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.