A great blog post at Decembrist debates the question of whether there can be an effective progressive movement without a strong labor movement (assist from Nathan Newman at Labor Blog). I think Mark Schmitt’s point about the evolution of interest group politics is spot-on and probably doesn’t go far enough. It’s not that there aren’t labor lobbyists crawling all over Capital Hill (see recent overtime vote, in which 21 republicans voted in favor of ditching the new overtime regulations, hoping to get labor support in the November elections), but that the interest groups for businesses and the right have just “caught up” (and probably passed) labor and most of the other progressive groups in terms of their effectiveness. Is labor more effective when it can mobilize voters to go to polls? Absolutely. But in today’s political climate (unfortunately in my opinion) it is Swift Boat Vets, Rathergate, the latest idiotic thing Cheney says, etc. that moves the media and the polls. Moveon.org and other interest groups are where the progressive power lies (funded a lot of times by - you guessed it - organized labor). But as far as a popular movement, unions are by and large not relevant - organizing a union is probably the least effective way to get a workplace problem solved today. The government and lawyers do the heavy-lifting that used to be handled directly by unions. Most people will hire a lawyer if they feel like they’ve been screwed by their employer and a lot of times the employer pays them to go away. This is at least as effective and efficient as any grievance process I’ve ever been involved in, and the employee gets to call the shots and only pays “dues” (i.e. legal fees) if or when she has a problem. It also leaves her free to surf the web to find some group that is more closely aligned to the issues that are important to her. She does not have to give her money to a union, that aggregates its income with other unions and then sponsors all kinds of programs she may or many times may not agree with. The internet, cable television, blogs, etc. have distributed power (similar in concept to Soshana Zuboff’s concept of distributed capitalism). Today it seems like the forces on the right have the upper hand as far as effectively using the “new media” but there is definitely an ebb and flow to this stuff, and I don’t count out the progressive movement. I just wish libertarians could get a little bit of that flow going our way - I think we’re way too distributed for that to ever happen.
P.S. I wrote this post before reading this old post on Mark’s blog - this is my point exactly, lawyers substitute for unions. I couldn’t agree less with his ultimate conclusion, that unions are “more fair” than plaintiff’s lawyers, however. Unions provide their “benefits” as indiscriminately as plaintiff’s lawyers - if you aren’t in a union you do not receive the benefit of membership and are probably hurt by their distortion of the labor market the same way that if you don’t visit a lawyer you don’t receive a benefit for your claim. While courts are not “efficient” by any means, neither are unions. At the same time, courts do “reward” those who deserve it (those who juries determine are actually injured by an employer’s actions) unlike unions, who normally look to reward everyone equally (even those who often don’t deserve it).