for equivalent-skilled positions in the private sector. I wrote over at Portland Transport, on the subject of TriMet's relationships with its union:

This is a particularly nasty fault line in progressive politics in the US--there seems to be a growing rift between many social service advocates and public employee unions. I can think of quite a few well-known transit bloggers and writers, dedicated progressives all of them--who loathe their local transit union. (One of these activists made an interesting observation--the cities with the best transit tend to have the strongest transit unions; whereas the cities which only run low-quality social service transit are more likely to have outsourced their operations, often to non-union operators). And as more and more private-sector jobs are outsourced and more private-sector unions busted, public employee unions are finding themselves more and more isolated--whereas in the past, the passengers on the bus were often union workers as well; a larger share of bus and train passengers are non-union white-collar or service workers.
A more thorough discussion of this occured at Ryan Avent's blog, wherein Ryan echoed many of Matt's criticisms of public employee unions.  Ryan writes:

It’s also interesting to me that the alternative, “true” lefty persuasion is one dedicated to the preservation of labor rights. This is an ideological position that doesn’t come naturally to a lot of young left-leaning people for a number of reasons. One is that they look at the empirical evidence and disagree, to some extent, with the notion that the destruction of labor was a cause, rather than a consequence, of broad structural transformations in the economy. (But that probably strikes Freddie as the kind of bullshit an on-the-payroll neoliberal would say.) Another is that younger individuals have had their formative ideological experiences in an era in which labor strength is concentrated in sectors that are either public or dependent on public largesse, and these unions often place themselves squarely in the path of reforms sought by left-leaning writers. I’m sure it was easier to be sympathetic to labor when it was winning limits on truly heinous business practices rather than fighting against merit-based pay for excellent teachers.
In the comments, I noted the existence of what I will call the trickle-over theory, by analogy with trickle-down:  This theory, frequently cited by public employee unions as to why they ought to receive the pay and benefits which they do, is that high(er) public-sector wages will result in higher wages in the private sector as well.  There are several grounds to question this theory:  many public sector jobs have no private sector equivalent--high pay for bus drivers is not likely to drive up wages for electricians, after all; public sector jobs are far less susceptible to things such as outsourcing; and public sector labor arrangements frequently make it difficult if not impossible for outsiders to get such jobs.  And for many such jobs at municipal levels of government, the relative unprogressive nature of the tax structure often means it's the working poor socked with the bill for all of this.  When it comes to public sector unions, all of us, in a sense, are management.

Ryan continues:

I suppose I see organized labor as a means, not an end. Some traditional leftists believe that a return to widespread unionization will mean a return to the (in some ways) more egalitarian world that went with it. My sense is that neoliberal writers tend not to agree that unions are an effective means in this way. But that doesn’t mean they’ve changed their view of the desired ends.
A commenter, though, makes an interesting and important point:

I think the problem is the absence of a countervailing power, as J.K. Galbraith called it. Unions do other things besides control the labor market; they are political actors that counter the corporate agenda. Neoliberalism may be correct from a policy perspective, but it has no base of action. It leads to a Democratic Party of individuals fighting a GOP composed of churches and powerful corporate entities with no limits on their spending.
So I suppose I’d say that neo-liberals need to construct a new civil society that fits within their ideology.
Ignoring corporations, which can take of their own, the importance of the rise of the religious right in the GOP camp cannot be understated--it gives conservatives a (somewhat) dedicated block of voters who can be easily mobilized to turn out and support right-wing causes.  And how this was pulled off is fascinating--decades of theological writings and pronouncements holding that the corporate agenda is in fact not only compatible with, but required by, Christian doctrine--never mind what Jesus himself had to say on the subject.  Labor unions long served as the organizing focus for Democrats--and still do--but the number of voters they can get to the polls is likely on the wane.  Coming up with social structures which can motivate progressives (and which don't require the presence of charismatic leaders such as Obama on the head of the ticket), is a key problem that the left needs to solve.

Meanwhile, across the pond

While drawing inferences on the politics of other countries and applying them to the US is risky, it's intuitive to look at what's going across the pond.  In the UK, the two progressive constituencies discussed here each have their own political parties:  Labor has Labour (we all know how much Englishmen love u's), and neoliberals have, for better or worse, the Liberal Democrats.  The analogy isn't exact--Labour has moved considerably to the right since its days as a de facto socialist party, and includes some socially conservative elements that tend to vote Republican in the US--but it's close.  And the two parties don't like each other much; after the recent parliamentary elections, in which no party got a majority, the Lib Dems elected to form a coalition with--the Conservatives, who have responded to Britain's economic woes with a broadly-unpopular austerity program which critics charge imposes most of the pain on the poor.  And Nick Clegg's party has suffered tremendously for it in the polls; far more so than have the Tories.

It should be noted that the Overton Window in the UK, like elsewhere in Western Europe, is considerably further to the left.  (One piece of evidence is that most European nativist political parties tend to support pro-labor economic positions, unlike the Randian social Darwinism found within US social conservativism).  So take this all with a grain of salt.

The future of labor

What the future of organized labor will be in the US, is hard to foresee.  Many predict it will continue to wane, undermined by a race to the bottom against a rising global power which, despite its history of communism (and its continuing nominal embrace of such), has morphed into a mercantalist state which keeps its own labor force strictly in check.   Others have predicted that the branch will finally snap, and that a new populist movement of some political stripe will arise and fundamentally alter the economic order.  (The Tea Parties have demonstrated quite a few signs of independence from and frustration with the GOP establishment, and have an anti-elitist streak a mile wide--one which so far has been focused on "cultural elites", a cohort presumed to be liberal).  As the US faces its own public debt crisis, who suffers and how much will likely become a more dominant theme in domestic politics.

In many ways, the relationship between labor and the broader left strikes me as similar to the relationship between a basketball team and a mercurial star player--one who is tough to guard, scores points in droves, and draws crowds, but is a pain in the ass in the locker room and who isn't well liked by many of his teammates (who frequently have their own agendas).  I don't mean this analogy to be insulting at all, but it illustrates well the contradictions and difficulties inherent in the relationship.  And it's a broader problem for the left in a system such as ours--where raising the necessary capital (political and financial) to be a contender frequently requires compromising principles and desires, and dealing with issues (and people) that might otherwise be best avoided.

The good news, is that the most powerful labor leader in the US, AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka, seems to understand the broader issues.  He seems to understands that labor politics must uplift the poor and working classes as a whole, and not just those with union cards.  He seems to understand that for labor to thrive, the fundamental rules of the game must be changed, and not just tweaked.  And he seems to understand that this is a long game.

And to address the dichotomy posed by Freddie:  the differences between "neoliberals" and the "pro-labor" left aren't as important as the differences between the boarder progressive agenda and the plutocracy.  Much of the substance of this debate is about which various factions of the working class are entitled to the bigger share of the crumbs.

Personally I'd prefer working on getting a bigger slice of the pie.

Oh, and Freddie?  Don't stay retired too long.  You're still at the top of the game, and whatever you can contribute, the country needs your voice.

[ed: Fixed URL]


  1. Good piece, but one quibble: the LibDems aren't necessarily Neoliberals per se. They're more social liberals, who (last I checked) weren't terribly anti-union.

    I think the reason why I'm not terribly supportive of this drive against public-sector unions is because it's a transparent attempt by the plutocrats (or Global Elite or whatever) to drive a stake in the heart of the union movement. If Krugman's Conscience of a Liberal nailed down one thing, it's that unions were and are a VITAL means of ensuring that an economy's incomes don't get polarized. That's one of the reasons why organizing in much of the third world will get you ventilated, and why there's a headlong rush to hire up as many workers in these union-free-by-force countries as possible.

    One thing I do wonder, though, is the extent to which unions' dogged insistence on ignoring the plight of workers as a whole is a hang-over from when they had to appear as anti-communist as possible.

  2. Oh, and as for the Tea Party's anti-elitism...there's a saying going around that "left populism is about wealth, and right populism is about education".

    That makes the Tea Party pretty scary, far more than people think. After all, when I think of anti-education populism, I don't think about farmers. I think about the Cultural Revolution and the Killing Fields. THAT is what populist revolt against the educated looks like. And it ain't pretty.


Keep it clean, please