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Is Organized Labor a Special Interest Group?

I just got around to watching this great panel, Labor, the Left, and Progressives in the Obama Era”, which was held at the beginning of this month by Georgetown University. As you can probably deduce from the title, it features a broad range of labor-left figures commenting on the state of the union movement, and left-wing politics generally, under the Obama administration. (The event features three people I’ve interviewed for CP’s Five Minutes With feature: Harold Meyerson, Barbara Ehrenreich and Chris Hayes.)

The whole video is worth watching, although it clocks in at almost two hours, so I can’t imagine too many people will actually absorb the whole thing. SEIU’s Gerry Hudson has some particularly interesting things to say: The lesson he took from the failure of EFCA is that labor needs to mobilize and inspire on the ground (and not just by organizing new members), because rebuilding the movement from the halls of Congress simply won’t work.

But one of the most interesting comments comes from Chris Hayes, the Washington Editor of the Nation and it gets to the heart of what I find so interesting about the labor movement. Hayes argues that labor didn’t play the part of a special interest group in the healthcare debate, they didn’t act like, say, the insurance companies or the pharmaceutical companies, or the doctors’ associations, all of which tried to defend their own turf as best they could. Instead “the way labor comported itself during the healthcare debate was the precise opposite of a special interest.”

 

If you are to think of the three groups of people who had the least to gain from the healthcare reform bill that was just passed. Here’s who they would be: undocumented workers (they are excluded), the super wealthy…and union members, and unions…

In a universe of tremendous medical uncertainty the biggest selling point a union has, in terms of a kitchen table issue, is delivering a good benefits package to its members.

But creating a system of quasi-gerry rigged bizzaro, center-right universal health care that we have created, [unions] have reduced the marginal advantage that they had.

And yet when this bill, which for all its flaws is the most significant piece of social welfare we have passed since Medicare, was essentially on its deathbed the American labor movement rushed in with shock pads.

Hayes goes on to say that labor, even in its weakened state, fought like hell for people beyond the scope of its interest. In short, they acted in solidarity with and for the millions of Americans who will benefit from this law, despite the fact that the vast majority of them will never pay dues. They willingly sacrificed their biggest legislative priority, the Employee Free Choice Act, which could have re-vitalized the movement, for a bill that may weaken them, and a president who has only helped them in limited ways. (Although without sturdy and overwhelming legislative support the executive can only really help labor in limited ways.)

Harold expands upon the point a bit later in the panel.

If you look at labor as a special interest what a lousy job it has done as a special interest. Even now with the upcoming battle over financial reform labor union members are no more disadvantaged by the crap the banks visit upon the rest of us than anyone else. [The labor movement] are the one group with the money and people to fight for the general class.

And that is why everyone should be far more concerned with the fate of organized labor than we generally are. Unions are an important part of redistributing power away from the upper echelons of a society, in part because they generally looked beyond empowering one segment of the national population. And without a voice like that, things end up looking like, well, the last thirty years. If you think the culture of Washington is corrupt and oligarchic now, just wait until the unions are smaller, and weaker than they are today.

Jake Blumgart is a freelance reporter-researcher living in Philadelphia and a former Campus Progress staff writer. His work has been published by the American Prospect, Alternet, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Stranger, and the New York Daily News. Follow him on Twitter @jblumgart.

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