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Organized Labor and the Crisis of Democracy

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Day 27 - I Voted!
Day 27 - I Voted!
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We live in a time when it's become a boring 'cliche' to say that democracy is under attack. Whether it's an ultra-reactionary Supreme Court, a nationwide Republican assault on voting rights, a MAGA movement that hopes to put an amoral power addict back in the presidency in 2024, a gathering backlash against women's rights and LGBTQ rights, or the very structure of an oligarchical, billionaire-dominated political economy, circumstances in the U.S. and abroad are hardly encouraging for people who value democracy and human rights. It seems that things get bleaker every year, so much so that it can be difficult to have any hope at all.

There is, however, at least one glimmer of hope for democracy, and it comes from a source that might initially, to many people, seem rather unrelated: a renascent labor movement.

Given that the primary role of unions is to advocate for the interests of their members on the job, one might wonder how they could play an essential part in protecting and revitalizing the very different institution of political democracy. How can organizations with such a particular mission, a seemingly narrow economic one, serve as a buttress for the universal interest of democracy itself? Actually, according to polls, two thirds of Americans approve of labor unions, suggesting they understand what a constructive force unions are. If people knew the real history of organized labor, however, the number would probably be close to 90 percent.

So let's take a look at history to gain some insight into why labor organizations are so fundamental to democracy, and why it's so predictable that their decline in the last forty years has led to a political crisis and the rise of neofascism.

The origins of democracy

The very establishment of democracy in the first place, universal suffrage and equal voting "weight" across classes, was in large measure the achievement of unions, labor-based political parties (whether called Socialist, Social Democrat, Labor, or some other name), and mass working-class protest. To quote one scholar, throughout the long struggle across the West to broaden the franchise, from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, the labor movement was the only consistent democratic force in the arena, playing a "vital role" at nearly all stages in most countries. In Britain, for example, decades of labor organizing and mass demonstrations, from the Chartists of the 1830s, to the working-class Reform League of the 1860s, and further union agitation up to the 1880s, were a crucial precondition for the enfranchisement of all men. By the early twentieth century, the new Labor Party also supported the women's suffrage movement.

To take another example, that of Belgium, a comprehensive study observes that working-class pressure and particularly the use of the political strike were constant features of the process of Belgian democratization from the 1880s on. As elsewhere, it took decades of struggle to overcome the hostility of the propertied classes, many urban capitalists, agrarian landowners, and the Catholic establishment, but, in alliance with Liberals, the Belgian Labor Party was finally able to establish full male democracy in 1919.

Waves of democratization occurred in the aftermath of the two world wars, and in all or nearly all cases, labor and its representatives were catalysts. Germany's Weimar Republic, which instituted universal suffrage, was a creation of the labor-based Social Democrats. In Sweden, years of strikes, worker demonstrations, and Social Democratic pressure in Parliament culminated in the passage of universal suffrage by 1920. The achievement of full parliamentary democracy after World War II in Italy, France, Austria, Canada, eventually Japan, and other countries was, of course, a result of the world-overturning mobilization of the working class and the Left against fascism, which was defeated primarily by Communists.

What about the United States? "Full" democracy in this supposedly freest of countries didn't exist until the late 1960s, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. We're accustomed to thinking of these legislative accomplishments as the fruit of a religiously grounded movement organized around Black churches in the South, but in fact, "the long civil rights movement" of the 1930s-1960s critically depended on labor organizations such as the Communist Party (in the 1930s) and industrial unions. Historians have called it "civil rights unionism." Communists organized Black and white workers to challenge racial discrimination in employment and politics, not least in the savagely white supremacist South, and unions in the CIO, and later (after 1955) the AFL-CIO, continued this sort of work even in the repressive political climate of the Cold War. The AFL-CIO and most of its affiliated unions funded the Civil Rights Movement, actively supported its legal initiatives, and, in the case of the UAW, sent staff members into the Deep South to assist with voter registration drives. Indeed, some of the movement's major leaders, from A. Philip Randolph to E. D. Nixon (who organized the Montgomery bus boycott and chose Martin Luther King Jr. to lead it), came from a union background.

Conversely, it wasn't only political democracy that was at stake; the movement aimed to emulate labor movements elsewhere and establish social democracy. The 1963 March on Washington, for example, included in its demands decent housing, adequate education, a massive federal works program, a living wage for everyone, and a broadened Fair Labor Standards Act. King himself later became a socialist and helped organize a vast Poor People's Campaign, though he was assassinated before it came to fruition.

Even recent struggles against authoritarian governments have been largely driven by labor organizations and worker protests. From Spain in the late Franco years, Chile under Pinochet, and Argentina under neo-Nazi generals, to the Arab Spring of 2011, workers and unions have not only, through collective action, destabilized despotic regimes but have often led the resistance that overthrew them. This isn't surprising, since the working class is typically the group that suffers most from a lack of democracy.

In short, it is hardly an exaggeration when yet another scholarly study concludes that "the organized working class appeared as a key actor in the development of full democracy almost everywhere."

Organized labor means solidarity

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