How Labor Advocates Pushed the Democratic Party Left

How Labor Advocates Pushed the Democratic Party Left

The cultural-political influence of unions is rising even as membership declines.

Bernie Sanders answers questions from union members following the CWA endorsement, December 2015.

A few days ago, Matt Yglesias wrote me an email which asked a great question about American politics and the seeming movement to the left of the Democratic Party. In the wake of Bernie Sanders’s landslide victory over Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, Matt’s question seems even more pressing and interesting. With his permission, I quote it below:

What’s your theory as to how the labor-liberal forces inside the Democratic coalition seem stronger than ever (Hillary is now against TPP and facing a fierce challenge from a socialist) even as actual labor unions seem weaker than ever. This is 180 degrees the opposite of the trajectory that I and everyone else were forecasting 10 years ago where either there would be a labor revival (card check, etc.) or else Dems would drift right without an anchor.

Here’s how I responded to Matt, with a bit of editing and revision to convert it from private email prose into something a bit more formal:

One should note, too, regarding the context of your question, Obama’s recent executive orders, which have benefited millions of workers. And, of course, the Sanders campaign. It’s a fascinating thing, isn’t it? I think it’s a case of something about which Marx would have been skeptical: a powerful cultural superstructure constructed on top of an emaciated base which, in turn, becomes grounded in a nascent materiality of its own. Even theorists of the base-superstructure divide like Raymond Williams did not imagine that “residual” cultural formations would influence “emergent” ones without themselves passing through a “dominant” ideological stage—but that seems to have happened here in the case of the “old unionism” presaging a “new laborism” atop a weakened contemporary labor movement. So unions and a kind of union ideology have spawned this laborism even as labor’s own political, cultural, and economic power continues to wane. Unions have succeeded not in organizing a greater percentage of workers into union members, but, instead, in organizing a significant sub-sector of the educated elite into becoming advocates for labor: academics and writers, and the students that become not only academics and writers, but also go on to work directly for unions. We also see this dynamic in the organizing drives taking place throughout the “new media” landscape, something I wrote about in the New Republic last year.

For about thirty years, a goal of the most sophisticated sectors of the labor movement has been to import the talents and commitment of the college educated middle class onto union staffs, and to export, via programs like Union Summer, the Organizing Institute, and organizing campaigns on college campuses, the ethos of unionism to colleges and other precincts of the professional liberal elite. One milestone in this effort, for example was the union-intellectuals conference at Columbia in 1996, for example, which called for an explicit alliance between leftist intellectuals and unions and featured keynote addresses by Betty Friedan, Richard Rorty, Cornel West, and John Sweeney, then president of the AFL-CIO. And this strategy worked! Key thinkers and pundits like Paul Krugman became more interested in unions as a lynchpin for addressing income inequality and, even, as institutions of civil society, being a kind of liberal equivalent to evangelical churches. Lots of public intellectuals, during this period, wrote about labor and union issues in non-academic media.

Meanwhile, college kids, disproportionately at elite colleges and universities, got involved in campus organizing fights and—in another superstructural result of post-sixties scholarship—took leftist oriented classes in American labor history and the social sciences. Yale, to name a major example, became a major venue of the new laborism and continues to send undergraduates and graduate students to union staff positions as organizers and strategic researchers. Both the students and the thinkers like Krugman saw that unions, as an analytical proposition, if not a current reality, were institutions with the national heft, history, and indigenous roots in communities to help ordinary citizens regain some economic and political power. Meanwhile the more recent cohort of college educated (sometimes post-graduate educated) union officials made the unions less parochial, more ecumenical and open to the post-sixties social justice movements—the “race” and “gender” parts of the race/gender/class triad. Unions (some of them anyway) hired more women, people of color, and gays and lesbians. This, in turn, established a deeper connection between unions and college leftism, which encouraged college lefties looking for social justice work after graduation to give unions a try, as opposed, perhaps, to environmental or public interest groups.

So this all became a virtuous circle—college types go into the labor movement, making it more creative, attentive to recognitional issues of race and gender, and more interested in larger questions of political economy. (For a time, the most creative union presidents were, by common consensus, three graduates of Ivy League universities. Now David Rolf, a graduate of Bard, who got interested in unions in college and has an intellectual partnership with class traitor, billionaire Nick Hanauer, is considered the cutting edge union thinker.) This union glasnost, in turn, interests liberal intellectuals, looking for a political and economic mechanism to address wealth and income inequality. The college-educated, union-based thinkers like Rolf and, before him, Andy Stern, are profiled by liberal media and consulted by liberal academics. Young, labor-interested workers in the new knowledge economy, organize their media workplaces. (Note: I am not arguing here in support, necessarily, of Rolf’s or Stern’s ideas and policies, only pointing out how they embody this trend.)

Meanwhile, the ranks of both this intellectual infrastructure (“Krugman’s Army”, as I have called it) and its analogous union staff are being replenished with new college graduates, especially elite schools like Yale, honed by campus organizing battles and influenced by labor-interested professors. All of this is brought to bear on the Democratic Party. Let’s look, for example at the career Ohio senator, Sherrod Brown. Brown has a daughter who was an SEIU staffer. He is also an alumni of Yale, which has seen more labor strife than any other American college campus and, as noted, has produced a large cache of union staff members. Brown has supported Yale’s unions during these struggles. Thus Brown pushes laborism within the party and also in a prestigious “knowledge factory.” Writers and scholars take note of Brown and his efforts and support them. Brown’s influence, and the influence of his left laborism—and, of course, the same is true for Sanders—then permeates thinking of congressional staff, Democratic-related think tanks, and left-liberal social media.

Alas, actual union membership continues to decline. We can’t know if or when that trend will end. But the social ecology within which unions live now has many thriving components that maintain the idea of unionism and, in turn, influence the Democratic Party to uphold that idea. So what we’re seeing—increased support for “laborism” and the ascent of the Sanders campaign without increased union membership—does kind of make a certain structural sense, but it’s certainly not immediately intuitive or straightforward.

Rich Yeselson is a contributing editor at Dissent. This blog post originally appeared at Crooked Timber.