The Dual Function of Labor Unions
RJ is asking the tough questions:
As someone who is sympathetic to collective bargaining rights, and is happy that unions exist as a strong political force for ordinary working people, I still occasionally have a tough time with the dual mission of large, national labor unions. Can you attempt to make the case for an organization that both (1) represents the interests of workers in contract negotiations with employers AND (2) gives moral and financial support to causes and politicians with platforms that align with the perceived views of their members? I understand the importance of solidarity in avoiding race-to-the-bottom situations, but it does seem that using union dues to support political candidates is, at least, a separate function that requires some rationale beyond “we care about workers.”
I don’t think there’s a great answer to this question except to observe that it exists on a perfectly general level. What’s the case for trade associations? I can’t think of one. If there were some way to prevent large movie studios from teaming up to hire Chris Dodd to mount political campaigns on their behalf, American public policy would improve. But it’s a free country. So insofar as people are allowed to form organizations for collective purposes, they also set about lobbying and propagandizing on their own behalf. In this regard, I actually think public sector labor unions make much less of a difference than their critics seem to think. It’s not like there’s nobody out there lobbying for high and sometimes inefficient levels of Medicare spending. I sometimes wonder what conservatives would say if the American Medical Association renamed itself the International Brotherhood of Doctors or if the National Education Association started calling itself a “professional associations” rather than a labor union.
At any rate given that private sector unions show absolutely no sign of suddenly reviving as a major force in the American economy, I think wondering whether or not it makes sense in the abstract to combine the collective bargaining and political activism functions is a bit besides the point. The question is what ideas can progressives come up with of other models of how to engage people in the political process? What other kinds of institutions can be built? It’s clearly possible to engage large numbers of people in activism around gay rights, or to get abortion banned or kept legal, and we have a large environmental movement in the United States. Is it inconceivable that citizens could organize on behalf of progressive economic ideas outside the context of a labor union?