Labor in decline

by William Bornhoft


President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address gave the pundits what they wanted; a passionate, unapologetic, philosophical argument for progressivism in the 21st century that would reenergize a century-long debate. As E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post pointed out in a recent column, the framework of the speech was comparable to President Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address, in which the 40th president made a strong case for conservatism, uninterrupted by lofty and idealist calls for bipartisanship. In a similar way, Obama, freed from his seemingly naive goal to create comradery in Washington, offered an unabashed case for liberalism, giving what some consider the most liberal speech of his presidency.  

Yet one of the oldest tenants of the progressive cause, labor and union organizing, went unmentioned. Indeed, it’s hard to find an older partnership in American politics than the marriage of labor and the Democratic Party. Few groups worked harder than labor unions to get Obama reelected.  But while progressivism lives on, the future of American labor in the 21st century is in doubt. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that the share of the work force in a union fell to a 97-year low, as new laws in states like Wisconsin and Indiana have decreased the total number of public sector workers in unions.

However, labor’s biggest loss hasn’t been political, but philosophical. The notion of unions, collective bargaining and solidarity are not readily understood by a culture that, while is evermore connected online, is less tied to their own neighborhoods and communities.

Much like President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition, shared beliefs about government’s role unites the various factions of Obama’s supporters. Yet the America in FDR’s time is much different than it is today. America then was younger and growing rapidly, laying the foundations for the strongest middle class the world had ever seen. Today the nation is dealing with the economic setbacks of a globalized economy and an ageing population. Not only is there vast income inequality, but also growing cultural and social gaps between higher and lower educated Americans.

Weeks after Obama was reelected, New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat argued that the Obama coalition might be “created by social disintegration and unified by economic fear” rather than through a sense of shared values. And that this coalition is the result of “the growing failure of America’s local associations — civic, familial and religious — to foster stability, encourage solidarity and make mobility possible.”

The social safety nets won by the progressive cause are perhaps more necessary now than any other time in our nation’s history. But the battles won by labor, which took place on the streets of every major American city and lead to good jobs and a strong middle class, have all but been defeated. Outside of the halls of Washington D.C. and state capitals, modern progressivism no longer has a strong, coherent message. Occupy Wall Street started out as a sensible protest against inequality and the political influence of corporations, but in no time devolved into little more than a fringe movement objecting to the ideas of business and free markets.

Obama was reelected because he righty believes that America’s hardworking people are still in need on many fronts, in need of things like investments in education, affordable healthcare options, and unemployment insurance.

“The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us.  They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great” he said.

Yet progressivism’s ultimate goal, that of rebuilding a nation that provides economic opportunities to all while protecting those who slip through the cracks, is unlikely to be fulfilled when the nation’s civic engagement levels are so low. Labor unions were once powerful tools for the middle class because they acted at the local level, but because today's culture no longer exists at the local level, workers are much more reliant on getting legislation passed in Washington, which can take longer and isn't as effective in maintaining strong middle class jobs.   

Ultimately, the social and economic security both liberals and conservatives reminisce about is unlikely to comeback in America as it exists today, lacking the necessary ties of community and civic engagement, of which was the foundation for the now nearly gone labor movement.


William Bornhoft welcomes comments at [email protected]