Nelson Lichtenstein: ‘A governor like Walker is completely correct that it’s in his self-interest to ignore public opinion.’
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.
| March 10, 2011; 1:57 PM ET
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