Why Haven't Unions Done Better in the Obama Era?

Published August 29th, 2013 -  - 08.29.131


Unions were central to the election and re-election of President Obama, and to the passage of Obamacare.  But some unions are not pleased with his administration right now because on some important issues, including Obamacare, the administration seems to be working against the interests of unions and the workers they represent.  “We won’t allow this war on workers to stand,” recently charged the union representing U.S. Airways flight attendants, in response to the Obama Justice Department’s attempt to block the merger between American Airlines and U.S Airways.  The Association of Flight Attendants is one of several unions that oppose the Obama administration on this issue.  The unions’ kerfuffle with DOJ comes on the heels of strident complaints by major U.S. unions that Obamacare “will shatter not only our hard-earned health benefits, but destroy the foundation of the 40 hour work week that is the backbone of the American middle class.”  Last week’s Nevada AFL-CIO Resolution provides a full sense of union betrayal on this issue when it states that “the Congress and the Administration have demonstrated they have the authority and power to make dozens of other corrections to the ACA, including taking care of big business and well-paid Congressional staff members, but have yet to provide our unions with any relief to allow our healthcare plans to continue as they have for over 65 years.”

All of which raises the question: Why haven’t unions – though they won victories in 2009 with the economic stimulus and auto industry bail out – come close to achieving the influence and success in the Obama era that they anticipated just after his election in 2008 This is a large question with many components and many answers.  Some intelligent answers to some of the questions can be found in Taylor Dark’s 2011 essay The Economic Crisis and Organized Labor: Resentment Over Solidarity, published in New Political Science.  The essay is unfortunately behind a paywall, but here is an excerpt from the introduction:

The failure of unions to capture the imagination of the public or achieve new gains in membership and collective bargaining during a time of capitalist-induced economic crisis demands explanation.  . . .  Especially when the labor movement is composed largely of public employees and industrial workers dependent on financial support from government for survival, the capacity of unions to gain public support is sharply limited.  Yet, unions can hardly afford to abandon their last remaining redoubts of successful organization.  Unions are thus caught in a downward spiral: forced by reasons of responsibility and expediency to defend their existing membership base, yet condemned to become increasingly unpopular to the extent they are effective in doing so.  While labor’s opponents can go too far, as was seen in Wisconsin in early 2011, and thus engender increased public sympathy for unions, this does not alter the strategically weak position in which unions find themselves.  Although unions did make serious efforts to establish themselves as bearers of a larger public good, especially on economic issues, on the whole they were unable to escape the constraints inherent in their marginalized status as representatives of isolated and highly delimited sections of the American workforce.  In the end, resentment of union privileges triumphed over solidarity with union workers.

Dark’s argument (which tracks this excerpt, but is much richer) mainly explains the continued decline in private union density, as well as the losses that public sector unions have suffered, in the last five years.  It does not purport to explain why the Obama administration has not been more supportive of union prerogatives.  (The point is not that the administration has not been supportive of unions – it obviously has.  But as the examples above show, it has not consistently gone to bat for union interests, as one might have expected from its early rhetoric.)  The answer to this question, I think, is simply that unions, in part because of their weak support in the public, don’t have that much pull with the Obama administration, and (because republicans are perceived as much less friendly) cannot credibly threaten to shift their support elsewhere in order to gain more leverage with the administration.  Dark, who wrote a book on the relationship between labor and the Democratic party, gets at this point a bit when he explains why labor was not more militant during the height of the recession:

Why, then, was labor unable (or unwilling) to stimulate a mass protest movement in the crucial period from late-2008 to late-2010, when conservative forces were discredited and, to some extent, in political disarray?  Part of the answer can be found in labor’s close ties to the new Democratic administration and majority-Democrat Congress. . . . The quality and intensity of these elite relationships, and the tangible and intangible benefits they generated, provided union leaders with a strong incentive to avoid their disruption. An occasional protest against “Wall Street” and the Republicans was acceptable to union leaders, but a militant effort to pressure the Democrats to move to the left was not.

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