Can This Election Save the Unions?

Source: Nelson Lichtenstein, Dissent, Vol. 59 no. 3, Summer 2012
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It now seems like ancient history: the few weeks between Barack Obama’s election in November 2008 and the onset, after the inauguration, of intransigent, increasingly successful Republican opposition to his entire program. That was a moment in which hostility to the banks and the bailout worked in the left’s favor, legitimating insurgencies such as the sit-in strike at Chicago Windows and Doors, even as the president’s transformative legislative agenda, the most ambitious in more than forty years, put a significant stimulus package, universal health insurance, and a substantial reform of the labor law within sight.

All that is now gone, with even Obama’s genuinely progressive health care law up for electoral and judicial grabs….For half a century, labor has gotten an opportunity to reform the labor law and strengthen its own institutional power about once every dozen years or so, during those rare moments when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency….Whatever the details, a political and policy pattern now seems well embedded: during those brief windows of liberal legislative opportunity, organized labor often plays a key role in electing Democrats and in advancing reforms, such as financial regulation, a more progressive tax regime, and health care innovations that nudge the polity in a social democratic direction. But during those same moments of Democratic Party power, labor itself has repeatedly failed to win any federal legislation that would strengthen its institutional capacity for growth or for the exercise of what economic and political leverage it still commands….

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