Editor’s note: Gordon Lafer and Doug Henwood debate organized labor’s electoral and organizing strategies in the wake of its defeat in the Wisconsin recall, with new contributions from Bill Fletcher and Jane McAlevey, Adolph Reed, Jr, and Mike Elk.
Why Unions Are Struggling
Is it because of selfish, inept leaders, as Henwood suggests—or because of a ruthless right-wing campaign against them?
by Gordon Lafer on July 3, 2012.
My disagreement with Doug Henwood has nothing to do with whether unions should be “sucking up to Democrats” or pursuing “business as usual.” I believe that Doug and I see the same crisis; we disagree about what caused it, and what is to be done.
The loss in Wisconsin, Henwood argues, came about for two reasons. First, elected union leaders act like “feudal vassals”—exploiting rank and file members as “serfs who pay compulsory dues”—so that members themselves are alienated. The fact that many union family members voted to keep Walker in office, Henwood suggests, shows that “union members aren’t even able to convince their spouses that the things are worth all that much.” Second, broader public opinion has turned against unions, which Henwood believes is because “unions …[are] too interested in their own wages and benefits and not the needs of the broader working class.”
Henwood argues that the root cause of the crisis confronting labor unions is unions’ own selfishness and refusal to innovate. He offers a “systemic critique” – aimed not at any particular union practice or leadership, but at the very model of workplace-based organizations that represent the interests of their members. To restore popular support and prevent a future of repeated Wisconsin-style losses, he suggests, unions need to abandon the model of workplace organizing in favor of agitation on behalf of broad social goals like single-payer.
In a time of crisis, it’s important to consider a wide variety of proposals, including this one. But the more one examines it, the clearer it is that the presumed facts behind this argument simply don’t stand up.
Public confidence in unions has declined, which Henwood insists is because the public correctly perceives that unions are selfish and fail to promote the common good. Yet the most important facts at the heart of Henwood’s argument—42 percent of the country would like to see unions have less influence, and only 30 percent want more influence – are a product of the last five years. Another part of the same poll, which Henwood chose not to discuss, shows that as recently as 2006, the proportions were reversed, with 38 percent of Americans wishing unions had greater influence, and only 30 percent preferring less. So something happened in the last five years to turn public opinion against unions. What’s the more likely explanation—that unions actually became more self-serving in the last five years, and the public correctly perceived this? Or that a massive campaign of corporate advertising and right-wing newscasters encouraged downwardly-mobile Americans to vent their anger on unions?