Is there a viable progressive politics that doesn’t hinge on a strong labor movement?

July 20, 2011

That’s the crux of the issue in the “technocratic, neoliberal leftism” discussion by Henry Farrell, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum, Brad DeLong, Noah Millman, and others.

Here’s what we know from the experiences of the world’s rich democracies: Relative to other nations, those in which labor is highly organized are more likely to have an influential social democratic and/or Catholic center-right (emphasis on center) political party, a proportional representation electoral system, well-organized employers, formal or informal-but-institutionalized participation by labor and business associations in the policy-making process, generous social insurance programs and complementary programs to help households that fall between the social insurance cracks, expansive public services, similar long-run economic growth, a fairly egalitarian distribution of individual wages and household incomes, reliable economic security, extensive economic mobility, and generous holiday and vacation time.

Sorting out the causality is a bit tricky, but it seems probable that labor organization has contributed to most, if not all, of these outcomes. If you want progressive policies, the comparative historical evidence suggests it’s very helpful to have a strong labor movement. Indeed, after democracy, it might well be the single most valuable thing to have.

But what if you live in a country with labor unions that are weak, and getting weaker? What if your country is the United States?

You might choose to focus on strengthening the union movement. Or you might seek an alternative view (“theory of politics”) about conditions for feasible and sustainable progressive policy change. Is there any such view? I think so.

Forge whatever electoral coalition you can, including but not necessarily centered on unions. Organize sympathetic interest groups into single- or multi-issue movements and coalitions. Build up a network of think tanks, journalists, bloggers, and other organizations and individuals to identify and expose the strategies and plans of opposing forces. Offer worthy, workable policy ideas and try to get them (or some acceptable version of them) passed when possible. Aim for big policy advances in rare favorable moments and small ones the rest of the time. (Examples of big ones in American social policy: universal public K-12 schooling, Social Security, unemployment insurance, AFDC, minimum wage, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, Affordable Care Act. Examples of smaller ones: Head Start, indexing of Social Security benefits to inflation, EITC (it later got big), expansion of EITC and indexing it to inflation, child tax credit, S-CHIP, periodic minimum wage increases.) If your favored programs work well, people will like them. They’ll therefore be difficult — not impossible, but difficult — for the other side to weaken or remove when it’s in power. This last element of the strategy, avoiding policy reversals, is critical, and it’s aided by the array of veto points in the American policy-making process (though there’s also this).

This is a second-best strategy, to be sure. But in the American context it may be the only practicable one.

Nor is its relevance confined to the United States. Workers are relatively unorganized in some other affluent nations, such as Japan and New Zealand. Even in western Europe, the bastion of encompassing labor movements, its relevance is likely to grow. One reason is the American problem: unionization is declining in much of Europe too, though from a higher level and at a slower pace than here. A second reason is the “postmaterialism” problem: union members may grow less and less wedded to left parties and progressive policies.

Henry Farrell suggests that we “not only need to think about the abstract desirability of a policy, but whether it supports or undermines the coalition that makes this and other desirable policies possible.” I agree. But I’d discourage any sort of rigidity on this. Sometimes good policy might usefully be subordinated to long-run politics, and sometimes not.

16 Responses to “Is there a viable progressive politics that doesn’t hinge on a strong labor movement?”


  1. A great and thoughtful post – just to make it clear that I agree completely on the last point – in a follow-up post I suggest:

    “A proposed policy measure that seems desirable in principle (because e.g. it is cheaper than another alternative) may not be so desirable if it has malign political consequences (it materially strengthens interest groups who have malign long term objectives). This is not to say that politics should rein supreme over policy – it is to say that there are often tradeoffs between policy benefits and political sustainability. As Max Weber says, politicians need to hold the ethic of ends, and the ethic of means in their head at the same time if they are to fulfil their vocation – in this instance they not only need to think about the abstract desirability of a policy, but whether it supports or undermines the coalition that makes this and other desirable policies possible. Sometimes, a politically costly policy measure is worthwhile (after all, politicians are elected to do something while they are in office) – but unless you have some theory of politics, you can’t begin to think about the pros and cons.”


  2. The strategy you outline is roughly the strategy of the Democratic Party and its affiliates over the past 20 years.

    I guess the question, then, is: all-in-all, how do you think it’s working out?

  3. Foppe Says:

    David Harvey also discusses this issue, though from the opposite starting point, in this lecture he gave in Zagreb a while ago: http://davidharvey.org/2011/05/%E2%80%AAvideo-emancipation-from-what-and-from-whom%E2%80%AC/

  4. Foppe Says:

    (The key being on the one hand to use a broader definition of ‘labor’ (food chain workers, transport workers, construction workers) now that manufacturing has gone to china and on the other to set aims relevant to the type of organization you’re setting up (e.g. let construction workers demand better quality, or more affordable housing).)

  5. lark Says:

    Unions reach into lives and households more deeply than the political mechanisms you propose as substitutes. I think the overwhelming and consistent Democratic failure to craft convincing narratives (rather than play rebuttal) makes unions a luxury we cannot do without. You are proposing essentially a whiteboard technocratic solution, massaging political rhetorics into the greatest generality – this has been shown to not work.

  6. Bruce Wilder Says:

    “If your favored programs work well, people will like them.”

    And, if your favored programs are a colossal disaster, and people hate them, then what? Let’s say, you propose a program of financial de-regulation, which results in a huge loss of wealth and jobs and wages for the middle class, and the right-wing response to the catastrophe is an enormous transfer of tax-funded wealth to the financial sector and the richest of the rich.

    The people most hurt by the catastrophic policy are the followers, not the leaders or elite of the society. They are confused about what is going on, about who to trust, about what the right program or policy should be.

    How effective is your Left response going to be without a social organization, to inform, motivate and lead the mass of society?

    Is your civil rights interest group going to ally with a bank to get funding? How about your Social Security group? Go to the Peterson Foundation to fund “alternative” ways to address the Right’s phony deficit crisis.

  7. Doug Korty Says:

    Read Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal and Jonas Pontusson’s Inequality and Prosperity. Race has been the key to the failure of unions and social democracy in this country. Social democracy and unions are the key to any progressive future. The rest is of little importance. The last thirty years has seen the triumph of the Right and increasing inequality, tax cuts for the wealthy and increased military spending. Republican budgets were responsible for 93.5% of federal deficits, 1960-2009. The Republicans learned how to use race to destroy unions and progressive organizations.

  8. Karl Says:

    The arrogance of BOTH sides of this supposed “debate” is astounding. You all assume you are entitled to tell others what’s best for them. You seek to use… yes USE… “labor” merely as tallied votes to “support” your secret schemes of technocratic wonder and meritful glory.

    None of you has the slightest clue about how to give disenfranchised people the power they seek. You really don’t care about that. You care only in top-down implementation of your technocratic, merit-baby agenda items.

    You’re disgusting. And ignorant. And greedy. And condescending.

    I’d like to think you’re all this way because of blind spots, but the positions staked out in the essay above suggest it’s because of massive, overweening hubris. You all think you’re entitled to this perspective you hold.

    What gives you that entitlement? Your consumer buying power? Your fancy college and grad school parchments from elite “institutions”? Your self-impression?

    You’re like human versions of Syrup of Ipecac.

  9. Karl Says:

    and to Doug Korty… quoting PAUL KRUGMAN? The paid liar and shill? Blaming Elephants?

    Holy cannoli. You are a foolish tribalist, and you imagine the Republicans have “forced” Obama and the Democrats to do things.

    “Forced.”

    How hilarious.

    Unfortunately, the hilarity is bleak, ugly, existential humor of the darkest sort, and offers little long-term relief from the flaws in your perspective, or the hubris of the participants in this obnoxious, disconnected, self-impressed-as-superior “debate.”

    Here’s a clue, Doug: Obama and the Democrats are doing WHAT THEY WANT and are not cowed, bent, bowed or shaped by the Republicans. The whole thing is a circus act, and you’re too busy blaming the bears for making the clowns pile into that little Fiat Topolino. Hint for you, Doug… the clowns ALWAYS were going to pile into that little car, and they actually escape through a hatch in a false floor.

    It’s not what it seems.

  10. Paolo Siciliani Says:

    Workers are also consumers, so why not using buyer power to favour those producers that treat their workers fairly. That is to say, it is possible to recreate a labour movement acting from the low end of the supply chain. To do this you need transparency to send a credible signal to consumers who must be able to vote with their feet (like a Fair Trading mark). In the 60s in the US there was something called Operation Breadnasket, the challange is to make it work on a large global scale…..

  11. Doug Korty Says:

    Karl You certainly have a way with words. What exactly are you in favor of?

  12. ohwilleke Says:

    Japan is a quite interesting model as until the last decade or so it was notable for having a very significant private sector welfare state in the Prussian mold, considerable responsiveness to worker compaints through company unions of a type banned by U.S. labor laws, large bonus payments from profits to workers that were not legally mandated, and restrained executive pay. It has also had very good labor market equality for childless women although horrible options in the labor market for women with children.

  13. ohwilleke Says:

    Another thought on a different line. Part of what we lack in the U.S. is not simply unions per se, but intermediate organizations between the individual or family and the state in general. Large organized religious denominations are weaker than they used to be. Political machines with high levels of involvement and some direct social service activity (the ward healer concept) are gone. A lot of civic society has shifted from the active involvement model to the checkbook organization model. Civic organizations like social clubs have been in decline. People have increasingly little time for anything but their jobs, their immediate families, and school. Extended family ties have weakened. We are increasingly unwilling to even create municipal institutions with broad powers for new developments leaving its needs met by special districts and higher level institutions of government. The only civic institutions that don’t seem to be collapsing are the homeowner’s association and the independent megachurch. This conspires to make collective action of any kind much more difficult.

    It isn’t at all clear if the path to resolve that is to fix the state so that it does what the intermediate institutions once did (e.g. as Social Security did), or to rebuild the interpmediate institutions. The latter is less of a clear blueprint than the former, so it gets more attention.

  14. Lafayette Says:

    {Is there a viable progressive politics that doesn’t hinge on a strong labor movement?}

    I suggest you look to Europe for an answer. Union movements show declining numbers, but the correlative support of the public is still very high. I am not sure that factor is of the same order in the US. Too many workers think unions are no consequence until, of course, they lose their jobs.

    There is another major difference with Europe in that it is divesting itself of public owned enterprises where government had a say in matters. So, unions had an electoral pressure to bear upon management far beyond its real numbers since it had public support.

    That too is changing, however, as private enterprise does what it sees fit to do – which means all too often exporting any labor-intensive job to points east. Often merely to survive with the higher EU labor rates. If such a trend continues, indigenous companies will be left with only skeletal distribution services.

    Given this scenario, it is even more important that blue and white collar staff join unions in private enterprises. It is the only real protection that they will obtain in a future where higher salaries, both in the US and the EU, will become more and more indefensible. The pressure brought to bear is not necessarily jaw-boning (negotiating) management, but simply shutting down the business for extended periods of time.

    That is what “kills” a company as customers drift to other alternatives, which management wants most to avoid because those customers do not always return.

  15. Lafayette Says:

    {If you want progressive policies, the comparative historical evidence suggests it’s very helpful to have a strong labor movement.}

    Can’t agree with that, if Europe is any example. I live in France and the French desire to maintain governments that assure that Income Disparity does not grow inordinately is independent of any union movement.

    The EU’s four most populated states all have modest levels of unionization, with Italy at 30%, the UK 29%, Germany 27% and France at only 9%. Yes, the French will descend into the streets to join a union demonstration (of outrage against some government policy).

    But they are not likely to join that union … unless they work for the government where unions are strongly represented.

    Still, the virtue of Income Equality remain ingrained in the population as a cultural attribute. Can one imagine that the French would repudiate its world-class National Health Service? Or that the French would, like the Americans, start at birth to save in order to obtain for their child a decent postsecondary education, which is indispensable for finding/keeping decent jobs? Or they would put an onus on developing an M-I-C to leverage French influence around the world both commercially and militarily?

    Yes, when pigs sprout wings …

    Not even the most Rightist of governments in France would even dare to consider any of the above policy options.

    They are, quite simply, no brainers. They would not find the least respondent chord amongst the French body politic.

    Which means what? I suggest it means the struggle against Income Inequality must become an ingrained social attribute for a country to pursue progressive policies to contain it. Unions are perhaps necessary, but they are by far not sufficient.


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