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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 01/11/2011

Who can replace labor?

By Ezra Klein

James Surowiecki has a nice column this week looking at how and why the Great Recession has ravaged labor when the Great Depression was so instrumental in invigorating it. His basic thesis is that, as labor weakened, it was unable to deliver benefits broadly: The gains unions won for their workers were no longer shared by their non-members. A few generations back, Americans knew that organized labor had given them weekends and workplace benefits and higher wages and shorter days. Today, they see unions getting things at their expense: tenure for bad teachers, underfunded pensions for state workers, bailouts for auto companies. Solidarity has shaded into resentment.

Some of that might have been inevitable and some of it might not have been. Another difference, though, was political: Part of FDR's response to the Great Depression -- both in rhetoric and in policy -- was to argue that irresponsible businesses had created the need for stronger labor unions. This White House did nothing of the kind.

At this point, I can't tell a plausible story in which labor reverses decades of erosion and roars back to a central role in American economic or political life. Maybe someone else can -- and if so, I'd like to hear it -- but I can't. The question is what replaces labor. At the workplace level, the answer is probably nothing. But as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argue persuasively in "Winner-Take-All Politics," labor has long been the largest organized, sophisticated, and funded group advocating for working-class interests in the political system. But they're in decline -- and they're in decline even as business groups double down on their efforts to affect political outcomes.

If you even vaguely believe in the importance of interest groups in the political system, you should consider this a very big deal. But, again, it's not at all clear what can be done about it. My depressing answer is that it's so hard to imagine a successor to organized labor that perhaps the only plausible response is to also reduce the political power of business groups, perhaps through something like the Fair Elections Now Act (which would presumably reduce the political power of all groups, while increasing the political power of voters and small donors). But maybe other people have better thoughts on this.

By Ezra Klein  | January 11, 2011; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Unions  
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The political frame in this country has turned us against lobbyists. We imagine all of them to be corrupt and problematic for the masses.
Ironically this frame only serves to strengthen the corporate lobbies, as they have far more access to funding without popular support and have non-lobbying purposes that legitimize their existence in Washington.

The way to fix this is not easy:
Somehow people need to change their minds about lobbyists and, rather than backing efforts to destroy all lobbying, focus attention on ways to make more lobbyists available for various public interests including labor.
That will be quite difficult... but I think this sheds light on exactly why the right-wing groups have no problem spreading populist fear of lobbyists. The effect is nil on business lobbies and cuts the public off from the one force that might be able to counter them.

Posted by: RCBII | January 11, 2011 10:18 AM | Report abuse

Long term, the failure of the Obama Age Dems to advocate for and pass laws beneficial to the union movement will probably prove their greatest folly. They're writing their party out of existence

Posted by: matthewarnold | January 11, 2011 10:42 AM | Report abuse

Well obviously, since you've labeled this officially OBAMA's FAULT alone, he must be destroyed too. Both sides are doing an excellent job of that btw. A bit simplistic isn't it???

Posted by: carolerae48 | January 11, 2011 11:13 AM | Report abuse

"....labor has long been the largest organized, sophisticated, and funded group advocating for working-class interests in the political system."

I suppose this is quibbling, but I always find it amusing when I hear a left-winger claim that labor unions represent 'working-class' interests. This is extremely difficult to square against the facts.

This past election, the votes of union members were nearly even split between Democrats and Republicans (49%-47%, I believe). However, labor unions gave 90%-95% of their political donations to Democrats...and I would wager that the 5% that went to Republicans went to the most left-leaning 'Republicans' they could find.

So to say labor unions represent the interests of the working class is foolhardy at best. But then again, we know progressives always believe they know what's best for us whether we like it or not, so I guess that form of 'representing interests' reflects their frame of thinking...

Posted by: dbw1 | January 11, 2011 11:19 AM | Report abuse

"What's government when words have no meaning"

This is a clear reference to Obama's 2008 campaign themes - and Obama's failure to follow through on any of them.

- Bipartisanship, when Obama meets few times with the Republicans

- Compromise - when Obama is dumping 2,000 page bills on the internet in the middle of the night and the democrats calling votes on weekends and holidays

- Post-racial - what is post-racial when the majority party is leveling FALSE CHARGES OF RACISM at their political opponents, acting more like a third world dictatorship than anything else

- Transparency - do we have to mention the hidden file in Hawaii again?

"What's government when words have no meaning?"

I found that phrase at the end of one of videos posted on Politico, however I thought I heard a report on tv that the suspect said that phrase on Saturday.

I would like to confirm that - because it would be significant if the suspect used that phrase more than once - especially in the context of all the stuff the suspect has out there.


Posted by: RainForestRising | January 11, 2011 11:20 AM | Report abuse

One word: Taft-Hartley

Posted by: harold3 | January 11, 2011 11:42 AM | Report abuse

One word: Taft-Hartley

Posted by: harold3 | January 11, 2011 11:43 AM | Report abuse

I belonged to a public union when Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. The decline started then. It didn't happen in 2 damn yrs like you allege it did.

Posted by: carolerae48 | January 11, 2011 11:55 AM | Report abuse

I think the voters at large are taking/can take the place of unions. Higher minimum wage just got voted into place with support of something like 80% of Americans. PPACA just created penalties for businesses that don't provide healthcare to their employees.

I expect more of this sort of thing in the future. I'm sure Republicans hate it and will try to stop it, but the voters will win out.

Anyway, unions are dying because only certain types of jobs lend themselves to union formation, and those types of jobs in particular are disappearing. The overlap between union jobs and 'jobs that are likely to be replaced by machines in the next 20 years' is frightening.


That is the question he posed to the congresswoman like 4 years ago at a rally.

Posted by: eggnogfool | January 11, 2011 12:09 PM | Report abuse

The largest private employer in the United States is Walmart. It is true that the broad mass of workers in this country do not see unions as the solution to their station in life. For 1.4 million workers, employment means little or no control over their hourly schedule – including how many hours they are scheduled to work in a week. It means earning wages just above the federal minimum wage and having no retirement account, paying out of pocket for health insurance or going without, and most likely, putting their kids onto state-funded public health care, food stamps and the like.

This is the new America and this is America’s future unless we collectively decide that we want something different or better.

Wall Street had a collective panic attack at the idea of labor law reform in this country and business interests succeeding in terrifying Congress that giving workers a fair shake at joining a union would signal the end of our democracy.

If you accept that premise, than you must accept that the Walmart employment model is the model that shapes the future for my children and for yours.

The only way to level the playing field – which means Walmart associates need to earn a little more money, they need to have enough to put into a retirement account, they need to have affordable health insurance and work enough hours so that they no longer qualify for public assistance – is to change the rules so that associates can advocate in a fair environment for themselves. And that may mean that the Walton heirs and their collective fortune might have a tiny bit less money. Personally, I think America deserves to get a little bit of that money back…spread down into the paychecks and bank accounts of the 1.4 million workers who ring up the sales and stock the shelves of every Walmart store in America.

Posted by: jillcashen | January 11, 2011 12:50 PM | Report abuse

I think we are looking at this question the wrong way. The Great Depression really did not invigorate the labor movement the way you suggest. The Labor movement has been growing in size and political clout for decades prior to the Depression and through FDR' election achieved political and legal goals they long had sought. Labor did not depend on the Federal government as much as you seem to be suggesting here. It would be more accurate to argue that Democrats and FDR were forced to advocate vigorously for labors goals because labor was such a potent electoral force in America at the time.

Posted by: hebisner | January 11, 2011 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Hmmmm... What could be done about it?

Well, Democrats could actually support Labor! That would be nice, for a change. They like to say nice things to labor, but they have no interest in enforcing labor laws, or allowing labor to organize workers.

Meanwhile, Republicans ruthlessly work to 'defund' anyone that isn't on their team, ACORN (who weren't funded by the gov, but the goal was to destroy private contributions), labor (who is funded by their own members), or any other group that doesn't pay them.

Democrats are not working in their self-interest at nearly the same level. They are good with using gov money to fund the mega-churches in the south, and use the military as a means to force soldiers to believe in the republican form of 'faith' -- which god himself would have abhored.

Eh, you can tell which party has split loyalties due to fundraising.

Posted by: rat-raceparent | January 11, 2011 12:57 PM | Report abuse

--*[U]nions are dying because only certain types of jobs lend themselves to union formation, and those types of jobs in particular are disappearing.*--

There's that, and then there is the simple fact that they've largely priced themselves out of business.

The Department of Labor should be abolished, and the special dispensations afforded unions deleted from the federal register.

Posted by: msoja | January 11, 2011 12:58 PM | Report abuse

"The question is what replaces labor."

Simple answer - Share Holders.

When you have pension plans replaced by defined retirement pension plans, think about how important 'equity holders' will be.

Template - look for how union labor accepted retired health benefits as equity of GM and potentially making on that. (Ezra, you need to do story on that....)

Next, how our today's Robber Baron Capitalism does not allow clear accountability of CEO compensation to equity holder. Former Home Depot CEO Nardeli - that one name should be sufficient. Republicans do not support any of those share holder friendly controls. Obama - what does he know of businesses? May be new COS will help here.

Dividend taxes - can we bring down those to 0 so that all pension holders benefit? (Say up to a certain limit.)

And for Hedge Funds - who would not support 'risk management' enforced by Share Holders on these banks and companies?

Think that. So 'share holders / stake holders' replace Labor in new Century.

Posted by: umesh409 | January 11, 2011 1:59 PM | Report abuse

RainForrestRising, even alluding to birtherism obliquely pretty much totally disqualifies everything you say.

Posted by: MosBen | January 11, 2011 2:22 PM | Report abuse

EK wrote: "A few generations back, Americans knew that organized labor had given them weekends and workplace benefits and higher wages and shorter days."

To twenty-somethings, this might be abstract but it was true. Unions were perceived to help the little guy being held back by powerful moneyed interests. Now the feeling is more that most unions - not all - are primarily looking out for their own members, often at the expense of everyone else (including the little guy).

Posted by: tuber | January 11, 2011 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Agreed, as Ezra notes, there were some pretty major improvements in the lives of working people that were won, in large part, by the Labor Movement. I wish I could say that some grass roots voter initiative would take Labor's place, but the business lobby is just too powerful for that to seem realistic. Like Ezra, I'm hopeful that we get some kind of reforms passed that tightly restrict money spent on campaigns.

Posted by: MosBen | January 11, 2011 4:38 PM | Report abuse

Ezra's basic observation of the divergent perceptions of labor in similar economic situations is correct. Obviously the Fair Elections Act & other measures that would restrain corporate power are needed, but with as much power as they exert on the political system, isn't this a catch 22?

Three observations:
1) Organized labor has become disenchanted with politicians who do not actually legislate on behalf of all workers, so with their diminished power & resources, they have committed again to organizing workers & collective bargaining contracts, which of course only benefit those workers (directly at least - they arguably drive up wages or at least slow the race to the bottom we see now).
2) Systemic reforms that benefit all workers would be demagogued as "socialist" anyway (again, see recent health care reform that did not even have a public option).
3) This would likely be successful at swaying public opinion against such reforms because we do not perceive our position in the economy as being as vulnerable as it has become, with the roaring 90s still in recent memory.

Until the majority of the public perceive what Jon Cohn calls our "shared vulnerability," subject to the whims of the market, as decided by corporate power brokers, we will remain wary of significantly reforms that ensure "shared prosperity" instead.

Or put another way, perhaps this time around the public may feel its economic vulnerability and is reluctant to "bite the hand that feeds us," with regulation, etc. that would "kill jobs," as the rhetoric goes. Sadly, this means popular support will remain insufficient to overcome raw corporate power & $.

Posted by: Trogdorprof | January 11, 2011 4:49 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I'm even more pessimistic, because I don't believe that, short of a major campaign finance scandal, that we'll get any laws that lessen the power of business.

Democrats are just as reliant as Republicans on campaign donations from business, especially as union membership and funds decline, and that influences what legislation advances. Special interests easily torpedo campaign finance reform because that would lessen their influence with legislators. It's also one of the reasons shareholders don't have strong rights, either -- the business community wants their money, not their voice on corporate governance.

Large institutional shareholders, especially in coalition with each other, may have some leverage over business. We're seeing some of these groups flex their muscle in relation to the forclosure mess. Whether they continue such activism on other common issues in the future remains to be seen at this point.

I don't look for help, even from Democratic administrations. Look, for example, at the position Obama took with federal employees' pay.

Unless something occurs that mobilizes a large percentage of the public to take action to rectify this imbalance (such as, a campaign finance scandal that opens the door to broad public financing of elections), I don't see things changing.

Posted by: reach4astar2 | January 11, 2011 5:31 PM | Report abuse

Yet another possibility:

Ezra compares the Great Depression with the Great Recession, but the latter (according to commentators like Ezra) was somewhat blunted from being as bad as it could have been (by TARP & the stimulus), meaning the public was not quite shocked into seeing the clear need for reform.

(See Wellen who quotes Francis Fukyama, Arthur Delaney, and Ryan Grimm on this:

Posted by: Trogdorprof | January 11, 2011 5:35 PM | Report abuse

Just a couple of years ago the discussion was about the coming labor shortage due to retiring boomers. Business have now settled on a strategy of demanding more from workers under threat of being banished to the sea of unemployed. And the more work they get from fewer worker, the less they need to reduce the number of unemployed. Maybe the un and under employed can starting banding together in co-opts to compete with the modern day slave drivers.

Posted by: vmax02rider | January 11, 2011 11:00 PM | Report abuse

We're headed towards a Mexico-like controlled democracy. In other words, 2% elites tied to the military, 10% terrified "middle class" of college educated professionals, and a sea of slaves. At some point, the elites will throw a bone at the poor like some kind of extension of Medicaid/Medicare.

In other words, somewhere between England and Mexico/Argentina.

Posted by: falsedichotomy | January 12, 2011 8:24 PM | Report abuse

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