Organized Labor Has Little To Lose From Radicalism, But Working People Have Much

Erik Loomis has a post dedicated to, loosely speaking, the adoption of more radical tactics by labor unions and union sympathizers. I’m glad to see this discussion started because I actually do think the progressive cause would benefit from more direct action, particularly in the arena of climate change and immigration reform. But I have my doubts as to labor. “After all,” Loomis asks, “what does the labor movement have to lose at this point?” He does acknowledge, however, that “we are a long time from 1937 when radicalism was well within the lived memory of most working-class people.” I think this is exactly to the point. Organized labor, as such, has very little to lose at this point. But not only are we a long time from 1937 in terms of people’s consciousness about radicalism, we’re a long time from 1937 in terms of the actual living standards of average people.

Check out this technology adoption chart:


In 1937, about half the population didn’t own a stove or a car. About 30 percent of the population didn’t have electricity or a radio. Most people didn’t own a refrigerator or a telephone or a clothes washer. Nobody had a clothes dryer or a color television or a dishwasher. The average size of the American home has more than doubled since then, in part because we’re richer and in part because it’s much more practical to inhabit all that space with modern cleaning, lighting, and transportation technology. “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your cell phone and your car and your HDTV and your large house” isn’t the most inspiring slogan in the world. So while even though labor unions, as such, have very little downside risk the individual people who’d be putting things on the line in a more radical struggle have a great deal more to lose than did their predecessors of 70 or 80 years ago.


None of this is to say that middle class people in the United States have no problems. Obviously, unemployment is extremely high and unemployment — particularly prolonged unemployment — is very damaging. But what we middle class Americans are primarily suffering from is a failure to finance and organize public services in an intelligent way. Not enough people can afford a house that features a convenient commute to work and a safe neighborhood with a great public school. We lack access to the kind of low-cost, high-quality health care that they have in France. But while any individual worker can improve his situation in this regard by getting paid more money, the only systematic solutions to these problems involve actually reducing the quantity of crime, improving transportation infrastructure, reforming the health care system, and building more excellent schools.