Labor’s Day in Troubled Times

By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously
created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to
undreamed levels of production. Those who today attack labor
forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Annual AFL-CIO convention
December 1961

So this is what class warfare in America looks like: the over-class pitting various slivers of the lower and middle-classes against each other. Time and again in this hour of our discontent, it is striking to see the American creed, E pluribus unum (from many one) seemingly turned on its head; an “ownership society” that means you’re on your own. It is an uneasy moment. From Wisconsin to Michigan to Ohio to Pennsylvania. These are troubled times.

The observation of Labor Day invites us to reflect upon the struggles and accomplishments of the organized labor movement, as well as its present health. The Gallup organization has surveyed the American public regarding its support for labor unions periodically since 1936 and annually since 2001. This year 52 percent of respondents indicated they approve of labor unions, while 42 said they disapprove. The approval number was near the record low 48 percent approval obtained in 2009, when disapproval almost surpassed approval for the first time since polling began.

Not surprisingly, if you drill deeper into the Gallup results, you find a familiar pattern of partisan perceptual screening. Among those identifying with the Democratic Party, approval of labor unions reached 78 percent, near a record high, while approval among Republicans has fallen to an all-time low of 26 percent, with independents falling almost squarely in the middle. As recently as 2003, 50 percent of Republicans approved of unions. Approval of unions among independents also dropped nearly 20 points over that time period.

While the long-term trend in public approval of unions is downward, it may be that this was the year when anti-union forces overplayed their hand. Support for unions among independents has once more risen above 50 percent, up 8 points in just the past two years.

Yet, simultaneously, we face a moment when our government increasingly appears to be one of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations. Their power is at a zenith, extracted at the expense labor and ever more impervious to restraint from an ever weaker state. Their rise has been a long time in coming. It is the fruit of several decades of efforts to cultivate and nurture the ideas, slogans, political operatives, and channels of communication that have produced the conservative ascendancy and in particular, the fealty of the Republican Party.

Can you think of a time in American history when a major party charted a course so extreme and so self-consciously impervious to facts and evidence as today’s Republicans? I cannot. A CNN/ORC opinion poll in August found 59 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of theBy Pearson Scott Foresman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons GOP, with only a third of Americans viewing the party favorably. Apparently, vast majorities of the party’s adherents reject evolution and reject climate change while embracing thoroughly discredited economic policies.

Our Republican friends seem to be “one chapter economists.” Their hymnal is one of endless tax cuts and massive deregulation. Over, and over, and over again despite mountains of contrary evidence. Their economics text seems to be missing the chapters on monopoly, market failure, inequality, poverty, pollution, and public goods, let alone human dignity.

The collateral damage in the war on unions has fallen upon the American middle class. As David Madland, Karla Walter, and Nick Bunker make clear in their recent report, “Unions Make the Middle Class,” as the percentage of Americans in unions has fallen, so too has the middle class’ share of national income.

Organized labor may be the right’s bete noir du jour, but the list of enemies is a long run. One week it is taxpayers and government workers and the rights of organized labor. Another it was the young and the old and the future of Medicare. It has been about race, it has been about creed, it has been about color and it has been about sexual orientation. Tomorrow it may well be some one or some thing else.

Yet for all the bad blood generated by the Republicans, many have turned their ire on the Democrats, citing their uninspired and ineffective response to the battle of our lives. There is much to this critique, but it should not obscure the political context in which this war is being waged. America’s is a majoritarian politics. There are roles for politicians and roles for activists.

For me, this point was brought into bold relief by gay rights activist Lt. Daniel Choi (formerly of the U.S. Army). The son of a Korean-American Baptist minister,

Choi, now 30, majored in Arabic (and environmental engineering) at the United States Military Academy at West Point and served as an infantry officer with the 10th Mountain Division in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. He came out during an appearance March 19, 2009 on “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC. Since Choi’s coming out, 38 West Point alumni also came out and announced the formation of Knights Out, an organization of West Point alumni who support the rights of LGBT soldiers to serve openly. Choi was one of the founding members and is the spokesperson for the group.

I saw Daniel Choi launch a frontal assault on the Obama administration’s halting leadership on issues like gay marriage. Choi asked where was the leadership? At one level, it was a fair point. Yet on another, it failed to recognize the difference between the roles of politicians and the roles of civil rights leaders. John F. Kennedy was probably the last American president who could claim the mantle of leadership on civil rights based on words alone. Even JFK was quickly pressed for action. For all the greatness of his accomplishment in pushing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson’s role was less as a civil rights leader and more as a legislative leader. Barack Obama, the community activist working with dispossessed steel workers on the South Side of Chicago was a civil rights and labor leader. Barack Obama, president of the United States is not a civil rights or labor rights leader. Daniel Choi is a civil rights leader. If you are reading this, you may be a civil rights or labor leader.

So here we stand. I humbly submit that the House of Labor needs a bigger roof. One under which all workers feel at home and one in which all workers have a stake. Unions must make broader cause with workers and the middle class, while protecting the least and most vulnerable among us. In a speech to the AFL-CIO Illinois state convention on October 7, 1965, Dr. King reminded us how when the organized labor movement “crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.” As it was, so must it be.



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About Glenn Richardson 4 Articles
Glenn Richardson is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Kutztown University and author of "Pulp Politics: How Political Advertising Tells the Stories of American Politics."

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