The Demise of Union Power in American Politics & the Public Mind

(Paranoia & Fantasy on the Right) – Published on ZNet, by Anthony Dimaggio and Paul Street, July 28, 2012.

The election season is upon us and along with it comes the standard Republican claims to be up against a powerful Democratic Party machine backed by the awesome clout of the “union bosses” of American labor. We have been told this endlessly by pundits on the reactionary right such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck – those happy to misrepresent and distort the long decline and near-extinction of the American labor movement … //

… Independent of such secret business expenditures, however, one can at least measure how much labor and business interests have spent as related to on the books campaign contributions and spending that benefit political candidates and parties. This data, available from the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), shows just how silly and propagandistic the focus on labor power is. In 2008, for example, the CRP estimates that 71.8 percent of all campaign contributions came from traditional political action committees (PACs) and individuals that represented business interests, compared to a miniscule 2.7 percent of all contributions that originated from labor unions and individuals representing labor organizations. The numbers were similar for 2010, as business interests provided 72.5 percent of all contributions, while labor interests gave just 5.1 percent.

Beyond unions’ inability to compete with corporations and wealthy donors when it comes to funding candidates and lobbying office-holders, another thing the Journal doesn’t tell its readers about is organized labor’s minor impact on the political consciousness of its own dues-paying members. Forget for a moment that the U.S. union density rate (the percentage of workers enrolled in unions) has fallen from 26.7 percent in 1973 to 13.6 percent in 2009, and to approximately 11.8 percent by 2011. Also forget that just 6.9 percent of U.S. private sector workers are covered by union contracts as of 2011. How does the shrunken American labor “movement” perform when it comes to influencing the political attitudes of those who are members? … //

… (chart: Effects of Tea Party Affiliation and Union Membership on Political Attitudes – July 2011, Pew Research Center)

Tea Party membership is an effective predictor of conservative-reactionary attitudes for an astounding 90 percent of all questions, whereas labor membership predicts liberal attitudes for just 20 percent of questions asked. In other words, there is little evidence of the power of labor unions to foster any sort of critical “labor consciousness” among their members today, largely due to the beleaguered state of unions, and as seen in their unsuccessful efforts to influence their members’ attitudes and ideology.

The deadly consequences of this absent labor consciousness were evident when Wisconsin’s hard right Tea Party Republican Governor Scott Walker prevailed over the union-led effort to recall him in the wake of his assault on public workers’ collective bargaining rights. The remarkable amount of right-wing business money that Walker raised across the nation was an obvious factor behind his victory in the recall election last month. Still, we cannot join the Nation’s Wisconsin-based liberal commentator John Nichols in dismissing Walker’s victory as a triumph of out-of-state money over a comparative cash-poor “people’s power” campaign in Wisconsin. As the astute left commentator Lance Selfa notes:

“This ignores the fact that Walker–and more broadly, conservative politics–has a base in the state….Huge turnouts in the largely white and affluent suburbs that ring Milwaukee provided the bedrock of support for Walker. But Walker also won thousands of downscale rural voters, as well as an astounding 38 percent of union household voters. How could this be? Leaving aside the fact that conservatives make up a solid minority of union households, it’s also true that labor leaders and the Democrats didn’t change the political dynamics in the state.” (Socialist Worker, July 2012, p.14).

Yes, more than a third of voters from union households supported arch-reactionary policymakers who explicitly target union power for defeat and rollback. That’s a pretty blatant indication of “big labor’s” abject failure to build any kind of meaningful movement culture of popular, working class solidarity and action to improve and protect the living standards of ordinary people. We blame that failure on the narrow vision and bureaucratic timidity and selfishness of union “leaders” and the broader and deeper limits of U.S.-style “business unionism” (which has long rejected the tactics and politics of class-wide workers’ solidarity), NOT the supposedly selfish and right wing nature and views of everyday working people. This is not meant to demonize individual unionists, but merely to point out (as we’ve learned in our own interactions with many labor leaders) that unions today are largely apolitical in terms of their failure to build much of a labor consciousness for their members. In short, they are responsible for little more than securing collective bargaining benefits.
The limits of today’s unions aside, the opinion, campaign finance, and union membership data cited in this essay ought to render laughable the Wall Street Journal and Fox News’ paranoid fantasies about the breathtaking political clout of “Big Labor” and “union bosses” in the U.S. The U.S. labor union is a shell of what it once was in terms of membership and political influence. And although we lack comparable public opinion data from earlier years, it seems reasonable to suspect that labor unions were more powerful in previous decades (dating back to the immediate post World War II era and earlier too), when union members accounted for a far larger share of American workers.

None of this data is meant to suggest that the Tea Party is a juggernaut of political discipline and activism that should be emulated by those on the left. As we’ve painstakingly documented elsewhere, most of the Tea Party’s power and influence stems from the top down. The group receives Astroturf corporate financing from billionaire reactionaries of the Koch brother variety, and it benefits from the megaphone of Fox News and other right wing media, rather than spreading its messaged in a decentralized way from the bottom up. The group is far from a “grassroots rebellion” – as we found in our recent examination of local Tea Party chapters and their weak-to-non-existent political organizing. In reality, the Tea Party’s power stems from the false consciousness that is produced by the consistent organizing and deep pockets on Wall Street and in corporate America more generally. Business organizers have succeeded in perverting not only U.S. elections, but also the American mind via the Tea Party phenomenon. It is this perversion that we will have to defeat if there is to be any hope for achieving a real labor (or leftist vision more generally) in America’s near future. (full text).

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