Why Re-unionization Won't Happen

Why Re-unionization Won't Happen

Matt Yglesias and Timothy Noah are having an interesting dialogue about Noah's new book about income inequality, The Great Divergence. (As are Brink Lindsey and Mark Schmitt at Washington Monthly.) Noah thinks the breakdown of labor unions is to a significant degree responsible for increasing inequality. What's more, "I don’t think it’s possible to make much headway reversing the inequality trend without it," he says. Without re-unionization, that is. Matt seems pessimistic about the prospects of a great American union revival, and Noah really seems pretty pessimistic, too, though he's holding out hope for a few of Andy Stern's ideas and a longshot strategy to "extend legal protections under the Civil Rights Act to union membership." I'm pessimistic, too. In fact, thinking about Jonathan Haidt's moral foundations theory, a super-pessimistic hypothesis about the prospects for re-unionization just occurred to me.


So the point of a labor union is to prevail in conflict with capitalists over the distribution of the surplus from economic cooperation through the power of collective action. Solidarity is the prime union value because the strength of a union rests in the willingness of individuals to join together, potentially at great personal cost, in order to create a unified force capable of meeting head on the power of concentrated capital. What just occurred to me is that this is precisely the sort of thing Haidt's conservative "binding foundations" -- loyalty, authority, and sanctity -- are good for.

In the heyday of unionization, the Democratic Party was full of conservatives. Indeed, the most temperamentally conservative people in America, pro-Jim Crow Southern whites, were a huge and indispensable part of the Democratic coalition. This required that the Democratic Party remain effectively conservative on social issues. As a consequence, not only could conservative Southerners feel comfortable in the party, but so could conservatives in the Northern, urban, industrial hotbeds of unionization. And these are the people--such is my conjecture--who were the muscular beating heart of the labor movement at its height. Solidarity comes naturally to those whose moralities are built on the conservative binding foundations. In-group do or die! Rally around our great leaders! The brotherhood is holy! Scabs are literally disgusting lowlife!

As Haidt notes in The Righteous Mind, left-right polarization was pretty much inevitable once LBJ backed the Civil Rights Act, leading to the great migration of conservative Southern whites to the GOP. This actually took a good long while to work itself out, but at this point folks have pretty well sorted themselves into parties according to moral temperament. The main exceptions are that the Democratic Party still contains a fair number of relatively psychologically conservative African-Americans and Hispanics, as well as a good handful of lower-income conservative whites. And the GOP contains a handful of relatively psychologically liberal libertarian and free-market types. 

The upshot is that an overwhelming majority of Americans with conservative moral psychologies, the Americans best at loyalty, are loyal to the GOP. And the GOP is officially hostile to the labor movement. Which is to say, America's native supply of solidaristic sentiment is now overwhelmingly arrayed against all the pro-union reforms Tim Noah would like to see put in place. Which does not bode well for the prospects of getting it re-arrayed against capital. And I don't think it's going to get any better.

Minorities and low-income Americans offset to some extent the socially progressive pressure of liberal young folk and well-schooled white-collar professionals, but it remains that the Democratic Party is becoming increasingly inhospitable to temperamental conservatives. So those of us with especially strong solidaristic instincts increasingly dislike the Democratic Party, while those of us inclined to like the Democratic Party have relatively weak solidaristic instincts. Finding the idea of solidarity absolutely splendid probably won't cut it.

The bottom line seems to me that any realistic prospect of American re-unionization would require the labor movement to abandon its alliance with social liberals and bid America's nativist xenophobe sexists back to the fold. I don't think anybody's interested in this. So I suspect the future of organized labor will look a lot like the present: sanitation workers and social studies teachers not-quite-viciously fighting America's nativist xenophobe sexists for the right to continue to collect rents from taxpayers. 

A brief history of human dignity

What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.

Credit: Benjavisa Ruangvaree / AdobeStock
Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
  • Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
  • That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
  • We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
Keep reading Show less

Mathematical model shows how the Nazis could have won WWII's Battle of Britain

With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.

Photo: Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
  • Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
  • A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Keep reading Show less

We’ve mapped a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Take the virtual tour here.

See the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.

Photo by Štefan Štefančík on Unsplash
Surprising Science

Astronomers have mapped about a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way, in the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.

Keep reading Show less

New data reveals Earth closer to a black hole and 16,000 mph faster

A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.

Position and velocity map of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Credit: NAOJ
Surprising Science
  • A Japanese radio astronomy project revealed Earth is 2,000 light years closer to the supermassive black hole at the Milky Way's center.
  • The data also showed the planet is moving 7 km/s or 16,000 mph faster in orbit around the Galactic Center.
  • The findings don't mean Earth is in more danger from the black hole but reflect better modeling of the galaxy.
  • Keep reading Show less
    Technology & Innovation

    How has technology changed — and changed us — in the past 20 years?

    Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.

    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast