A Public Service Message from the American Income Life Insurance Co.Waco, TexasBernard Rapoport, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer Unions, Economic Power, and the State By Robert Kuttner This is one of the finest essays on unionism that I have ever read. The Winter 1986 issue of Dissent edited by Irving Howe and Michael Walzer published Mr. Kuttner’s copyrighted article, and it is reprinted here with their permission. This is the first installment in the series. Observer readers wishing free copies of the complete essay should write to me at American Income Life Insurance Company, P.O. Box 2608, Waco, Texas 76797. Bernard Rapoport Labor unions, most progressives believe, are essential institutions of a democratic industrial society. Particularly in the social democratic model that emerged after World War II unions played a crucial, dual role. First, of course, unions served as direct instruments of industrial democracy. They fought to democratize the one major institution of modern society to which the revolution of democratic citizenship never extended the workplace. In the terminology popularized by Richard Freeman and James Medoff, unions enhanced not only workers’ bargaining power over wages but also workers’ collective “voice.” Second, and just as important, unions served as. a prime constituency for a social democratic conception of society, whether that conception was explicitly socialist or reformist. The labor movement sought not only gains for organized workers but embodied a broader moral authority as the advocate of society’s nonrich, as the constituency for universalistic social insurance, fullemployment policies, and distributive justice. Politically, the unions served as the most loyal voting-bloc backing and financing for the left-of-center party, and as an ideological counterweight to both the claims of the market and the influence of capital in a political democracy whose economic institutions remained fiercely capitalist. The role of unionism, both in the workplace and in the larger society, has never quite received adequate notice in democratic theory. Most of the attention paid unions, in scholarly and in ideological literature as well as in the public mind, emphasizes unions simply as interest groups, not as servants of democratic aspirations or forces to counterbalance the political influence of capital in a market-oriented democracy. In the 1980s, unions find themselves in a terrible. quandary. The more severely they are undercut, the more difficulty they have playing their outward-looking role as vehicles of democratic citizenship; the weaker they become, the more they look like just another narrow interest group. To continue to play their broader role, unions desperately need to regroup and recast a grand strategy, for it is evident that the conception of unionism operating in America since the 1930s is in deep trouble. And if unions are in trouble, then a democratic left politics is in deep trouble, too. My main purpose here is not to go into great detail about the travails of the labor movement, which I have done elsewhere \(see “Can Labor Lead?” New Republic, recovery, with particular attention to the role that might be played by the state, in a future progressive national administration. Let me begin, however, by recapitulating labor’s impasse. Unions throughout the industrial West are facing declining membership, a context of high unemployment and rapid industrial transition, and diminished public support for their moral authority. They are increasingly seen as a selfish special interest, retarding industrial innovation, serving only union members rather than the wage-earning citizenry in general. As the unions become more isolated, and necessarily more inward-looking, the perception becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. The situation of unions is particularly grim in the United States, for a variety of reasons. Unions in America are concentrated in older manufacturing industries and in the public sector. Thus a period of rapid industrial transition means not only distressing personal dislocations for individual workers and communities but a transition from union to nonunion work forces. The understandable instinct of individual workers to resist industrial rationalization is offset in many countries abroad by creative retraining and labor-market policies. In America, labor’s instinctual defensiveness is reinforced by the reality that every shift from low-tech to high-tech, or from industrial to service sector, not only dislocates individual workers but depletes the unionized share of the work force. Obviously, the long-term solution to this isolation is the old CIO slogan, “Organize the Unorganized.” If service and high-tech workers were unionized, industrial transitions would still be disconcerting to individual workers but not devastating to organized labor as a movement. But here unions find themselves up against a decade-long tilt in the structure of labor law against unions and in favor of management, combined with a new militance on the part of business. In effect, the penalties for harassing or firing workers who sign union cards have become so light and the delays so long that the Wagner Act and the National Labor Relations Act are on balance, impediments to union organization. The social contract that began in 1935 has in effect collapsed. Under that social contract, as legislated by the Wagner Act, enforced by the militance of industrial unionism, refined by wartime labor-management collaboration, and then reined in by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, 22 MARCH 21, 1986
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