Forcing the Questions: Labor’s Missed Political Opportunities

Forcing the Questions: Labor’s Missed Political Opportunities

A kind of euphoria surrounded this summer’s UAW picket lines in Flint, Michigan. Nearly everyone who drove past the lines honked a horn or pumped a fist in solidarity; hardly an hour went by without a restaurant van pulling up with a donated meal, and handshakes all around. Drive by a bar, and you’d see a pro-union sign outside (“UAW and Red Wings: You’re Number One!”). Walk past a church, and you’d see leaflets for a pro-union rally organized by the Christian Autoworkers Association (“We Already Have the Victory!”). Flint, it seemed, was where all of America’s missing class consciousness had gone.

In this atmosphere it was irresistible to make hopeful speculations: What if every strike enjoyed community support this broad and this deep? What if every town devoted this much energy to debating income inequality and workplace democracy?

The Flint of this summer provided a small glimpse of such a world: a functioning republic, with engaged citizens who refuse to bow to the will of the propertied. But only a glimpse. Every so often would come some powerful reminder of the real world of 1998. One evening, for example, a striking die maker from the GM metal-stamping center, gesturing at the TV news crews, solidarity banners, and honking cars said to me: “You know, none of this would be possible if Bob Dole were president.”

This point is undeniable. The GM strikes idled nearly two hundred thousand workers and measurably reduced the country’s Gross Domestic Product for the summer quarter. A President Dole would have looked at this scene and, invoking his powers under the Taft-Hartley Act, declared an “economic emergency” and forced the strikers back into the plants. Dole would almost certainly have squashed the Teamsters’ 1997 UPS strike on similar grounds.