Election Postmortem: Did the Labor Unions get Taken for a Ride?

By Andrew Kolin | (Informed Comment) | – –

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Labor Unions Step Up Presidential Election Spending,” labor unions contributed to Hillary Clinton at a scale that is without precedent. The article pointed to $108.2 million contributed in this presidential election cycle. These contributions raise questions and are a political symptom of a larger problem for organized labor. One obvious question is, did Clinton’s campaign rhetoric on labor match her record? The largest labor unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union all have endorsed Clinton. But her record is not exactly pro-labor. As First Lady of Arkansas and as Secretary of State, her actions were actually anti-labor.

Given Clinton’s loss, and her inability to attract as many votes from workers as had Barack Obama, does organized labor need to rethink?

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Andrew Kolin, The Political Economy of Labor Repression in the United States

In Arkansas, from 1986-92, as a board member for the retail giant WalMart, she was silent on labor issues and bestowed praise on Sam Walton. She continued her association with Walmart in the 2016 election. In fact, Alice Walton, Sam’s daughter, contributed $350,000 to Clinton’s campaign. Her record on trade also is clear: Secretary Clinton never saw a free trade agreement she did not like. She supported NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and only back-pedaled after Bernie Sanders put her on the defensive in the primary.

The question is, why does labor continue to support Democratic Party candidates who, once in office, abandon or ignore labor? Because labor’s collaboration with the Democratic Party is not a free choice. To explain labor’s ties to the Democratic Party, it is essential to examine the history of labor repression in the United States, the subject matter of my new book, “The Political Economy of Labor Repression in the United States.” Labor’s association with the Democratic Party is the result of institutional exclusion dating back to the Post-Revolution Era. Institutional exclusion from policy-making in the state and economy is produced and reproduced as political and economic elites have established a monopoly over the resources of power. This institutional exclusion is recreated through the use of covert and overt repression. Covert repression is built into the fabric of both the state and the workplace in order to exclude labor from decision-making. Overt repression is publicly expressed through violence and the legal system.

To make a long historical story short, labor only began to achieve a greater role in institutional decision-making during the Depression in the context of the New Deal. At that point in time, organized labor’s collaboration with Roosevelt’s Democratic Party began. In this collaboration labor was, at best, a junior partner in decision-making. The return of the Communist Party and its association with the CIO, fostered a greater role for organized labor in the workplace.

Fast forward: labor anti-Communism, the Cold War and the economy’s downward shift starting in the 1970s limited any gains that labor had made in the previous decades. As the New Deal coalition, which labor was part of, collapsed, and as finance capital assumed a more dominant role, the managerial state shrank as new Democrats, from Carter to Clinton, turned their backs on organized labor. In the workplace, starting in the 1980s, a leaner and meaner version of capital expanded the use of contingent and temporary labor, engaging in strike-breaking, further undermining unions.

The question is: where does this leave labor after this presidential election and in the 21st century? The challenge is for labor to fight to initiate reforms that truly uplift the working class. To do this, organized labor will have to disengage from its current collaboration with the Democratic Party and, functioning as an independent social movement, work toward creating genuine political and economic democracy.

Andrew Kolin is Professor of Political Science at Hilbert College and author of The Political Economy of Labor Repression in the United States

10 Responses

  1. Stephen Hatt

    Labor unions might consider hedging their bets in the future. Why not? A lot of corporations do that. Why choose to put all one’s support in one party and eschew having any clout whatsoever in the other? Of course, it would be preferable by far to ban all such contributions.

  2. Important unions you mentioned backed Hillary. That’s suicide. The SEIU membership voted to back Bernie. Their leaders ignored this and and threw union support to Hillary. It defies logic in so many ways. What are they thinking? They refused the will of their members for one.
    Unions aren’t bastions of free thinkers and establishment buckers. You’d be hard pressed to find even one socialist in the AFL-CIO. They’d probably get fired.
    I thought SEIU was a progressive union until they went Hillary over Bernie.
    When I was a boy unions were everywhere in the rust belt. There was a union section in the Sunday Cleveland Plain Dealer. Gas station attendants were unionized and made a livable wage. Now Cleveland, The Plain Dealer and unions are shadows of their former glory.
    Tell you a secret. Some people who have no chance of being in a union or having a good job resent paying taxes, ect. to pay for benefits they can never have. I’m just sayin’ ’cause they vote.
    If the unions can help those people, the left behind, it changes the dynamic. The unions need to get rid of the expensive suits and get people who will fight for the little guys and girls. If they fight (That means take risks (shudder on 16th St.)) they’ll prosper. The problem with unions is that they got too comfortable. Trumpka strutting around in silk like the Prince of Siam while Rome burns. Union leadership needs new blood.

  3. Asinine.
    Republicans have worked to destroy Labor for decades.

    Yes, Democrats lost the electoral college.

    That does not make them the same as Republicans.

    Democratic policy is far more labor friendly in minimum wage laws, growing the workforce (historically at a far higher rate than Republicans) healthcare and retirement benefits.

    Name just one thing that the Republicans do that benefit Labor.

    • In fairness, it depends on the whole notion of what the so-called proletariat “wants”, or whether that itself is a product of indoctrination. I think American workers were conditioned to want money, and European workers were conditioned to want power. The AFL-CIO and Democratic Party were glad to go the way they did. The Left is just as arrogant as the neoliberals when it claims that only it understands what the workers “want”, or that the workers are even a unified class beyond their ethnic and parochial divisions. We’re trapped in a long cycle: whenever our workers get organized, they temporarily get leverage for wages that get them out of poverty – but that causes the next generation of workers to be rapidly co-opted by bourgeois temptations, which castrates their unity, and then the bosses blame economic stagnation on “inferiors” and “parasites”, and half the workers agree and turn on the other half, plunging us back into the 19th century.

      Now I think we’d be better off if the workers had as much class consciousness as the elites obviously do. But then we’d be better off to have direct democracy instead of representative democracy. We don’t know how to organize either.

  4. The next labor movement, if it ever happens at all, will be organized by Latinos. In the past we had WASPy, guild-based unions that failed to accomplish anything until heavily-immigrant radical unions like the CIO and IWW put the fear of God into the bosses. Only Latinos are in the right position now to do likewise, and only if the supposed re-industrialization of America actually gets anywhere. But that very fact will make it easier to race-bait the movement.

  5. Dear Rabbit. I agree with much of what you stated. The historical issue for Unions and Labor has been and continues to be Institutional exclusion in the state and the economy. Since the New Deal when labor had a greater political presence were at best able to assume a minor role in policy making and through legal means-such as collective bargaining limited in making more radical demands. As I argued in my book , the solution is Economic Democracy Respectfully Professor Kolin

  6. Dear Mr Gurley With the exception of Cultural issues -Abortion and Gay marriage ,by in large the Democrats on Class based politics are aligned with the Republicans. Whether it is Free trade, Bank bailouts, Going to War the same as the Republicans. Respectfully Professor Kolin

  7. Dear 390 . in looking at the history of American Labor for much of the 19th and into the fourth decade of the 20th century ,the violent repression of American labor was more intense than their European counterparts. If Labor is to overcome it;s alienation an essential goal is to overcome economic and political elites monopoly over institutional decision making. Respectfully Professor Kolin

  8. They may have been taken for a ride, but the fact that the Republican party’s pushing of so called “Right to work” laws has been instrumental in curbing unions power. With the Trump administration you can expect more on a nationwide scale.

  9. Dear Mk Keep in mind BOTH Parties are not Pro labor. It was the neo -liberalism of the Clintons and Obama which undercut the u.S. industrial base .The bank bailouts were supported by d’s and r’s. Professor Kolin

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