Not so long ago, the American labor movement faced a make or break moment. Facing internal dissension and a continuous hemorrhage of members and clout, it managed to elect a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress. Tilting federal labor laws back in favor of unions, and passing legislation that would allow so-called "card check" elections to establish them in workplaces, were vital. If not then, with that political configuration, then when?
Five years later, organized labor considers itself to be even worse off. Though a friendlier National Labor Relations Board has helped fix contract disputes, the economic recession slashed more than 600,000 jobs from the ranks of public sector employees, at least half of them union jobs. And where the private sector is growing, unions aren't. Politically, labor is toxic. The Democratic governor of New York has found in labor a steady opponent. Where Republicans have taken on labor power, they've won, too. Anti-labor folks have impressed upon the media how bloated public sector pension funds are the single largest source of potential economic peril in cities spanning from San Jose to Central Falls, R.I.
Though President Obama carefully cultivated the majority-minority labor coalition as a candidate, he has not been the staunch ally many of its members supposed he would be. The Affordable Care Act, lobbied into law by a coalition that included unions, might well undermine the concept of the 40-hour week and doesn't provide subsidies to unions that fund their health plans through trust funds. With the exception of the United Auto Workers, labor unions cringed at the 2009 bank bailout because it was not accompanied by much help at all for state and local governments. The president's student loan compromise with Republicans bucked labor demands that he fight for a better, longer-lasting bill.
Now, labor is again making noises about sitting out the election. Unions are still the biggest and most concentrated source of money and volunteers for Democrats. Years go, I asked Andrew Stern, then the president of SEIU, whether labor would simply stop contributing money and boots on the ground to candidates for federal office as a show of displeasure. I don't remember his exact response, but he said something along the lines of hoping that things never got that bleak. In some ways, though, it may be the only card that labor has yet to play. They may never play it, because it would seal in their own irrelevance, especially if the Democrats figured out how to find foot soldiers and "soft money" without them. In fact, the Democratic Party does seem to realize that labor might not be around forever; increasingly, the corporate sector is replacing core labor financial functions within the party's division of labor.
I don't think unions will ever give up on Democrats. The party will always be friendlier than Republicans. In big, populous states, union endorsements still matter.
But I do predict, based on conversations I've had with labor leaders here, that, to get attention, labor will take a page from the Tea Party movement and try to become more militant and more focused on income inequality. Because Americans support labor's causes, by and large, but don't like the labor movement as a spokesman for them, I also predict that the labor movement will go through several more circular firing squads, where forward-thinking union leaders call for the movement at large to devote less political attention to the specific, contractual concerns of their own workers and more to campaigns that non-union workers can rally around, like state minimum wage campaigns, and a call to reduce concentrated corporate political power.
Then again, maybe not. Democrats will do better in 2016 than they're likely to do in 2014, owing to a number of cyclical and historical factors. If there is a competitive Democratic presidential primary season that year, then labor will once again allow itself to be courted, and then hitched. Proximity to power doesn't only infect journalism.