by Phil Wilson
I’m a big Neil Young fan. I’ve been listening to him since I got my first “sound system” – one of those 1980’s all-in-one turntable, cassette tape, radio deals. The speakers were terrible, but in a weird way that probably made Neil Young and Crazy Horse sound even better. I’ve seen him live several times and whether he is playing a screaming guitar solo (I’m looking at you Cinnamon Girl) or an acoustic ballad, he never disappoints.
At some point I got a bootleg cassette tape of Young playing a solo show in the mid-70s (it’s got my favorite rendition of “Baby Mellow My Mind”). In between songs he’d usually make some quick quip about the song he’d just played or the one coming up. As soon as he finished a song the crowd would start yelling out popular songs they wanted to hear. You could tell, even at this relatively early point in his career, that being a human jukebox was just not his thing. At one point he muttered one of the more important philosophical statements I’ve ever heard: “What keeps you alive kills you in the end.”
Labor unions suffer the same problem today. What’s kept them alive for decades is a combination of historical bargaining units, government monopoly, and political allies that have all realigned in fundamental ways. And that’s causing major problems for unions.
Many see signs that unions are entering a renaissance period, and maybe they are. They’re more popular than they’ve been in decades. They are in the news constantly. You’ve got the most pro-labor President ever (and at this point that’s not a Biden brag, I’d say it’s a fact). And I do believe there has been a general shift in the perception of unions – they are somehow cool again.
But this doesn’t alter the fundamental problems unions face. The vast majority of union dues income still comes from manufacturing, construction, logistics and similar jobs. Even most service sector jobs are in this same demographic swath. But at the top, labor unions are getting further and further afield of the priorities and day-to-day concerns of their rank and file. In many ways unions are completely out of step with their members, the people who fund them and in a real sense keep them alive.
In an interesting article by Mill McMorris, he outlines the major problem. Union leaders generally lean much further left than the members they rely on for dues. And because of their alignment with a political class that has also shifted left, this creates a fracture. It’s killing union membership. McMorris writes:
Oren Cass, president of American Compass, a pro-union conservative group, also links the rise of political activism to plummeting membership. Cass argues the decline of union preeminence in the workforce has led the movement to turn to politics for salvation, in the process becoming “a functioning arm of the Democratic Party.”
“Traditionally, labor’s primary pathway to power was the labor market,” Cass says. “As unions have less and less to do with the economy, they’ve had more and more to do with politics.”…
… “If labor’s view is that the number one priority is to have Democrats in office because they get better policies, then everything will be subservient to that,” Cass says. “Increasingly, organizing is not what unions do — a lot of what is done under the heading of labor is just color-by-numbers left-wing activism.”
Unions for their part are certainly making efforts to turn their attention to grow membership that is more aligned with the progressive ideals of their leaders and political allies. That’s a smart move if it works. But until then they must come to terms with the fact that the bulk of their current members do not support their political priorities.
Nowhere was that more pronounced than in the last two presidential elections. Union members voted against the wishes of their union leaders in huge numbers. In that last election Biden – remember he’s the most pro-union president ever – won union households only 6% more than non-union ones.
One answer unions pray for is the PRO Act, and Joe Biden has made it one of his top legislative priorities. It is reportedly being included in the $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill being pushed through the reconciliation process. The Senate HELP committee is holding a hearing on it today.
But the PRO Act, while providing additional government support to unions, would also alienate millions of people who are currently represented by unions. The PRO Act eliminates right to work laws across the country. However, millions of union-represented employees choose not to pay dues, presumably because they don’t see the value of their representation. Instead of doing the hard work of justifying the dues investment, unions instead will use their government monopoly power to force payments from these workers. My guess is this will cause a wave of decertification elections across right to work states, further hobbling unions as they scramble to replace these members.
Unions are doing all they can to appeal to a new audience of today’s workers, and if they could wave a magic wand I’m sure they’d swap their current membership with workers better aligned with their political priorities. However, they cannot afford to alienate the audience that got them where they are today. Or what has kept them alive could kill them in the end.