The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Union Fear, Betrayal, and Decline

Strikes involving more than 1,000 workers

Strikes involving more than 1,000 workers

The 2008 primaries were a lesson to me. Neither Clinton nor Obama were particularly pro-union, but they received many of the union endorsements. I remember in particular the firefighters, who didn’t endorse any of the big three (Clinton, Obama, Edwards), but endorsed Dodd, whom they knew had no chance of winning. I called them on it and was told by their media guy that it was a case of true belief.

The other candidate they had been considering was Edwards, who actually had a chance of winning the nomination.

The thing about Edwards is that in order to win the nomination he needed the unions; it wasn’t going to happen otherwise.

He didn’t get enough of them and he lost.

Obama won and the unions didn’t get their number one priority: card check union certification.  One can argue it wasn’t doable, but there was never any sign it was a priority for Obama.

Why should it be? He hadn’t needed the unions to win, he had just needed them not to coalesce behind another major candidate.

Edwards, having won, would have owed his victory to the unions and he would have known it.  You dance with the one who brung you, as Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulrooney once remarked.

Obama spent his first four years largely ignoring unions. One he didn’t ignore was the teachers union. Instead, the Obama administration acted very favorably towards the idea of charter schools (the bulk of the research shows that charter schools perform slightly worse than public schools). So, before the deadline for nominations of democratic primary nominees for the 2012 election, the teachers national decided to support a primary candidate to send a warning shot across Obama’s—no, they didn’t do that. They endorsed him pre-emptively.

Unions are risk-averse. Extremely risk-averse. They have spent the last 35 years in decline (since 1980) and, as a group, they never make any serious attempt to make up lost ground. Internally, too many of them acquiesced to and negotiated for two-tier contracts, which favor older workers over newer ones, and split union solidarity.

They are unwilling to take a run on anyone who might actually help turn their situation around.

I was reminded of this by the way Rahm Emanuel has retained much union support in Chicago. Some unions were heavily behind his challenger, Jesus G. Garcia, but many have backed Rahm. As a result, Rahm is almost certainly going to win (unless the polls are way off). Rahm was terrible, especially for the teachers (who, to give them their due, are fighting him, hard), though he did throw some scraps to a few unions.

Still, again, Garcia would owe the union movement his victory if he won and there’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t act on that debt. Rahm, on the other hand is the status quo—slow (and sometimes not-so-slow) decline.

If you won’t fight when your life is on the line (and card check was and is an existential issue for unions), then you will die. Unions have chosen, again and again, not to fight, or, more accurately, enough of them have chosen to collaborate. The first, second, and last rule of unionization is solidarity. Union members must negotiate and fight together and so must unions. Their failure to do this internally or externally is why their decline continues. It will continue, virtually irreversibly, until they learn two elemental lessons:  1) act with solidarity and; 2) never collaborate with your oppressors.

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Rahm’s Win in Chicago: Does It Say Something About Americans?


  1. Pathman

    The formation of unions as I see it is another way to divide people. One set of lucky people get the benefits of organizing and another significant set of people are left out. I used to be a union member and understand the positives and negatives of membership. How to we get everyone acting together in the best interests of everyone?

  2. nihil obstet

    A man in a union job is almost certainly significantly better off than most of his neighbors. He has stronger job security, better benefits, and higher pay. He is therefore very susceptible to the right wing message, “you earned it, and those liberals want to take it away from you and give it to the undeserving.”

    I guess it’s a failure of our educational system. That’s not just schools, but also organizations that once gave members some sense of trying to understand the purpose and structure of society. Many people act in politics as though they’re standing in a big box store — the store just magically appears, the goods just magically appear . . . . The only human decision is my choice of which item to buy, based on its sale price.

  3. eugene

    With the teachers unions, it goes well beyond their uncritical support for Obama’s re-election. The AFT and NEA both signed on to education reform policies that were primarily designed to destroy teachers unions. This collaborationism deeply alienated their membership and emboldened the “reformers” to launch bigger attacks on the unions. Both AFT and NEA have started to back away from that collaborationist stance, but both still support annual high stakes testing as part of NCLB reform – suggesting that they remain determined to collaborate with their mortal enemies.

    We should also point out that this problem is much, much worse at the state level. Union leaders preferred to cut deals with corporate Democratic governors rather than build a progressive movement. By supporting those types of Democrats, who voters in the states do not want or like very much, they opened the door to the Tea Party victories of 2010. Unions in Wisconsin and Michigan, and now in Illinois, are now suffering the predictable results of their earlier failure to build a progressive alternative to bad Democrats.

    SEIU is by far the worst actor here, and the damage Andy Stern has done to the labor movement and to progressive politics is incalculable. While Stern is no longer in charge, his acolytes still run the International as well as most of the big locals in the states. Stern’s policies have been imposed on the rank and file, often by eliminating the elected leadership in the locals. Stern was focused on cutting deals with corporate management and actively disdained grassroots progressive activism.

    The US labor movement continues to self-destruct, with terrible consequences for our country.

  4. Doc

    “Unions are risk averse”

    You kidding me?

    Their entire existence is because of risk. Risk of life and limb of their members.

    If they can”t handle risk, then they deserve to cease to exist.

  5. ekstase

    Divide and conquer, psychologically, is such a simplistic tactic. Once people see it, that this is what is being used on them, they can defeat it. I know there are many complicated aspects to political issues, but this technique? A group of nine year olds can beat it. Have hope.

  6. The Tragically Flip

    As Atrios remarked, in Chicago there’s no “lesser evil” excuse, Rahm is the greater evil. No left wing group needs to support him in order to ward off some worse right wing person being elected.

    But I guess they fear his reprisals. It’s a collective action problem. If any other union bolts on him, probably he’ll still win and then when he’s done with the teachers, he’ll go after them too. They’d all have to bolt on him, but like you note, they seem unable to work together.

    So even in the absence of a plausible win by a full fledged conservative, the neoliberal will win over the progressive. What a fucked system.

  7. Doc


    Sorry, found the error in your formulation, “once people see it”.

    With people’s heads buried in their electronic devices, they wouldn’t see a bus headed their way.

    The current generation of lemmings will never “see it” before they step off the cliff.

  8. Tom

    In other news:

    Islamic State did much better this winter campaign. In 2013/2014 they had been evicted from Lataika and Idlib and were fighting for their life in Raqqah.

    Jan 2014!Syrian_civil_war.png

    March 2014!Syrian_civil_war.png

    Oct 2014!Syria_and_Iraq_2014-onward_War_map.png

    Current as of today, not counting Nigeria or Libya

    Things that stand out.

    ISA is not declining in relative power, if anything it was able to ride out the storm of retaliation and let outliers absorb all the fury while they attritted their foes.

    The Kurds are steadily losing combat power and having to be bailed out more and more by coalition forces, especially YPG which lost 4,000 dead in Kobane, we know this because ISA photographed the bodies with their YPG IDs and the FSA had to carry the counter attack out.

    Watching the maps have revealed steady but permanent Kurdish Territorial Losses because they despite their propaganda are poor fighters utilizing human wave assaults in YPG’s case, or in KDP Peshmerga’s case fight like Americans without the American’s massive air and artillery might and prefer to fight set piece battles rather than mobile warfare. ISA has exploited that by hitting KDP’s rear troops and ripping their supply lines up. PUK Peshmerga is a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran and lacks troops.

    End result is ISF/Shia Militias are increasingly having to take over Peshmerga positions and take ground back because the Peshmerga aren’t willing to die in large numbers to win while the Shias are.

    YPG is having manpower issues, it is increasingly using child soldiers and females which is stupid and causing civilians to move to Turkey. Its advances are gained in blood and massive US or Syrian support without which they can’t advance, and even with they still keep getting suckerpunched by ISA which contrary to what we think is not fighting for cities, though they’ll take them if they can nab them, ISA is going after its opponent’s forces and population.

    Viewed in that light, Kobane was a disaster for YPG, 4,000 killed, 8,000 deserted or too wounded to return to the fight, 350,000 potential recruits fled to Turkey and 100,000 still under ISA rule. YPG also lost its fall drug crop, 90% of its heavy equipment, all its factories captured and/or destroyed, it silos looted and destroyed, Kobane City unlivable, and the refugees unwilling to return. In exchange ISA cleared the west bank of the Euphrates and secured the Tishrin Dam completely for the loss of 1,489 dead, 2,507 wounded, 9 tanks total loss, 68 technicals and humvees, and 19 field pieces. All of which they have made good and they still are in a position to finish the job.

    Likely course of events:

    ISA focuses on Deir Ezzor pocket to reduce it primarily. Assad’s best general and best fighters are stationed here and if it falls ISA has an uninterrupted supply line to its Anbar Province Fighters in Haditha, rendering it indefensible.

    As backup, ISA will seek to destroy Assad in Hasakah City before pushing on Qamishli to wipe out Assad’s Northern Airforce there. They achieve this, YPG goes down hard. SAA Artilery and Tanks are more to thank for their salvation than US Airpower which are pinpricks. Sustained Artillery fire is the real killer for ISA.

    To the south, ISA will continue to attrit SAA forces around Palmyra which if defeated gets their hand on the throat of Damascus and cripples the Syrian Airforce whose T4 Base is their largest and most equipped.

    In Damascus its too early to tell if ISA’s forces there are the real deal, a diversionary force, an advance guard, or all at once.

    In Hama, ISA is seeking to force a SAA withdrawal from Salamiyah.

    Aleppo, so far ISA is just digging in and probing. as long as Kobane canton exists in their rear they really can’t risk a big move till FSA and YPG forces are cleared fully.

    Iraq, they’ll hold Sinjar and Mosul in the North and just atrit until they can get a fluid fight.

    In Anbar, they’ll focus on the Euphrates River and raid.

    The main goal in Iraq is to keep Iran tied down so it can’t intervene in force in Syria.

    Libya and Nigeria have to fend for themselves as far as ISA leadership is concerned and its other forces aren’t really taking ground so much as organizing still.

  9. The Tragically Flip:
    That’s just the thing. If all the unions had solidarity they could defeat Rahmbo. He’s that cartoonishly evil, and everyone knows it despite all the money he’s spent. Yet someone unions would rather stick with him, why? There are some other issues in Chicago too.

  10. Robert

    Another big problem unions have is that here in the SE USA most working class folk hate them. It’s the damnedest thing really.The SE USA wanted to be a country to itself and maybe should have been, as is it has been this wierd third world country within a country. Of course now the whole USA is undergoing dixiefication thanks to neoliberalism. There is even a nationwide version of the new slavery thanks to Unicorp , which may even be worse than the slavery of the Antebellum Southeast and Mid Atlantic in some ways. Thing is when I listen to people and what they say I often wonder if many people deserve better; it seems the greatest pleasure and motivation in life for many is schadenfreude of the vilest sort.

  11. Ron Wilkinson

    Anyone who thinks trades or government workers do not need unions needs to seriously reevaluate that idea. Employers or the government will only give what they think they can get away with in a union negotiation or employee by employee. The market never favors labor even when labor’s tight.
    For better or worse unions are necessary. I agree that the unions can be tentative and even self defeating politically or they can make tactical mistakes. They deserve criticism and push back if they make mistakes.
    I went through the break up – shrinking of the building trades in California in the 80s. The different trades did cut each others throats. They could not deal with the Taft Hartley act and did not convince members to back up brother unions.

  12. Tom

    Situation in Damascus is getting more interesting. IS fighters are now seizing the Yalda Orchards, has all of Yarmouk Camp, and Hajar al-Aswad under their control now.

    Still too early to tell where this is going, but if Rebel Rumors are true that Assad let them in, Assad apparently did not think that through. Unless he secretly plans to declare himself a Sunni, that he believes in Baghdadi, et al, in which case I give up and will just go meh.

    Also new interesting rumor are coming out of Turkey and Iran discussing a carve up of Syria and Assad’s ouster for a more pliable Shia leader for Southern Syria with Tartus Hama, Homs, Suwayda, Damascus, and Daara Province being an Iranian puppet, and the rest being a Turkish Puppet ruled by FSA which is mostly subverted by JAN.

    I doubt it would work, because Iran doesn’t want Syria divided, but I do see a possibility of them agreeing to remove Assad, eliminate YPG/PKK, and form a joint puppet state that serves Iran’s strategic interests and Turkey’s economic interests.

    Regardless who wins the Kurds are screwed.

  13. Tom

    On Unions:

    Forget them and go for Worker co-ops.

    Tell businesses they must make their employees the only voting shareholders, outside shareholders who do not work in the company get no vote.

    Net require all businesses to elect managers from experienced floor workers. No more hiring outside LBO hacks. The managers and CEOs must have worked in the company for a set number of years and be elected by the workers who know and trust them not to screw the fuck up.

    Likewise for companies that build things like planes, cars, trains, weapons, space vehicles, etc. The top managers must have a relevant engineering degree to hold the post, otherwise they are not eligible to do so.

  14. The Tragically Flip

    @Tom: “Forget them and go for Worker co-ops.”

    In an environment of weak unions, how do you expect to get the political sway needed to do this?

  15. Tom

    @The Tragically Flip

    Grassroots. If people are too stupid to grasp it, then they deserve to fall, this nation deserves to fall, and enter the dust heap of history as another example of Civilizations that failed to save themselves from the problems they knew they had because they didn’t want to give up a tiniest bit of their self-delusions to save their lives.

  16. JustPlainDave

    I’d have more time for this analysis if I hadn’t seen your doomsaying in other fora. Ahh! Haditha. Ahh! Baghdad.

    This is slow for a reason. Think western perspectives on the first Gulf War (i.e., Iran-Iraq). Sleazy and cynical, but that’s how it’s being played.

  17. Dean Flemming

    As a teacher, I am so glad I teach in a private school with no union. Lower pay, more hours and days and higher expectations are a worthwhile trade for a traditional environment and curriculum which reward merit and effort in teachers and students.

  18. Doc


    I’m curious why you feel the need to flood the blog with off topic, useless info about the Middle East?

    Here’s an update for you.

    Civil unrest in the Middle East. 60 A.D. Romans will respond accordingly.

    Meanwhile, back to your regularly scheduled program.

  19. Tom


    You miss the point. It was doom, because they came close to winning till ISF and the Militias rallied and pushed them back. At one point video taken of the fighting showed an ISF Brigadier General personally directing RPG fire from Sadr Militia fighters o the front, a sign the fighting truly was dark. quite a few ISF generals were killed fighting on the frontlines during that period.

    Fighting is quickly resembling Syria in Iraq, big gains, big losses, big gains again, some ground taken back, rally, rinse, and repeat as dead weights are killed or retired on both sides and replaced by equally competent leaders on both sides which results in attritional struggles as both sides leadership is too good to be totally defeated by a few battles.

    The other historical parallel is the Sengoku Jietai in Japan where all the great houses proved equally adept and it took a lot of political, economic, and military juggling before Tokugawa came out on top.

  20. Tom

    To the original topic again, I remember as a 15 year old being part of the Union at Meijers. Throughout my entire history, the Union was pretty useless. It always kowtowed to the management, never once addressed the constant flipping of schedules, starting at 4am then flipping to 2pm for adult workers, resulting in cashiers who had such irregular hours they could not get proper sleep or get consistent schedules they could have other projects scheduled around.

    At no point did the Union stand up to management. Disgusted I left and now I work as an EMT, non-Union. I work 2 24 hour days week, and every third week an extra 24 hour shift. Despite what many think, I spend most of the shift sitting around, its the rare day I run a full 24 hours straight rushing people to hospitals. I get full health benefits, make the equivalent of $14 an hour, and have the rest of the week off. If I need a week, my boss and crew will support me and help me schedule around. Also helps the Managers are fully licensed Paramedics and only Paramedics with a valid license are allowed to hold top positions and more than a few times I partnered with the CEO especially when I am unlucky enough to get seconded to a SWAT raid just in case it goes south and injured SWAT or suspects/bystanders need to be evacuated fast.

    An airlines pilot in a Union, has a worse deal than me. And he is flying a fueled up missile full of people, and if he is found to have a single condition, he is automatically screwed for life no matter the circumstances and faces the choice of falling on his sword or taking people with him.

    How screwed up is that?

    It should be the other way around, but its not. Leadership in Union Management is lacking. Management is not leadership, its routine paper shuffling which a secretary can do. Leadership is taking care of your own, and improving quality of service without which profits are fleeting.

  21. Distinction should be drawn between union rank and file membership and the no-longer-working administrative leadership, known by the rank and file as “suits.” What the suits do is not always enthusiastically approved of by the rank and file, and is often unknown to the rank and file.

    Much of the demise of unionism, in fact, can be attributed to the division between suits and the rank and file. It’s hard to describe just how disgusted the later had become by the political maneuvering being performed by the former, as I saw first hand as a member of the IBEW and the Teamsters. The suits no longer represented the best interest of the workers, they worked for the best interest of their own power and personal job security as suits.

    The flip side of that issue can be seen in the grocery workers union in California, where negotiating leadership comes from people who still work on the grocery floor. They do not engage in political activity, endorse no candidacies, and negotiate in good faith in behalf of their coworkers.

    The benefit of unionism comes from collective bargaining, and the diversion into political power gaming is almost entirely negative. It was not so much that unions formed alliances with the “wrong side,” as that they they formed political alliances at all, engaging in political power gamesmanship instead of restricting themselves to the core function of using the power of the workers to bargain with employers.

  22. RJMeyers

    I don’t have it on hand for a direct quote, but a book I just finished reading (Force of Production by David Noble) mentioned in its opening chapters that strikes during WWII and the years immediately after could immobilize up to 50% of the nation’s productive capacity. During the war, the government came in and sometimes violently broke the strikes.

    There was also a mention of (I believe) GE or some other major manufacturer suffering one strike per day somewhere in its facilities in the continental US during a particularly active year in the 1950s. That coincides with the peak in the early/mid-50s in the chart at the top of this post.

    From my perspective, having been born in 1982 and worked most of my adult life thus far in a highly credentialed white collar office environment, that sort of organized labor action is like another world.

  23. Ian Welsh

    Unfortunately, the data doesn’t show that charter schools typically have better performance than public school. On average, last time I looked, slightly worse, in fact.

    Stats Can recently did a study showing that when controlling for socioeconomic status, private schools perform no better than public.

    Don’t get me wrong, I went to an elite private school, one of the very best in Canada. But entry was competitive. (Also, the teachers earned more than public school teachers: it’s really not a rule one way or the other.)

    The main advantage was some curriculum freedom, which is not something to sneer at. Of the teachers, I would say that 4 that I had were excellent, the others no better than I’d had in public school (and one was trash). (And, looking back, one public school teacher I had, “Mr. Beech”, was as good as the best at the private school.)

  24. JustPlainDave

    That’s what much of the reporting has said about the report, but that’s not exactly what the reports themselves said. The abridged version is that much of the difference in public / private school performance can be ascribed to province, demographic characteristics, and peer characteristics – with quite little ascribed to differing resources or practices of schools. The tiny role of latter is not particularly surprising, given that private and public schools were statistically indistinguishable when it came to virtually all measures of resources and practice used in the study (there was only one factor – an attitudinal one – that was statistically significant IIRC). More importantly, what has gone unmentioned in all of the coverage that I have seen is that a number of the different in later stage performance indicators have quite high percentages of “unobserved factors” (i.e., performance differences believed to be due to other factor(s) not directly observed).

    The bottom line on a lot of this is that public / private is a very blunt distinction. When one says “private school”, everyone thinks about tier one schools like St. George’s, UCC, LCC, Appleby, Branksome Hall, TCS, UTS, Bishop Strachan, Havergall, Saint Clements etc., etc. but the reality is that the vast majority of them are something more like the mom and pop independent school which are really driven by particular ethno-religious factors over all else (“Education in a Christian values setting” </radio voice). When one looks at the report it's clear that the numbers are driven by Quebec "private" schools (yes the scare quotes are intended) which are far from an elite grouping – most of them actually derive a slight majority of their funding from public sources. There are some good ones in there, but the vast majority are solidly average.

    Were the study to have emphasized some different instructional / practice / resource factors and broken out the tier one schools, I suspect one would see statistically different outcomes, even given the small sample sizes.

  25. JustPlainDave

    Tom, my point was that when one has said that losing the Haditha Dam is going to flood Baghdad, one should be cautious about the degree of insight one really has into far more dynamic and difficult to observe situations.

  26. neoconned

    I am myself a union member. the majority of my local mindlessly votes Republican despite constantly complaining about how their union (to which they don’t see themselves as BEING) doesn’t do anything for them. They see the loss of raises and the increased out of pocket costs for benefits. But they cannot see the connection between these cuts and their electoral choices.

    The only reason I don’t cheer for the end of unionism so that these fools can really feel the pain they brought upon themselves is that I would myself be affected. I have to hope that such dopes don’t bring about an end to my good income before I have a chance to retire (not that I hold great hopes of Social Security surviving the attacks from Ryan and the GOP). But I don’t see that my children nor my grandchildren will have it as good as I had it. The neoliberal jungle is upon us, and it will be predator or prey for everyone.

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