Labor Unions and the Importance of Community in a Divided World

In the [intlink id=”985″ type=”post”]last post[/intlink] I said that the creation of self-governing communities should be one of the first steps toward the reorganization of society and I used the matrilineal clan as a model. I’ll defend this recommendation in the next few posts, but for now I’ll just say that while we may never return to that way of life it is a useful ideal, and can reveal important principles for political organization. I’ve also argued that the patriarchal family is not a solid foundation for the kind of social organization I have in mind. We hear over and over how important the family is to modern society but recently, when 38% of Wisconsin’s union families voted to retain the union busting governor Scott Walker, they demonstrated that whatever the patriarchal family’s function might be, it is foreign to the principles of true community.

The Sources of Division

The election of Scott Walker was a disaster for the public image of organized labor, not only because of the effects of antiunion legislation, but because his legislative attacks were accompanied by antiunion propaganda–in other words, divisive tactics. Repression combined with propaganda has always worked to delegitimize unions in the eyes of the public. Critics say union leaders lost momentum by channeling the protests into the electoral process, ((Gordon Lafer, Doug Henwood, Jane McAlevey, Bill Fletcher, Adolph L. Reed Jr., Mike Elk. Opinion Nation: Labor’s Bad Recall. The Nation. Cited July 3, 2012. Available: and they may have a point, but union strategy in the United States has always been a delicate proposition. The forces that divide have been especially active among the unions. Chief among those forces are the nation’s churches, defenders of the patriarchal family.

Since Wisconsin’s recall election, union leaders have been talking about the need for community outreach. This deserves more discussion, but in the business of community building, unions face stiff competition. Churches have already perfected the art of providing a family-like environment for their members. Unfortunately, many ministers see nothing wrong with dividing families and communities to achieve political goals. There is no parallel among advanced nations for the level of church meddling in American politics.


The 1890s were a crucial time for American unions. According to Robin Archer, the second Great Awakening had led to impressive growth in evangelical Protestant churches and for the duration of the nineteenth century, they boasted the largest number of members. During this period, the largest denominations were the Methodists and the Baptists–both of them heavily influenced by evangelicalism. Most Protestant clerics and revivalists were hostile to the labor movement, and in each period of industrial unrest they denounced unions. Some of them even suggested the use of “bullets and bayonets” and “Gatling guns.” As sinister as this sounds, the explanation for these attitudes is more disgraceful.

In most Protestant churches, the clergy depended on lay members for their initial appointment, their personal income, support for their projects, and even their continued employment. This was especially true of revival leaders. Leaders like the Chicago-based Dwight L. Moody, offered to help protect the interests of wealthy businessmen in return for the financial backing necessary to organize big city crusades. (Previously, we have seen that the [intlink id=”689″ type=”post”]Moody Bible Institute[/intlink] in Texas is a supporter of Christian Zionism.)

     Religion in Politics

Evangelicals have always collaborated to force the government to legislate morality, leading in the 1850s to a realignment of the party system and the establishment of the Republican party. In response, the Democratic party was formed of those who didn’t believe governments should establish cultural norms. While the evangelicals emphasized personal conversion experiences and moral activism, the Democrats belonged to churches that emphasize formal rituals and traditional authority. Religion amplified conflicts and caused each party to became a sort of political church.

     State Repressison

And then we come to the phenomenon of physical repression. While the ministers merely threatened violence, the armed forces acted on the threats. After the 1877 railroad strike, business leaders called for the return of state militias to help control discontented workers, and they personally funded many of the units. Today those militias are known as the National Guard. Some states outlawed the use of armed forces on civilians, and in response, the industrialists simply created their own private armies. They also made use of public and private police. It was not unusual for American armed forces to fire on strikers, and such severe repression naturally came with higher levels of propaganda to justify the government’s actions.

     Conflicts among union leaders

As if these sources of division are not enough, there are also conflicts among union leaders, especially those on the left. In the early 1890s the American debate took place between union leaders and the socialists, and was based on two interpretations of Marx’s writings. In the rules that Marx drafted for the IWA, he stated, “that the economical emancipation of the working classes is therefore the great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinated as a means.”

One group believed this meant that the establishment of economic organizations of workers ought to be the focus of activity and that political action would have to wait until a sufficient level of class organization and class consciousness had been achieved. The other group interpreted it to mean that the establishment of a working-class political party was the essential prerequisite for economic emancipation. [ref]Archer, Robin. Why Is There No Labor Party in the United States? Princeton University Press. Princeton and Oxford. 2007[/ref]

Left Factions in Europe and the United States Compared

Because of differences in the political and economic environment, Europe and the United States took different paths. However, conflicts among union leadership persist in both countries. For example, Shalom Lappin defends the European Social Democrats, and their emphasis on “strong unions, market regulation, and the development of a comprehensive welfare state through mainstream democratic processes.” He argues that this strategy was successful in western Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand from 1945-1975, and partially successful in America in the same period; and that the current decline of western social democracy is merely a result of globalization.

In Europe, according to Lappin, the radical and liberal left have allied themselves with anti-western, militant and political Islamic movements. This tendency began during the cold war and involved the rejection of working class politics for the politics of culture and identity. This faction now operates within antiwar and antiglobalization movements, with the Islamic jihadists claiming to represent the third world poor.

In the 1960s, the radical left in the United States came to be identified by opposition to Vietnam. Lappin argues that by “dabbling” in the counterculture the radicals managed to alienate the conservative working class and allowed the right to invent a counter movement that has dominated American politics for the last thirty years. One of the tools of the right is the myth of a liberal elite who controls the media and holds the reigns of power. This myth has allowed conservatives to pose as the populist opposition to the liberal power structure. The result is that American voters consistently vote against their own class interests by supporting conservative Republican politicians.[ref]Lappin, Shalom. How Class Disappeared From Western Politics. Dissent Magazine. Winter 2006. Cited July 7, 2012. Available:[/ref]

A little History

In Gerald Friedman’s history of labor unions in the United States, he writes that in the American labor movement, one of the most divisive events was the 1949 expulsion of all Communist-led unions from the CIO. This meant the loss of the organization’s most energetic and imaginative leaders. Those who remained were left with no choice but to accept a place in the capitalist hierarchy, and in 1955 they merged with the AFL.

In the periods when conservatives are voted into power, state support for unions has been withdrawn and American unions have had no leverage over capitalist forces. In Europe, governments have generally supported the labor movement. For example, they require nonunion employers to match union concessions. In the United States, union employers are the only ones affected by labor negotiations, making it hard for them to compete with nonunion rivals. This has caused American firms to prefer a nonunion workforce, and sometimes to move to nonunion locations.

   Control of women as a motive, again

Private union membership in the United States began to decline after World War II, and since the 1990s, unions have had little effect on wages or working conditions for American workers. For this reason, it seems curious that Walker and others are so obsessed with them. However, one reason for this obsession may be that even though private unions have shrunk, the United States has seen the growth of female unionization. In contrast to the largely male unions in Europe, female membership in public sector unions have ‘feminized’ the American labor movement. ((Friedman, Gerald. Labor Unions in the United States February 1, 2010. Cited July 7, 2012. Avaliable:  When Walker first launched his attacks, several articles called attention to the possibility that he was motivated by gender and race. This seems more likely in light of the war on reproductive rights.  

But if Walker intended to divide one union from another by not going after the largely male unions like the police, he was disappointed. Those unions demonstrated solidarity with those under attack.  This brings us back to the importance of community.

Collective action is always difficult because it requires that individuals commit themselves to the group effort. In the case of the unions, “individualist logic” leads workers to opt out of membership, creating a free-rider problem. This means that if subsequent union efforts win concessions for workers, the nonmembers will benefit equally with members. On the other hand, if collective action fails, only the activists will suffer. That is what divisiveness looks like at the community level. In Wisconsin, it has led to political defeat.

“In capitalist labor markets, which developed in the nineteenth century in the United States and Western Europe, workers exchange their time and effort for wages. But even while laboring under the supervision of others, wage earners have never been slaves, because they have recourse from abuse. They can quit to seek better employment. Or they are free to join with others to take collective action, forming political movements or labor unions.”((Friedman, Gerald. Labor Unions in the United States. February 1, 2010.))

Unfortunately, the effects of dismantling this system can be shared by everyone.