Why American Unions Need Intellectuals

Why American Unions Need Intellectuals

Sixty years ago, in The New Men of Power, C. Wright Mills made a perceptive observation about the troubled relationship between labor leaders and radical intellectuals during an era of cold war militarism and conservative advance. Wrote Mills:

To have an American labor movement capable of carrying out the program of the left, making allies among the middle class, and moving upstream against the main drift, there must be a rank and file of vigorous workers, a brace of labor intellectuals, and a set of politically alert labor leaders. There must be the power and the intellect.

It did not happen. Labor leaders soon became entrapped within a stultifying bargaining regime, and the “working class” failed to fulfill its radical destiny. As for the intellectuals, they found careers and rewards aplenty in the mid-century academy. Indeed, Mills himself soon abandoned what he came to call “the labor metaphysic” and launched a provocative quest for a new set of actors who might transform America and the world.

But today union leaders and intellectuals are more entangled than at any time since the 1940s. If one has a generous definition of “intellectual,” it is easy to find lots of students, academics, researchers, journalists, and writers, many of radical pedigree, working in, around, and for the U.S. labor movement. Unions have long sought help from high-profile outsiders in support of their strikes, bargaining agendas, and political objectives, but today these connections have grown so dense that some of these figures, many pro-labor academics, now find themselves enlisted, at times even drafted, into the disputes that have recently wracked some of the nation’s key unions. Not since the early cold war split the labor movement and divided American liberals have otherwise independent writers and academics played such a public role inside the labor movement.

Two years ago, top officials at the Service Employees International Union, perhaps the country’s most influential trade union, organized a conference call with more than two dozen academics to explain why a dissident California local, United Health Care West, posed an obstacle to the national union’s health care organizing strategy. In response UHW reached out to its own group of professors, and when they signed on to a letter of support, UHW spent several thousand dollars to publish it as an advertisement in theNew York Times. In this dispute both sides also posted advertisements and Web links on Talking Points Memo and at the Huffington Post, blogs with plenty of liberal readers but that spend little energy covering union affairs.

Meanwhile, in the recent dispute that has divided UNITE-HERE and also pitted ...