Losing Labor

I shared a lovely socially distanced dinner last night on the patio of two friends, an art curator and a critical theorist. One of the topics we covered was how the Democratic Party lost organized labor. First, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, organized labor counts for only 6.2 per cent of the workforce. Second, the Democratic Party was only able to court organized labor because of a fluke; or, rather, because of the double-tragedy of Great Depression and World War II.

True, in the old ILW and CIO and ILGWU there were militants who knew how to drive issues such as race and gender, but within the labor movement as a whole, they were always a minority. Labor flourished when investors needed labor to flourish, between 1938 and 1970. No sooner had the US dropped its payload on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and labor could once again be counted on to support anti-immigrant, anti-civil rights, and anti-women policies; and join the police in clubbing the heads of war protestors.

This is not to suggest that the left should not support labor. It is to suggest that organized labor has always only reluctantly and only when convenient supported the left.

In a related thread this week another friend reminded me how thoroughly the Democratic Party has abandoned working families. She cited Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal. She went on to detail all of the reasons why working families might support Trump: tariffs on foreign imports, increasing the standard deduction, the lowest unemployment in history. I, of course, questioned all of these. Tariffs hurt working families, the increased standard deduction was a pittance compared to the tax cuts and subsidies for the wealthiest Americans, and the lowest unemployment in history was already trending in 2010, a clear result of the 2008 stimulus package. But my friend then went on to detail how Trump had reclaimed Jerusalem, opposed reproductive rights, defended Christianity, and male-female marriage, all of which, she noted, are popular precisely among white working families.

I might note that these are not issues my friend supports, but only issues that may help to explain why working families feel abandoned by the Democratic Party and why they might warm to Trump.

Both of these conversations made me wonder what it might mean for the Democratic Party to court working families. If it means that the Democratic Party must become more misogynist, more racist, and more jingoistic than it already is, then that does not work for me. If it means that we are doomed to await a Great Depression and world war, that doesn’t work for me either. But, if working families are culturally inclined to be misogynist, racist, and jingoistic, it also might be worth asking whether labor is something the left is ready to court on this grounds. And, yet, without labor, what is the left?

The US 2020 mis-election has brought a lot of this into focus for me. Locally, there have been some very bright spots. Nationally, not so much. The Democratic Party has lost labor. The Democratic Party has abandoned working families. And, quite frankly, when I encounter white working families, their white Christian nationalism reminds me more of members of the NASDP than members of the AFL-CIO. This feeling of uneasiness cannot have been lost on women of color who might find themselves in the orbit of white working families.

Wendy Brown has asked how we might win these white Christian nationalists back. I don’t want white Christian nationalists back. I want communities where white Christian nationalism gains no traction. Looking back to the 1960s and 1970s and faulting Democrats for being Democrats is silly. They never were socialists. They were always in favor of free markets. When in the 1990s they warmly embraced neoliberalism, they were not doing anything but being good Democrats. The question is what do we do to carve out pockets of sanity where white Christian nationalism gains no traction.

I am open to suggestions.

One thought on “Losing Labor”

  1. I agree with everything you’ve said here. Bernie’s campaign was an attempt to court the entire working class with reforms that directly benefit working people like Medicare for all, college debt relief, $15/hr minimum wage, green new deal job creation and more. His massive support during the primaries was encouraging. I think the DNC attacked him to protect their billionaire donors. Too much money in politics. We must make the Democratic Party a progressive party. Bernie started the work we must finish.

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