A Collective Bargain:
Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy
by jane mcalevey
harpercollins, 304 pages, $16.99
Ten years ago in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Nashville, Tennessee, HarperCollins shut down its last two remaining U.S. warehouses, after a series of such closings had left an untold number of workers unemployed. CEO Brian Murray offered these words of corporate right-think: “We have taken a long-term, global view. . . . We are retooling the traditional distribution model to ensure we can competitively offer the entire HarperCollins catalog to customers regardless of location.” If you were one of the thousands of people whose lives were changed as a result of this round of consolidations and offshorings, it was likely little comfort that the authors of HarperCollins would find the “broadest possible reach.” Your chief concern was probably more mundane, more domestic, and even, dare we say, provincial in nature, namely: Was there anything that could have helped you keep your decent job in the town where your family lived?
Jane McAlevey argues that the answer is yes: What you lacked was a strong union. And she is right, though whether anyone outside the labor left will listen is another question. Within the labor movement, McAlevey is something of a celebrity. Her last book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, became such a commonplace in those circles that many old hands grew sick of talking about it. Yet outside the ever-shrinking population of union workers and organizers, McAlevey is a non-entity. That fact reflects a wider trend: the marginalization of unions within American society.
If unions have a bad name at present, that is partly because of firsthand experience of their strong-arm tactics and mismanagement. My grandfather, upon returning from fighting the Japanese in World War II, got a job as a mailman, and was immediately pressured by his union to register as a Democrat as a condition of his employment. A friend of mine, a public-school teacher in New York City, saw fellow teachers who had engaged in borderline criminal activities protected from termination by their unions and sent instead to the infamous “rubber rooms,” giant warehouses where suspended teachers were paid to sit around all day. “Union boss” is thinly veiled slang for “thug.” The most common verdict one hears upon bringing up unions is “well, they protect such bad workers.”
Yet as McAlevey points out, there is a double standard here. Lots of us have worked in dysfunctional private corporations, but few would say that “private companies run on nepotism,” or that “corporations are criminal entities.” As she writes, “Most people can conjure an image of Jimmy Hoffa but can’t name one corrupt corporate CEO from the waste hauling or transport and logistics business.” Just as most Americans have fond memories of a well-functioning team in a private corporation, those with deep experience in unions often remember the social goods produced by worker solidarity.
All four of my grandparents and both of my parents spent parts of their careers in unions; my brother and I have worked in “union shops.” My grandfather resented his initial experience with the union and vowed to vote Republican to the end of his life. But his union job allowed him to earn enough to achieve what McAlevey describes as the American Dream. He had a stable job, owned a home in which to raise his kids, and was able to retire with a good pension and spend several years with his grandkids. My grandmother, also a staunch Republican, recognized with good Presbyterian sense that no one besides Jesus, and certainly no institution, was perfect; but when the school she taught at got a union, it stopped the principal from firing the female teachers when they no longer made the effort to look cute at work. Anecdotes such as these explain the persistence among Americans of generally favorable attitudes toward unions. McAlevey notes that though only just above 10 percent of Americans currently belong to unions, more than 62 percent approve of them.
The villains of McAlevey’s story, not surprisingly, are conservatives. She asserts that if you end up in a corrupt union, it is likely to be a “conservative union.” Yet she also claims that the reason Americans don’t like unions is because they believe the pro-corporate propaganda of the political right. Apparently, conservatives both enrich themselves by running shady unions, and go around convincing the population not to join unions. Such problems of mere logic do not interrupt the book’s broadsides against the “conservative Supreme Court backed . . . coup” in the 2000 election, or the Republican reforms allowing so-called right-to-work laws in certain states. Throughout the book, McAlevey assumes that capitalist equals conservative and conservative equals racist. The ideological bias can be tedious.
This hostility to the American right makes A Collective Bargain more outdated than its author seems to realize. Conservatives in the United States have been going through a major realignment. Donald Trump’s opposition to unrestricted immigration and his willingness to wield tariffs put his administration closer to Bernie Sanders than to Mitt Romney. This political shift is not a fluke, but a sign that the GOP is reviving the conservatism of past eras.
The Republican Party has a long tradition of labor organizing, reaching back to figures like Terence V. Powderly—head of the Knights of Labor, one of the largest unions in the nineteenth century—and John L. Lewis, co-founder of the CIO in the AFL-CIO. These men tended to be patriotic, protectionist, isolationist in foreign policy, and interested in restricting immigration for the sake of domestic workers. They were usually serious Christians, and sometimes openly anti-capitalist. It is only fair to acknowledge that some of these figures had racist convictions, a trait they shared with many liberal and leftist contemporaries. But taken as a whole, their stances on public issues contradict McAlevey’s formula that conservative equals capitalist equals racist.
The Democratic Party is going through a transition as well. Reed Hastings—a billionaire, a Democrat, and a leading donor to liberal causes—opposed union efforts when he was working in the government of Los Angeles. McAlevey acknowledges that Hastings is a capitalist, but clearly finds it awkward that he is not a conservative. Overcommitted to the concept of intersectionality, her vision imagines that all of today’s baddies have been on the wrong side of history forever, and all the virtuous on the right side. History, however, proves Solzhenitsyn right: The line between good and evil runs through the human heart.
In 2016, Bernie Sanders remarked that open borders is “a Koch brothers policy.” In saying so, he voiced the opposition to unrestricted immigration that runs through the history of labor relations and now plays a central role in the ongoing political realignment that is driving working-class voters into the Republican Party. McAlevey consistently fails to address immigration and its implications for the interests of American labor. Throughout our history, the importation of labor into the U.S. has served the interests of capital owners and not those of the existing workforce. During the vast expansion of the American industrial economy after the Civil War, mass immigration was encouraged in order to flood the labor market and depress wages. The Wall Street Journal editorial page continues to argue in this tradition. In some cases, immigration flows were used explicitly to discourage labor organizers and split the labor movement by breaking strikes and pitting racial groups against one another. This tactic continues. Today, the best way to prevent one’s workers from unionizing is to reframe workplace discontent as a matter of “diversity.” As one organizer friend put it to me, “Every employer in the country has suddenly realized they are racist the moment they realize calling themselves racist will allow them to bust a union.”
Trump’s “build the wall” slogan, and the more nuanced arguments of figures like J. D. Vance and Blake Masters, indicate that the question of who has the right to work in America is re-emerging as a main feature of our politics. The last twenty years have shown that globalization has had disastrous consequences for high-school-educated Americans, exposing them to labor competition from abroad and reducing the availability of steady work at a decent wage. The “China shock” to manufacturing employment after China’s accession to the WTO has been well documented by economists. The “worker re-training programs” inserted into free trade deals, far from solving the problem, have been a salve for the guilty consciences of politicians who vote for the deals. The “global view” of the HarperCollins CEO is the view that labor unions exist to be opposed. By contrast, a collective bargaining agreement exists to aid the workers in this particular shop to accomplish this work. It is a local view of economic life, not a global one.
Today’s debate about immigration is often vicious, in part because of the decline of private sector unions over the last fifty years. We would not need to “build the wall” if we had strong unions. A unionized workforce can protect jobs without needing to be “anti-immigrant.” In an economy that is actually growing, there will be ample need for workers, and labor contracts will be written so as to give management leeway to hire when more workers are needed. Perhaps elite opposition to unions is a signal that we have a growth problem.
There would be other advantages to an organized workforce. Instead of the federal government’s clumsy and error-prone measures to cap immigration—draconian deportations, the E-Verify system, the H-1B visa program—the work status of employees could be policed on the spot by the workers’ unions. This approach would satisfy the basic principle of subsidiarity, and it would be more efficient.
Organized labor has spurred political realignments in the past. In the early twentieth century—to oversimplify a complex story—the Republican Party came to represent financial interests, and the Democrats, no longer the party of the Old South, began to represent workers. Today, the Democratic Party has become the party of billionaires. Conservatives need to take up the cause of the worker. Let liberals champion anti-human projects like universal basic income, a scheme for sustaining the globalization that has made tech entrepreneurs and Wall Street bankers fabulously wealthy by managing the sloth of those left behind. The new right needs to honor human nature. Part of what defines us is our capacity for work.
McAlevey makes some excellent points. She laments “the radical shift from one breadwinner to two breadwinners with no substantial change in household income,” and she notes that the New York Times is mostly fake news ginned up to support neoliberal capitalism. These sorts of observations remind one of Tucker Carlson. But conservatives can go further. It’s not just that workers have suffered injustices, that unfettered free trade and mass migration have destroyed Americans’ livelihoods, that their bargaining power has suffered as union participation has declined and the skills (and physical sites) required for modern laborers have become more interchangeable. It’s also that labor is a good thing. Christians should defend the labor movement because of the love a worker has for his work—a love that was poured into our hearts by God himself.
Many existing unions aren’t representing the average worker. Most unionized workers at this point are members of the government-employed professional managerial class, essentially acting in collusion with the ruling class. The Democrats, meanwhile, are failing to represent the cause of organized labor. In the most recent term, a Democratic congressional majority let the Protecting the Right to Organize Act languish. What we need are Republican politicians, policies, think tanks, and activists that champion the cause of workers. The next Republican presidential nominee should pledge that he will pass the PRO Act, tweaking it, perhaps, in accord with the advice of labor-oriented conservative thinkers.
Conservatives, especially those with libertarian leanings who think unions stifle growth and inhibit nimble management, are likely to remain skeptical. But perhaps they will be attracted to McAlevey’s claim that two sectors badly in need of unionization are higher education and Big Tech. Few anti-union conservatives would be saddened to see Twitter or their local gender studies department stifled and hobbled by unions! But one need not be anti-union to see that when employers are forced to pay higher wages for low-level workers, they have less left over for vanity projects such as lecture series featuring the likes of Ibram X. Kendi.
The next GOP administration should force corporations to invest more in their janitors, thereby putting thousands of diversity consultants out of jobs. By embracing some form of union advocacy, conservatives can hinder their enemies (woke corporations, universities, HR departments), reward and empower their friends (blue-collar workers who increasingly vote Republican), and integrate the labor movement into a larger pro-America, pro-family movement. We need to renew the American Dream: the ability to buy a home, have kids, retire in time to spend a few years with the grandkids, and—not that McAlevey mentions this—rest on the Sabbath to worship. If we have to choose between a package that delivers more immigration and cheap plastic goods, or one that increases middle-class American jobs, I have no doubt how I’d vote. And I think a majority are with me.
McAlevey’s praiseworthy book deserves a wider mainstream audience than her previous titles have garnered. Ironically, it was published by HarperCollins, the company that vaporized warehouse jobs a decade ago in Scranton and outside Nashville. The remaining workers at HarperCollins are, not surprisingly, unionized, and they are currently engaged in a tough round of negotiations. Consider the arguments in this book and then go out to the picket line. American workers need our support, and patriotic conservatives need the labor movement.
Colin Redemer is vice president of the Davenant Institute.
Image by Kheel Center via Creative Commons. Image cropped.