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Posted at 1:57 PM ET, 03/10/2011

Nelson Lichtenstein: ‘A governor like Walker is completely correct that it’s in his self-interest to ignore public opinion.’

By Ezra Klein

Nelson Lichtenstein is arguably the most influential living historian of American labor. So he seemed, for obvious reasons, to be a good to call today. I reached him earlier this afternoon, and he explained why Scott Walker was right to ignore public opinion, what people miss when they emphasize the importance of bargaining for wages and benefits and why economic downturns have stopped helping unions and begun hurting them. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Ezra Klein: On the one hand, Scott Walker got his bill — or at least the most controversial parts of his bill — passed. On the other, the labor movement is more united and activated than it’s been in memory. Looking at the poll data, Americans have been reminded of what they like about unions, and left-leaning political organizations have been reminded of the ways in which they need unions. So for labor, was this a win or a loss?

Nelson Lichtenstein: It’s obviously a battle lost. But whether the war is lost is another question. Let me make one point: Public opinion does not matter to these Republican governors. When you change the structure of American politics, that will over time change public opinion. If these institutions are destroyed, public opinion will follow. Survey attitudes towards unions in the Mountain states and Southern states and you’ll find that unions are viewed less favorably than they are  elsewhere. So over time, you can’t have a union revival without having some of these structures in place. So a governor like Walker is completely correct that it’s in his self- interest to ignore public opinion.

At the same time, he’s now in a race. This decline in institutional support won’t take place immediately. And in that window, there’s now an energized base that can easily throw him out and throw out some of these Republicans who voted with him. So the race is whether this energy can be mobilized and put to use fast enough.

EK: The tangible outcome of this is that most public-employee unions in Wisconsin won’t be able to collectively bargain. But public-employee unions can’t collectively bargain in Virginia. They can’t collectively bargain at the federal level. And yet Virginia is a nice enough place to live, and the country still stands. Why should I think this is so important?

NL: I spent 10 years in Virginia, at U-Va. And I actually learned a lot about unions while I was there. There’s too much emphasis put on the question of whether workers can bargain for wages and strike. The more important question is whether you have an organization made up of workers who meet by themselves and elect their own leaders. That’s the key to political influence. And it’s why, when it comes to the specific laws, I’m a wuss: Any kind of collective bargaining law is better than none, because it provides structures for workers to get together. That didn’t exist in Virginia, because those structures didn’t exist in Virginia.

EK: The normal story people tell about the growth of unionism in America is that it was substantially a product of the Great Depression. But the Great Recession has been terrible for unions — they’ve emerged as a target, not a solution. Why do you think that is?

NL: The right captured that populist anger. That said, since the ’70s, economic difficulties in the United States have been harmful to the unions and created anti-union sentiment. On the private side, they say the wages are too high and we can’t compete. And the irony is that the smaller the union movement gets, the more it’s hated. If you’re an employer and you’re the only firm with a union when everyone doesn’t have one, you’re at a much bigger disadvantage. The opposition to unionism is greatest when it doesn’t have an across-the-board capacity to sustain a wage level. Add in the general shift of the Republican Party to the right, the end of Republican moderates who were willing to deal with unions, and you’ve also had government become much more hostile unions.

EK: That insight about the difficulty of sustaining unions in a marketplace where many players don’t have them is a depressing one, though. In a globalized world, there’s always a market without unions. So is that just the end of the story?

NL: Most jobs in America are not in manufacturing or subject to international competition. So the service sector, retail, construction — there are a huge number of jobs where international competition has nothing to do with it. The obstacles there are domestic. Labor law is totally dysfunctional. Workers really don’t have the right to form unions of their choosing. So you’re right to be pessimistic, just for different reasons.

I also have a mega-historical answer to that question, though. If you look at the last 150 years of history across all nations with a working class of some sort, the maintenance of democracy and the maintenance of a union movement are joined at the hip. We’ve seen this dramatically reconfirmed in Spain and South Korea and Poland over the years. If democracy has a future, then so too must trade unionism. Sadly, that doesn’t offer much hope for my lifetime. But there is such a thing as conflict between capital and labor.

By Ezra Klein  | March 10, 2011; 1:57 PM ET
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Next: How Grover Norquist makes the case for tax increases


"But there is such a thing as conflict between capital and labor."

It's so funny to see all of the angry right-wing rants on here saying things like "We don't have it as good as you guys, so why don't you just quit complaining, do your jobs, and be more like us". The most obvious retort to this is "I don't want my pay and benefits to go away like yours have". The "capital" end of this always holds the threat of unemployment over people's heads. It is an effective tool made more effective by our insistence that everyone in this country get married and buy a house. But in the long run, the wages stagnate, the debt mounts, the people at the top make more money, and unions somehow take the blame for it.

Posted by: willows1 | March 10, 2011 2:23 PM | Report abuse

It seems to me that the value of unions are to counterbalance the political influence of capital. Without them the pendulum swings dangerously to other special interests.
Perhaps the wisest response is to neutralize the influence of ALL special interests with citizen owned and financed campaigns to improve the possibility of pragmatic, balanced and fair public policy.

Posted by: PaulSilver | March 10, 2011 2:42 PM | Report abuse

As far as Virginia goes, it's an anomaly precisely because it has a multi-billion support system via the federal government (e.g. in the north through the federal bureaucracy as far south as Quantico; and in the southeast the Naval base in Norfolk).

How many other states can lay claim to those conditions? Maybe Maryland, but that's about it.

At least in the present and in the recent past the federal government has made an attempt to attract highly qualified, highly educated talent.

If you had a sustained period though of gutting professional standards (e.g. ala the Bush DOJ), I suspect you would see even greater problems in the operation of the national government.

As far as unionization today v. the Depression a lot of that is a reflection of the "effectiveness" of the bailouts in 2008. If there was a massive collapse in wealth at the top the pain would have been even more intense in the short-term at the bottom of the income scale, but it also would have had an even greater leveling effect at the top.

Posted by: JPRS | March 10, 2011 3:16 PM | Report abuse

Scott Walker for president!

Posted by: JBfromFL | March 10, 2011 3:24 PM | Report abuse

"It seems to me that the value of unions are to counterbalance the political influence of capital. Without them the pendulum swings dangerously to other special interests.

Public sector unions don't counterbalance anyone. The NJEA hacks don't actually care what Walmart does one way or another.

They just raise taxes on the middle class, over and over again.

Posted by: krazen1211 | March 10, 2011 3:34 PM | Report abuse

It is always a mistake to look at the rise and fall of labor's power in a purely economic framework. In a broader perspective, the labor movement gained power steadily on the 19th and 20th centuries as a capitalist response to socialism. The decline of unions can be tied more to the collapse of capitalism's great ideological competitor than to economic trends.

Posted by: kyle12 | March 10, 2011 3:42 PM | Report abuse

The repeated assertion that federal employee unions can't collectively bargain is simply not true. The unions representing employees of the US Postal Service most decidedly engage in collective bargaining.

Posted by: thehersch | March 10, 2011 5:23 PM | Report abuse

I wonder how the "dues collection" portion of the law is going to be implemented? Over the next month will 300,000 Wisconsin public workers find an extra $100 in their pay packets? Will the union bosses be reduced to shaking down the teachers for their milk money as they exit from the schools?
Will the WEA Trust suddenly shrink as school boards make the obvious chioce to buy privatedly managed hmo policies for a fraction of the cost of the union boss provided policies?
Will the Wisconsin Senate dems come rolling back and actually start doing the job they were elected to do.
I bet that a lot of union bosses are updating their resumes... "ah, let's see... humm, Prison guard for a year $50k annually... and then... humm union muscle for 20 years ... humm... $200k plus uber bennies.... looking for $5,000/week, can't read or write too well but can swear up a storm"...
Ezra, enlighten your readers, enough with the union lamentations, tell us about implementation....
Why don't you call up Mark Miller and tell him you are David Koch, that should be good for a laugh. Imagine how it feels to be bought and paid for by union bosses who are just about to lose their cash cow.
On Wisconsin!

Posted by: Cheesy1959 | March 10, 2011 5:52 PM | Report abuse

Here's what you are missing. Governor Walker was not ignoring public opinion-he was ignoring some very vocal public opinion, much of it from out of state. The polls were ridiculous-in some that were sent out, it was easy to vote as many times as you wished. Many, many citizens of Wisconsin support Walker and his efforts to bring the budget under control. We are just not out in the streets screaming or posting hate filled messages on Facebook. I would bet that if there was a vote tomorrow, Walker would win all over again.

Posted by: libby48 | March 10, 2011 5:59 PM | Report abuse

I would bet that if there was a vote tomorrow, Walker would win all over again.

Posted by: libby48

If you can arrange that vote tomorrow, Libby, I'll take that bet!

Posted by: Trakker | March 10, 2011 6:16 PM | Report abuse

What a day!
The Republican senators called the union bosses' bluff. Now the Dem senators are sitting in Illinois because.... remind me again Ezra, why exactly are the Dem senators not in Madison? The entire "Walker won't negotiate!" argumnet is out the window because it is now painfully apparent that Walker gave the union bosses three weeks to make their case, three weeks to shout invective, three weeks to frighten the people of Wisconsin, three weeks to manufacture misleading polls and three weeks to plot their recall election revenge... then he pulled the plug on all this foolishness.
He's some dude from Milwaukee and he just kicked the butt of a bunch of union thugs and big time political operatives... you gotta hand it to the guy and maybe over the next few months, as the "we never sleep and we never forget" crowd gets ginned up, we should lend Mr. Walker a hand.
On Wisconsin!

Posted by: Cheesy1959 | March 10, 2011 7:09 PM | Report abuse

Since when is Virginia a nice place?

Posted by: anaximander471 | March 10, 2011 8:26 PM | Report abuse

Remapping Debate recently conducted an extensive video interview with Professor Lichtenstein headlined "Putting current crisis in labor movement in context." From the interview: "There's not much a 'center' out there, actually…Republicans have known that; Democrats should learn that as well." The discussion included an assessment of the tactics of GOP governors and anti-union allies to set worker against worker, and an examination of whether the Obama Administration has failed to present a robust alternative vision. The full interview is available at:

Posted by: remappingdebate | March 11, 2011 9:08 AM | Report abuse

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