The Democrats still need the unions

February 28, 1994|By Robert Kuttner

AT THEIR annual winter board meeting last week, America's unions emphatically mended fences with President Clinton and the Democratic Party. Concretely, they voted to put an unprecedented $10 million into Mr. Clinton's campaign for universal health insurance and to mobilize rank-and-file support. And they will resume their customary contributions to Democratic fund-raising operations.

With a handful of exceptions, labor will also work to elect and re-elect Democrats to the House and Senate. All of this, despite the drubbing and tongue-lashing organized labor took from the Clinton administration on NAFTA.

In return, the unions hope that the administration, which also wants to mend fences, will work for such labor goals as legislation banning permanent firing of strikers, strengthening occupational safety and health laws, raising the minimum wage, increasing funds for retraining and enabling workers to freely vote for union representation without risking being fired. It remains to be seen what the administration will deliver.

One can view these developments cynically or hopefully. The cynical view holds that unions had nowhere else to go, and that in any case labor is just another self-serving interest group.

This is very much the view of the center-right Democratic Leadership Council, whose leaders argue that the labor movement is a political dinosaur; that it stands for class warfare; that it has too much influence in the Democratic Party; and that this influence scares away suburban and middle-class swing voters.

The DLC endeavors to find issues where the Clinton White House can distance itself from the unions. An oft-heard maxim at DLC events is: "Sometimes, you need to pick a fight." DLC leaders were overjoyed not only that NAFTA passed but that labor was bloodied in the process. This view of the labor movement as the Democrats' albatross is not limited to the DLC.

Let me offer a different view, one that is rather unfashionable. From my experience, unions contribute a great deal to the two-party system, of which money is the least part. Labor remains the most potent counterweight to the increasing intellectual, ideological and political dominance of organized business and concentrated private wealth.

In several recent conversations with progressive political organizers, partisan and otherwise, I asked: When you work for candidates or issues in generally conservative places, where do you start? Where do you find a base to build on?

The answer, of course, was "the unions." As anybody in politics knows, unions contribute not only money but also phone banks, organizers, volunteers and institutional memory -- and generally to progressive candidates and causes.

AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland likes to show visitors a framed set of pens sent by Lyndon Johnson at the end of his term of office, commemorating the landmark Great Society legislation that labor worked hard to help enact. These laws included the three great civil rights acts, Medicare, federal aid to education, Head Start and other anti-poverty initiatives; significantly, they did not include any "labor" laws in the narrow sense.

More subtly, unions engender a community-mindedness that offsets the radical individualism and egoism so characteristic of this political era. Political scientists can demonstrate that if you compare union members and non-members of the same income, social class and occupation, the fact of union membership accounts for significant differences in values and voting propensities.

To put it bluntly, socially conservative white working-class males are much likelier to have a reactionary set of values if they are unaffiliated with unions. They are more likely, for example, to blame their economic vulnerability on blacks, immigrants or foreigners rather than on economic conditions; more likely to bash gays; less likely to accept women's rights and aspirations.

This dynamic also helps explain why parts of the country with right-to-work laws and weak labor movements often elect Democrats who are scarcely different from Republicans. A Democratic candidate from most of the South, much of the Southwest and the Rocky Mountain states is typically as close to organized business as the Republican candidate -- because business dominates the political landscape. The Democrat may be more liberal on civil rights and the environment. But on taxing, spending and regulatory issues the Democrat is likely to be center-right because there is no organized constituency to his left.

Labor invented the first PAC, the old CIO political action committee. But for more than a decade most of the growth in PAC money has been on the business side, as has been the growth in lobbyists, think tanks, and political journals. A generation ago, when unions were much more powerful and when business had not yet mobilized its latent political power, one might have legitimately argued that labor had too much power. Today, the balance has tilted the other way. The business forces arrayed against Mr. Clinton's health reform, to take one example, will likely outspend the administration's allies by at least five to one.

Occasional warts and all, unions are among the few progressive groups in society that can mobilize the power of ordinary people to balance the concentrated power of wealth. Their natural ally is the Democratic Party, and vice versa. Let's hope the fence stays mended.

Robert Kuttner writes a column on economic matters.

tTC

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