While awaiting the results of the first round of the French legislative election I want to post a couple of links on last Tuesday’s recall vote in Wisconsin, which I followed somewhat, not only on account of its importance for November and the future of the American labor movement—a pillar of the Democratic party, albeit a shrinking one—but also because I have a special attachment to the state, where I was born and raised to age 12 (Madison and Milwaukee), have visited often in the course of my life, and where I still have friends from the years I lived there. And while it was the state of Joseph McCarthy it also has a progressive tradition—and with socialist mayors of Milwaukee to boot—that I have been proud of (if Wisconsin were to become a red state in a presidential election, I would take it personally). I was clearly disappointed by the result, which was a huge victory for the Republicans and augurs nothing good for the future, but was not surprised, as the polls were predicting it and unions were in the front line. American labor unions are in a steep decline, in case anyone hasn’t noticed, and any victories they win nowadays are more an anomaly than signifying a new trend. Richard Yeselson, who worked in the labor movement for many years, had an article in TNR after the Wisconsin vote on “the long, slow death spiral” of unions in America, in which he observed that
the real underlying story is that unions are losing their institutional legitimacy in modern America. The problem isn’t that most people hate unions. The problem for unions is that most people don’t care about them, or think about them, at all.
How true. I haven’t lived in the US since the early ’90s but began to pick up on this more recently with my American undergraduate students (on a semester or year abroad in Paris). In discussing French labor unions (CGT, CFDT etc), I took to comparing them to the AFL-CIO, partly to put them in a context that would be comprehensible to Americans. Or that I thought would be comprehensible. Some ten years ago, upon mentioning the AFL-CIO during a class lecture, one of the students—from a top-tier Boston-area university, bright, political science major, solidly liberal in her politics—raised her hand: “What’s the AFL-CIO?” Uh, hmmm, o-kay… Since then, when I bring up the AFL-CIO or any of its components (UAW etc) I ask the students if they know what I’m talking about. Hardly any do. And again, these are American college students, liberal Democratic party voters in their majority, and with majors in the social sciences or humanities.
On the same day on the TNR website, William Galston, a DC think tank analyst and Clintonian centrist, had a short item on how the Wisconsin vote signals the “death knell” for public unions. He’s no doubt right. It is too bad, though. In the late ’70s I had a college internship with AFSCME at its HQ in Washington. It was a dynamic, progressive union, though hardly leftist (I personally found it unseemly that its staffers were paid such high salaries, though which were not outlandish by Washington standards). A couple of years earlier I had an internship at AFL-CIO HQ—a three minute walk from the White House—, with its in-house institute that aided fraternal unions in Asia and in close collaboration with the State Department—and whose relationship with the CIA was known (and specifically that of its director, which was revealed in this book—that came out precisely at the time I worked there). Lefty friends ribbed me for working for the “AFL-CIA” and suggested that I may have in fact been heading out to Langley in the morning rather than to 16th and H. How ironic that the AFL-CIO should have been such a target of Republican ire over the decades.
On the Wisconsin vote, the leftist Counterpunch had this interesting analysis, which has been making the lefty rounds. A (lefty) friend in Wisconsin didn’t entirely agree with it
Well, I’m not sure. I think that Democrats and Republicans alike can count on roughly 45% of the vote in any given election. The campaigns are all about motivating their stalwarts to turn out and, especially, to persuade the fluctuating 10%. Who are the fluctuating 10%? I’m not sure I know. Are they the disgruntled working class? I don’t really know. What I do know is that the Democrats made serious mistakes in this election. A drawn out primary took people away from the immediacy of their anger. The unions (the teacher’s union in particular) stupidly endorsed a relative unknown who ultimately couldn’t make it out of the primary. The rank and file stupidly chose the same person who had just lost to Walker in the original election. The party failed utterly to include and motivate the people who had been turning out to the demonstrations in Madison, and thus allowed the fire to burn low. And, finally, no Democrat who had previously won a statewide election chose to run in this one (most notably Herb Kohl, who also has never lost one, and Feingold).
Sounds right to me. I’ll take his word for it.