Commentary Magazine


Labor’s Languid Revolt

Organized labor’s ebbing political clout is perhaps best exemplified by AFL-CIO boss Richard Trumka’s plaintive appeal for attention this weekend in the form of an ultimatum to his erstwhile allies in the Democratic Party. In a direct threat aimed at the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, Hilary Clinton, Trumka insisted this weekend that she might forfeit the endorsement of the largest labor union in the United States if she does not show some spine and join with the left wing of her party in condemning the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal. It’s a sad and hollow threat, a “red line” that the union president is likely to regret drawing. The political forces compelling Clinton to be coy about the TPP are far more compelling than anything the AFL-CIO can muster.

Of course, former Secretary of State Clinton has in no uncertain terms already endorsed the TPP. She called it the “gold standard in trade agreements” and argued in her 2014 autobiography, Hard Choices, that the deal “would link markets throughout Asia and the Americas, lowering trade barriers while raising standards on labor, the environment, and intellectual property.” But Clinton began to moderate her position on the trade deal when her party’s vocal progressive elements began to oppose it. Faced with a genuine hard choice in the form of either standing on principle or placating the Democratic Party’s left wing, Clinton has succumbed to paralysis.

“She will be watching closely to see what is being done to crack down on currency manipulation, improve labor rights, protect the environment and health, promote transparency and open new opportunities for our small businesses to export overseas,” read a statement released by Team Clinton when it became clear her support for the TPP might add fuel to yet another 2008-style liberal mutiny against her.

For his part, Trumka remains unimpressed.

“She’s going to have to answer that,” the labor boss told USA Today’s Susan Page. “I think she won’t be able to go through a campaign without answering that and people will take it seriously and it will affect whether they vote for her or don’t vote for her.”

“It will be tougher to mobilize working people,” Trumka added. “It’ll be tougher to get them to come out excited and work to do door-knocking and leafleting and phone-banking and all the things that are going to be necessary if she is the candidate and we endorse her to get elected. It will make it far more difficult.” According to Page’s reporting, Trumka even hinted that it was “conceivable” for the AFL-CIO to withhold its endorsement in 2016 if Clinton did not get religion on free, global trade – and soon.

Trumka’s threat is an empty one. The rapid deflation of the power of the organized labor movement in America is one of the most fascinating political trends of the 21st Century, and Trumka’s halfhearted challenge is reflective of that phenomenon. In early 2013, the New York Times observed that the “contained expansion” of manufacturing in nonunionized states (read: Right to Work) has shrunk labor union membership to a 97-year low at just over 11 percent of the American workforce. Private sector labor union membership has continued to decline over the last two years, and the decrease would be more pronounced if it were not artificially inflated by compulsory public sector unionization.

“It’s time for unions to stop being clever about excuses for why membership is declining, and its time to figure out how to devise appeals to the workers out there,” a distraught Clark University industrial relations professor told the Times in 2013. But labor has responded to this newfound adversity as it always has; by using its remaining influence to compel lawmakers to erect contrived barriers that protect its sway over the American worker.

But much of labor’s leverage is gone for good. 25 states are now without compulsory unionization laws, including places where the labor movement in the United States began like Michigan and Wisconsin. Only the nation’s bluest states continue to resist the tides of change.

Can anyone truly imagine Trumka and the AFL-CIO sitting 2016 out if the Republican Party nominates Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker?  The governor humbled national organized labor by winning two statewide elections even after he gutted the prohibitive power of labor in the Badger State. Would Trumka’s organization implicitly acknowledge its own marginalization by failing to endorse, thereby risking the possibility that no one would care?

“What the labor movement now has to ask itself is: How could it lose three times — in 2010, a 2012 recall vote and now in Walker’s 2014 re-election — to the nation’s most blatantly anti-union governor?” Politico’s labor editor Timothy Noah asked after Walker’s most recent statewide victory. “How especially in Wisconsin, cradle of the early 20th-century Progressive movement and birthplace of public-sector unionism? If not here, where?”

For all their lost influence, the Democratic Party cannot afford to lose labor just yet. The progressive populist backlash to the TPP and unions’ significant campaign contributions ensure that organized  labor remains relevant. But Trumka will find that his attempt to press those advantages labor still enjoys an ill-fated exercise.

The scale of labor’s humiliation is so dramatic that even Trumka’s friends in the Senate have turned their backs on him. “Thirteen Democrats left their base,” he said of the Democratic senators who reluctantly voted to provide Barack Obama with trade promotional authority. “They’ll be held accountable; there’s no question about that.”

Again, Trumka’s failure to appreciate his own tenuous position would be laughable if it weren’t so sad.


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