WebHot: Why Unions Are Typewriters and Not Laptops

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June 8, 2012 in Labor & Economy

The New Republic’s Richard Yeselson has a perceptive piece on that publication’s website that’s worth reading before our collective amnesia allows us to forget all about Governor Scott Walker’s recent electoral triumph.

Not With a Bang, But a Whimper: The Long, Slow Death Spiral of America’s Labor Movement” is, as you might surmise, another in a series of post-Wisconsin election eulogies for American unions. Yet it’s much more, becoming a meditation on the place unions once occupied in the American imagination, both in politics and pop culture, and how their mention today barely elicits shrugs – even from many union members.

Yeselon likens unions to the typewriters that many writers of a certain age profess affection for but which none of us will ever return to using. “The problem isn’t that most people hate unions,” he writes. “The problem for unions is that most people don’t care about them, or think about them, at all.”

According to Yeselon, the people who passionately do care about organized labor and think about it all the time are the relatively few who hate unions out of financial self-interest, or those whose economic survival (or, perhaps, political nostalgia) compels them to embrace them. In between, he says, are the vast majority of Americans who have had no institutional experience with unions or direct knowledge of how all of us have benefited from their existence – a theme we covered in yesterday’s edition of the Frying Pan.

Some of this phenomenon he attributes to the respective Production v. Service character of unions past and present – i.e., unions of old got people’s attention by shutting down production of automobiles, coal or steel, while today no one would care (or at least, would know) if 90 percent of the country’s janitors go on strike. Most union obituary writers greatly exaggerate the reports of labor’s demise and to our eyes Yeselon, while he doesn’t go so far as to pronounce last rites over unions, is probably a little too pessimistic in his predictions about their future.

The political fortunes of working people are cyclical and to understand them we have to take a long – sometimes, admittedly, a very long — view of history. There are, for example, many similarities between the current health of unions and their dismal state during the 1920s – just before the biggest labor victories in American history. Today’s unions may be typewriters, but working people are not – they will always be needed and, under our current economic system, their exploitation will always force them to fight back for their own human dignity and self-interest.

However, the implications of the state of labor as Yeselson observes it, is that labor’s main challenge is a struggle for relevance in the economy and the public mind. And it may be that the question of reasserting relevance, rather than vote tallies and recalls, should be the measure of the movement in the long view.

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