With the union movement in decline, progressives need to think about a future without unions, two American journalists argue. However, there is a risk: the left becomes elitist and leaves the field wide-open for a populist backlash.
Mark Schmitt of The American Prospect claims that unions have only played a limited role in the election of Barack Obama (other view here). These days, Democrats would be able to win without unions, by appealing to younger, minority and professional voters.
While Schmitt thinks this is a good thing, he warns that it is also dangerous. “A political coalition that doesn't need Joe the - fake - Plumber (John McCain's mascot of the white working class) can also afford to ignore the real Joes, Josés, and Josephines of the working middle class, the ones who earn $16 an hour, not $250,000 a year. It can afford to be unconcerned about the collapse of manufacturing jobs, casually reassuring us that more education is the answer to all economic woes.”
In a response to Schmitt’s article, Michael Lind of Salon.com raises similar concerns. He says that modern progressive organisations mainly depend on subsidies and gifts. In that respect, they differ from classic membership organisations, where members raise the money and elect their leaders.
Further, modern progressive organisations draw their support mainly from white, high-educated professionals. They may be concerned with the fate of disadvantaged groups in society, but this is a matter of charity rather than solidarity: ‘We’re from Washington and we’re here to help’.
In the New Deal era – the period following the Great Depression – unions and other organisations represented the interests of non-elite Americans, Lind argues. As a result, there was little room for anti-system protest movements. With unions in decline, this has changed. Normal Americans no longer feel part of the progressive movement and are sensitive to the appeals of populists.
While Lind’s analysis is about America, the current popularity of European right-wing populist parties such as Geert Wilders’ PVV may well have a similar background.
If unions have no future, then at least something else should be invented to take their place, Schmitt and Lind suggest. “I can begin to imagine a progressive coalition that doesn’t have organised labour, as we know it, at its core,” Schmitt argues. “But I don’t want to imagine one that doesn’t have [middle class workers’] concerns at its heart.”
Photo Casie Yoder / AFL-CIO