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March 08, 2007

Unions and Political Power

I'd never thought of it this way before, but Brendan Sexton makes an interesting point in comments:

Another important role that unions play is that they give working people a voice in politics.

Conservatives sometimes claim that workers don't [need] unions anymore because government laws now protect workers.

This seems to assume that the government and employers enacted these laws without any prompting from unions and working people mobilizing to vote. It also assumes that corporations don't try to weaken or eliminate these laws at every opportunity. And it assumes that if unions didn't exist that the GOP wouldn't get rid of those laws for their corporate clients.

Unions are also an important counterveiling force against the power of corporations in the political arena.

This is, of course, true. Absent a healthy union movement, the competition between the interest groups that actually govern our nation becomes merely a vying of different business interests, with few powerful forces advocating specifically for the interests of the working class. There is, of course, a free rider issue in the way unions work, wherein the entire working class -- of which only 8% are unionized -- can benefit from the health care expansions and worker safety regulations and guaranteed maternity leave benefits and all the other worker-friendly legislation the labor movement convinces the Democrats to pass, even as the average American doesn't realize it's unions doing the bulk of the organizing behind these measures.

March 8, 2007 | Permalink


You had never thought of this: that one of the most significant effects of unions are they help politically represent workers?

I really thought you just weren't saying it because "without them Democrats would be screwed" sounds less noble than the topics you were focusing on at the time.

Posted by: Tony V | Mar 8, 2007 10:58:37 AM

Seems some folks around here have forgotten the inherently political nature of the labor movement. Perhaps it has become less obvious now that we're long past the days when the major internationals (like the AFL-CIO) conducted their anti-communist purges, and now that we're used to the structural normalization (through the Taft-Hartley Act and the NLRB) of union formation and contract negotiation. But come on. The labor movement, and the union movement, have always been political movements, both in the deep sense and in the more pragmatic sense (i.e., as a form of lobbying group) that you discuss in your post.

Posted by: nolo | Mar 8, 2007 11:01:43 AM

Well, now the pundits can assert: "We don't need unions cuz you now have the netroots!"

Actually, being a union member for most of my working life has made me very aware of the difference between what unions should be in existence for, versus what they're actually accomplishing. And the answer to both is "not much." Hence their decline.

Posted by: episty | Mar 8, 2007 11:24:06 AM

Sorry. The penultimate sentence should read: "And the answer to the latter is 'not much.'"

Posted by: episty | Mar 8, 2007 11:26:14 AM

Am I the only one who finds this logic frightening:

There is a positive externality to Democrats being elected, so we should abolish the secret ballot.


Posted by: Chris | Mar 8, 2007 12:08:23 PM

the first commenter says all that needs to be said here:
"you NEVER THOUGHT that unions give working people a political voice"!?...

Posted by: nick | Mar 8, 2007 12:13:02 PM

Am I the only one who finds this logic frightening:

There is a positive externality to Democrats being elected, so we should abolish the secret ballot.


Posted by: Chris

Simple answers to simple questions: yes, you're the only one.

A more complicated answer: the link between the two is really, really tenuous. A secret ballot for one specific issue — in fact, not just a specific issue, but one specific, yes-or-no question — with specific benefits and drawbacks, has so little to do with politics or democratic principles in general that there is just no "there" there.

Here in Vermont, Town Meeting Day was held two days ago. Many town-level issues are decided by secret ballot, while many more are decided by voice vote or even by show of hands or standing. Each has its benefits and drawbacks, but how democratic they are is not an issue. A secret ballot, while obviously useful, is not worthy of idolization as the Platonic ideal of democracy. If you think the secret ballot is not as good as the card check method of unionizing, address the arguments, don't insinuate a many-steps-removed link to undemocratic practices.

Posted by: Cyrus | Mar 8, 2007 1:03:14 PM

Unions are, in a lot of ways, like the police. Part of the job of the police is the affirmative pursuit of criminals; an arguably bigger part is for them to just be around, and by their existence prevent crimes that would otherwise happen. It's hard to quantify but not difficult to wrap your mind around. Unions are a line of defense against exploitation that may occur in their absence (and, in the case of Wal-Mart workers locked in their stores overnight, do occur in their absence).

This is true in the political sense as well. The existence of unions creates a counterbalancing political pressure that protects policies that would otherwise be eliminated (family medical leave, OSHA, and the like are obvious examples).

Posted by: Seth D. | Mar 8, 2007 1:08:02 PM

speaking of which... did you see national leadership of AFL-CIO endorsing "medicare for all" approach, albeit any of several plans:


"While the leaders did not endorse any specific bill to change the nation's health care system, AFL-CIO health care policy specialist Gerald Shea said several fit its proposal.

They include the single-payer government-run health care system bill (HR 676) by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Medicare-for-all bills crafted by Senate Labor Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), House Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) and House Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-Calif.)."

Posted by: [email protected] | Mar 8, 2007 1:12:25 PM

notably NOT being endorsed is anything that looks like what Edwards, Wyden... or Andy Stern... have been putting there name to.

Posted by: [email protected] | Mar 8, 2007 1:14:10 PM

I like Barney Frank's formulation:

"American politics has been producer politics. Americans tend to organize themselves politically around how they make their living. I wish that weren't always the case because I think sometimes the consumer interest is underrepresented.

But here's the deal. If you don't have unions, what you do is you have a lot of working people deprived of the institution around which they can organize their politics as producers. Whereas people on the other side of the economic bargaining table have theirs. "

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Mar 8, 2007 1:33:40 PM

Unions had thier purpose back in the day, but now with teh labor laws in force, they are no longer needed.

Think about it guys. BAck in the day they were fighting for basic stuff such as not being forced to work 100 hours a week.

What do they argue about now? Whether some high school dropout named Joe should get 75k per year instad of 50k.

Huge, huge difference between the stuff that unions fought for in the beginning and what they fight for now. Their usefulness has been outlived.

Posted by: joe blow | Mar 8, 2007 1:34:05 PM

Joe blow,

If I'm reading it correctly, I think the post is trying to say that without the countervailing force of unions, the bosses will work to slowly roll back the regulations and laws that unions have secured for the benefit of all workers, not just union members.

Or I could be wrong.

Posted by: ken | Mar 8, 2007 1:59:24 PM

I think the post is trying to say that without the countervailing force of unions, the bosses will work to slowly roll back the regulations and laws that unions have secured...

Shorter ken: "Without the unions, we would have labor laws repealed withing 3 years and slavery just might happen again!!"

Posted by: Fred Jones | Mar 8, 2007 2:29:46 PM


your rapier wit is too much for me.

tell you what, go work in a factory in china for a few years. then tell me how you feel about labor laws and workplace regulations.

Posted by: ken | Mar 8, 2007 2:45:41 PM

We weren't talking about China or the working conditions there. We were talking about America and the working conditions here.

Please try and keep up, ken.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Mar 8, 2007 2:59:08 PM

The idea that there's a free-rider effect with unions seems a bit superfluous. There's a free-rider clause in virtually ALL advocacy and lobby groups, including business. When oil companies lobby that they should be able to drill ANWR, they're effectively working on behalf of all groups who benefit from such a policy shift, including companies up and down the petro-chain who would benefit from the increased capacity, plus every other company looking to pull resources off protected govt land.

That's what happens in systems like ours, small vocal groups of activists change laws and the rest of us either benefit or don't. I don't think unions are special in this way.

Posted by: ssdagger | Mar 8, 2007 3:01:56 PM

Something I should add, piggybacking on my slightly incoherent libertarians-for-unions comment I made yesterday, is that unions provide a lot of convenient counterarguments to conservative/libertarian mantras. I like union rhetoric because it is basically a thorn in the side of triumphalist market ideology, because it sticks market principles back on the bosses plates. My estimation is that so many of the statist policies they decry were made to obviate unions. For instance, cons/libs talk about "welfare dependency," well wouldn't they prefer people to get their livelihoods based on negotiation in the labor markets?

Posted by: Steve | Mar 8, 2007 7:11:16 PM

Actually, there's no reason unions have to combine the roles that in the pro-choice movement are filled by two distinct organizations, Planned Parenthood and NARAL. Women who get abortions aren't expected to pay dues to NARAL; women who file sexual harassment lawsuits don't get told to pay NOW a percentage of the settlement; wrongly incarcerated people don't have to pay ACLU membership fees to be represented.

A better way of organizing labor is to have two distinct organizations, albeit with the natural understanding that they're going to employ the same kind of people and support the same kind of policies. The PP-like organization should focus exclusively on good works, such as class action lawsuits, strikes, and pay negotiations, and should be funded out of membership dues. The NARAL-like organization should lobby politicians and endorse like-minded candidates, and be funded by calling up supporters and asking them to cough up money.

Posted by: Alon Levy | Mar 8, 2007 10:47:50 PM

Unions are an important tool not merely against corporate power in the U.S., but authoritarian power across the world. Anything that encourages ordinary working class people to gather together and organize themselves into civil society institutions is inherently good for democracy, freedom, and government accountability, whatever one's feelings on the worth of actual collective bargaining.

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