YouTube video

Philip Dine: Unions extremely disappointed with Obama but where is their independence?

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, today in our studio in Washington, DC. President Obama, couple of weeks ago, had a conference about jobs. A lot of union leaders were invited; a lot of corporate leaders were invited. But one thing I heard very little of was the issue of wages and how more people might get into unions. The issue of jobs certainly must be connected to the issue of consumer demand somehow, and that must have something to do with wages, but you wouldn’t know it given the kind of talk that takes place in Washington, DC. State of the unions—well, that’s our topic today. And this is the book State of the Unions. It’s written by Phil Dine. And the subtitle is: How Labor Constraints in the Middle Class Improve Our Economy and Regain Political Influence. Phil Dine is a journalist. He’s been nominated for three Pulitzer prizes. And he joins us now. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So the subtitle is How Labor Constraints in the Middle Class Improve Our Economy and Regain Political Influence. So this is supposed to be a president that the unions were finally going to have some influence with, and you wouldn’t know it, would you, if you look at the kind of policy that’s coming out of DC.

DINE: No, you wouldn’t, and I think it’s a big disappointment for labor so far. You know, labor leaders won’t say this publicly, but I think there’s a lot of frustration, both among labor leaders, rank-and-file, and activists, about what’s being done, or more specifically what’s not being done, by this administration for them, for working Americans.

JAY: So what did they expect and what aren’t they getting?

DINE: Okay. What they expected was and what they have on paper is the most pro-labor administration since LBJ for 45 years.

JAY: In terms of campaign promises.

DINE: In terms of campaign promises, yeah, absolutely, in terms of positions on the issues, at least in theory. And more than that, you know, this is an administration that labor did a lot to help elect. So you’re not just only—you don’t just have a pro-labor administration; you have one that labor really helped install into office.

JAY: It’s fair to say probably he wouldn’t have gotten elected [inaudible]

DINE: There’s no doubt, there’s no doubt, because key labor leaders like Jerry [inaudible] Jim Hoffa of the Teamsters; Rich Trumka, then the number-two, now the president of the AFL-CIO [inaudible]

JAY: [inaudible] steel workers’ effort in Pennsylvania.

DINE: Absolutely. That’s where they went. They went to Pennsylvania, they went to Ohio, they went to Rust Belt states, and they spoke quietly—not in front of cameras—spoke quietly to white working-class voters, you know, blue-collar conservatives, the Reagan Dems, NASCAR dads, whatever you want to call them, and said this time vote your economic interests, vote your family’s interests, vote your pocketbook; don’t vote your fears, racial or not, otherwise. And enough listened that it really put him over the top.

JAY: Okay. So they thought they were going to get a piece of legislation that would make it easier to organize unions. They thought they were going to get meaningful health-care reform, which to the unions means a real public option. They don’t look like they’re getting the public option on health care. The legislation on EFCA legislation for unionization seems to be way on the back burner.

DINE: That’s exactly right.

JAY: What are they getting out of this government other than not McCain?

DINE: They’re getting told to be patient. And you just put your finger on it. It is squarely on the back burner, especially the Employee Free Choice Act, or EFCA, which is designed to level the playing field in terms of organizing in the workplace. It would make it easier for unions to organize by a couple of mechanisms we can get into. But basically what it’s meant to do is to counter the increasing employer aggressiveness which makes it more difficult to form a union in this country—and nobody knows this—than in any Western democracy in the world. Tens of thousands of workers are fired every year by employers for trying to exercise their supposed rights to form a union. If this were happening in Poland or South Africa, it would be front-page news. It’s happening here, and nobody even knows it. And that’s what EFCA is meant to do. And not only was president Obama—not only did he promise to support it and sign it into law, he was a cosponsor of it as a senator. So labor had every reason to believe, given that and given all they did to get him elected, that this would be one of his first priorities.

JAY: From health-care reform to EFCA and even some other issues, the Obama administration seems far more afraid or far more concerned about pleasing a few conservative Democratic senators than they are afraid of losing the support of the labor movement. And so the question is: where is that independence of the labor movement to have some kind of a real hammer with this administration?

DINE: Well, again, I think, you put your finger on it, the independence. I was talking to Mike Huckabee a couple weeks ago, a former government of Arkansas before Clinton, and number two to McCain last year in the GOP primaries, and actually got some labor support. He was the first candidate ever endorsed by the machinists—first Republican candidate ever to get an endorsement in the primaries by the machinists, also by the painters. He spoke to the NEA [National Education Association] and got their endorsement of their New Hampshire chapter, because he was speaking to working people. And one thing he did when he spoke to those groups, he said, “You guys aren’t independent enough anymore. You can’t automatically endorse the Democrats, because when you do that, two things happen: the Democrats take you for granted, and the Republicans will try to destroy you. You’ve got to make both parties, all candidates, earn your support.”

JAY: Or afraid of you.

DINE: Yeah, or for all it’s the same—different sides of the same thing.

JAY: Let me read a paragraph from your book, which I think gets into this: “In a profound sense, the labor movement has been an indispensable part of the history and fabric of the United States in ways extending far beyond the workplace. This is due in large measure to the peculiar nature of trade unionism in this country. The goal of unions in much of Europe and elsewhere has been to overthrow—or at least fundamentally alter—the social order and economic system, but America’s unions have fought to improve and expand them, and to do so incrementally at that. Having bought into the system, they haven’t tried to redefine or disparage the American dream, but rather they have allowed more people to realize it.” So is that in fact perhaps actually part of the problem, that the unions don’t have a radical threat in their back pocket, and they’re so kind of merged with the Democratic Party over so many decades that they can always be taken for granted once the Democrat’s elected, because, you know, they’re the big bad Republicans so far worse anyway [sic]? I mean, where’s that independent threat? ‘Cause it’s not like the Europeans are worse off for this. The European workers in most of Europe, certainly the advanced European countries like a Germany or France, have far more rights and, on the whole, better wages and even living conditions than American workers do.

DINE: [inaudible] true. I think there’s two separate issues there. On the one hand, it’s clear, from what you just read and what you’re yourself alluding to, that American unions are far different than Europeans. But that—you know, in every way, in Germany you have a much stronger union movement, not necessarily a more militant, but far more powerful. They have something called co-determination. They’re heavily invested in companies they’re—in terms of participation, making decisions, so on. In France you have almost another extreme: you have a very fragmented union movement; you have a very low union density, about the same as here; and that union density is further fragmented among seven or eight labor federations, ranging from communist to socialist to social democratic to Christian to conservative.

JAY: But they have these industry-wide agreements.

DINE: They have industry-wide agreements, and it’s much more of a politically—. Here you have a peculiar labor movement. It is largely unified, albeit now divided into two federations that—again, it’s mostly bread-and-butter unionism. It’s territorial.

JAY: Well, it goes back to this split way back, or just after the turn of the century. There’s Gomperism. Trade unions, pure and simple, don’t even attempt to talk about any kind of structural changes in the political economic system, where in Europe, with the strength of the Socialist movement, even the communist movement there, there was always this talk about structural change as a kind of threat there. And then, after the Cold War here, you kind of really got rid of everybody in the unions that were talking structurally. Is there some change now? I mean, do you start seeing in the leadership of some of unions more possibility of this kind of thinking coming back into the union movement here?

DINE: Possibly. But I don’t think—you know, some people say that labor’s problem is that it’s not radical enough in this country. I don’t buy that. Maybe in a dream world it should be, but this is America, this is the way it is, and I don’t think the reason labor has been in decline is because it’s not leftist enough. I just don’t buy that.

JAY: Independent enough.

DINE: Independent enough, yes.

JAY: Those things are disconnected, are they?

DINE: To some extent they need to be separated, because if in the real world labor’s going to regain some of its power, it’s not going to do it, in my view, by becoming more militant, necessarily, but by exactly becoming more independent. But those aren’t the same thing. What I mean by that is: I think labor’s biggest problem politically is it—for decades now it’s served as sort of the logistical ground forces for one political party. It basically does phone banks, door-to-door knocking, canvassing. It does everything to get out its vote for the endorsed candidate, almost always Democrat, and increasingly: in ’06, everybody they endorsed was a Democrat except for one. So what they’re really doing is serving, again, as the ground troops for the Democrats. What that means is that if and when their candidate, quote, “wins”, what they have done is they’ve bought access to the new office holder, who, hopefully, will be a friendly face. What that means in practical terms is they’re one interest group among many competing. For example, President Obama—we’ve just discussed what they did for him. He becomes president and he first focuses on the auto industry. Then he focuses on the stimulus program. Then he focuses on health care. He’s never really gotten around to their number-one priority, which is health care, which, as you said, is squarely on the back burner. What I think and what [inaudible]

JAY: Not health care. EFCA.

DINE: Exactly. Thank you. Exactly. EFCA. That’s on the back burner for a lot of reasons we can get into. But what I think, what I argue in the book that labor needs to do is put all that sort of logistical help aside and enter its own issues, its own values, not only into the election campaign—and here we get into something, a bigger theme in my book. It needs to communicate 365 days a year and twice during election campaigns what it’s all about, how it is harder for in this country than anywhere in the democratic world to form a union, and why that matters, what the link is between a robust labor movement and a strong middle-class, how what’s happening to working people and middle-class people in this country in recent years is not disconnected but is entirely tied to the decline of labor, how 16 workers a day on the average die every day in this country and nobody knows about it, how the trade deals we’re signing are deindustrializing America, and what that means, and that that’s not mandated from habit—it’s the way we write these these deals. Labor needs to show how its interests, its values, are middle-class interests, are in the national interest; they’re not some separate special interest. And once it does that, once it campaigns, once it makes those things clear during elections, candidates will have to respond to it, to those values. People respond to, vote based partly on those issues and how candidates stand on it. Then, once there’s an election and labor again, quote, “wins”, it will have a mandate. It won’t come hat in hand to the White House or Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi and say, “Please do this.” It will have a mandate, a postelection balance, because its values were part of the political dialog. That’s what I think labor needs to do.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about how effective that could be, and let’s talk about what independence, what radicalism means in today’s world and with today’s unions. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Phil Dine.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Philip Dine is a Washington-based journalist, frequent speaker on labor and politics, and author of the recent State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence