(The Return of) Ignatz, by Sam Heldman

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Much discussion within the liberal web the last couple of days about unions, and the fact that they are shrinking, and what a shame it is. Happens to coincide with my beginning work on my small portion of the massive project of writing the annual update to the American Bar Association's treatise on Labor Law; my part is to write about recent changes in the law as to who is an "employee" in the sense of being protected by (and having the right to organize, under) the National Labor Relations Act. Thus giving rise to these thoughts:

1. Yes, the National Labor Relations Board as dominated by Republican Bush appointees ("the Bush Board," in the lingo) is an anti-union Board. Just in the area I'm writing about, there have been various anti-organizing decisions, and there are more to come -- grad students can't organize, disabled people in rehabilitative settings can't organize, fewer taxi drivers and truck drivers can organize, more people are (I predict) going to be held to be supervisors and thus ineligible to organize, etc. All of this matters. I am not saying that it is legally illegitimate in some philosophical sense; it is, after all, what you should expect when you elect a Republican President. This is among the reasons I am so often frustrated when talking to people who say, "I vote for the person, not the party." When you vote for Republicans, you get policies and appointments that (as compared to the policies and appointments you would get if you voted for Democrats) favor owners over workers. Every time.

2. The blogosphere, given the ways in which it is demographically different from the set of all American wage earners, is not particularly well-suited to a useful discussion of why union membership is on the decline, or what can and should be done about it. I don't mean to be snotty, but I'm just saying that there aren't very many grocery store clerks or mine workers in the blogosphere.

3. In my view (and here I give myself license to speak as if I know something that many other members of the liberal blogosphere don't, based on my work experience representing unions and their members), there are two major reasons for the decline in organization: (a) legal, and (b) cultural-ideological. To do something about (a), vote for Democrats.

What I mean by (b), is that we are in an era in which all collective effort has been made culturally suspect. It's perceived as more patriotic, or macho, or cowboyish, to think, "I can take care of myself, and I'm not inclined to take care of anybody else." Working together, especially in the economic side of life, is seen as just a little bit too much like being a commie. This attitude infects employees (who don't gravitate towards unions) and -- when employees do overcome the attitude and do organize -- it infects surrounding communities (making them less likely to support a striking union, more likely to side with the employer). It's the Instapundit-like, Camaro-driving*, style of libertarianism. It is the impulse to say, even when dealing with a boss much richer than yourself, "Because I'm better than the average dude, I can cut my own deal with the boss, and let those other suckers look out for themselves." Now, there is nothing that liberal intellectuals can do directly to convince factory workers in Alabama that this is unproductive thinking. Maybe you can think of ways to nudge the culture more generally towards the understanding that people do more good when they work together. I was talking the other day to a very nice guy who's working on a monument, to be unveiled in DC in the not-too-distant future, to dozens of visionary Americans who created organizations, groups and movements that changed the culture for the better. That will do more for the labor movement than an article in the New Republic.

And let me add, again, that this is not meant to be snottiness towards the liberal blogosphere, especially not towards those who have been discussing unions lately. It's an effort to figure out what to do to improve things, beyond blogging.

* Maybe I am dating myself. Camaros probably don't mean what they used to. Maybe "Hummer-driving"? What I'm trying to get at, is the kind of guy who muses to himself that he probably would have fit in well at a party at Hefner's place back in the day.

posted by sam 8:17 AM 0 comments


Post a Comment

Powered by Blogger


email: first name@last name dot net