Skittish Liberals and the Self-Defeating Stories They Tell About Unions

by Neil H. Buchanan

My most recent Verdict column, published last Thursday, asks: "Have Democrats Rediscovered Unions Too Late?"  There, I note that the recent embrace of labor unions by mainstream liberals needs to be seen in the context of decades of disdain for organized labor by those same liberal elites.  This was epitomized by the anti-labor Democratic Leadership Council, which capitalized (pun intended) on liberals' panicky fear in the 1980's and 1990's about accusations of being "in the pocket of special interests."  You know, special interests like workers, women, racial and ethnic minorities, and all of the other people who had it so easy.

Much of my column is devoted to a description of the economic case -- yes, an efficiency-based case -- for labor unions.  I do not claim, of course, that every labor-management interaction is going to lead to an ideal outcome, but rather that the costs imposed by unions are outweighed by the benefits that they create for the overall economy (to say nothing of workers themselves).  It turns out that "Do what I say, and if you don't like it, there's the door!" is not a great strategy for getting human beings to do their best work.  Who knew?

Here, I want to turn from that economic story to the political story behind many liberals' decisions to distance themselves from unions over the years.  The deep explanations, I think, are historical and class-based.  As a matter of relatively recent history, Baby Boom liberals grew up at a time when unions were often politically conservative.  Beamed into the living rooms of middle-class America, the classic breakthrough sitcom "All in the Family" depicted the hostile relationship between unions and social liberals.  The bigoted Archie Bunker and his union buddies were strongly in favor of the Vietnam War, and it was not just on TV that blue collar workers were fighting college kids over that war.  The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was an especially ugly result of this conflict.  (And there is not enough time here to get into the history between unions and women.)

Even within the labor movement, there has always been conflict over political strategies.  Liberals were often dismayed to find that unions representing skilled workers were not especially interested in spending time on efforts to increase the pay of unskilled workers.  (One head of a skilled-workers union once said: "Why should my members care about the minimum wage?  Our contract already gets them $40/hour!"  Solidarity forever.)  It is only recently that union leaders have figured out a way to get nearly everyone on the same page with regard to supporting minimum wage increases.

In addition to history, there is class.  A lot of leading liberals evince an attitude that seems to say that, although working people are of course to be supported, it would be ever so nice if working class people were not so, you know, working class.  With images of fat, cigar-chomping "union bosses" in their minds, it was easy for white collar liberals to think that there was something rather unseemly about those (presumptively corrupt) union men.

This class issue is not, moreover, limited to wealthy liberals who grew up wealthy but who have some sense of noblesse oblige.  "Knowledge economy" professionals seem to be especially prone to agreeing with Republicans that unions are a problem.  Few people embody that kind of conflicted liberal professional better than New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.  Kristof frequently reminds his readers that he is a farm boy from Oregon, evidently believing that he needs to show that he is authentic and not only a product of Harvard and Oxford.  He spends a great deal of time tut-tutting fellow liberals about any of a number of pet issues, recently including guns, and he frequently chastises college professors for a litany of imagined sins.

As I noted in last Thursday's Verdict column, Kristof made a big announcement early last year.  After years of being "wary of labor unions," he announced that he had been wrong.  "The abuses are real. But, as unions wane in American life, it’s also increasingly clear that they were doing a lot of good in sustaining middle class life."  At the time, I thought to myself: "Well, better late than never."  Kristof is hardly the only liberal who failed to see the importance of unions for far too long, and we can only hope that he and others did not come to their senses too late, as I noted in my Verdict column.

What I found especially interesting in Kristof's announcement (which, as always with Kristof, carried more than a whiff of self-congratulation) were two of the three "abuses" that had evidently always bothered him about unions.  (Lacking systematic evidence, he simply listed a few examples.)  Weirdly, his first example cites "[f]ull-time union stagehands at Carnegie Hall earning more than $400,000 a year."  Good pay for workers is per se evidence of abuse?

But the example that really caught my eye was his reference to "[a] union hailing its defense of a New York teacher who smelled of alcohol and passed out in class, with even the principal unable to rouse her."  That sounds bad.

The link provided by Kristof takes the reader to a famous 2009 article in The New Yorker by an investigative journalist named Steven Brill: "The Rubber Room."  I plan to write a separate Dorf on Law post critiquing that still-important article, but for present purposes, what is most interesting is Kristof's reliance on that article as evidence that a union would not only defend a drunken teacher, but that it dared to hail that defense.  Perhaps I should not have been surprised that Kristof's rendition of the situation is highly misleading.

Brill recounts a story about a New York City public school teacher who was found unconscious in class, with some witnesses saying that they smelled alcohol.  Two years later, that teacher reached an agreement with the Board of Education in which "she would teach for one more semester, then be assigned to non-teaching duties in a school office, if she hadn’t found a teaching position elsewhere. The agreement also required that she 'submit to random alcohol testing' and be fired if she again tested positive."  Two years after that, she evidently fell off the wagon again -- not in a classroom, but at an office job -- and was fired.  As of the time of the article, Brill wrote that she said "that she is now sober and starting a school for recovering teen-age substance abusers."

Brill's article is deeply problematic in a lot of ways, but the story that he tells simply does not fit Kristof's version.  At worst, the union that supposedly hailed its defense of a drunken teacher was, even in Brill's jaundiced description, inaccurately saying that the teacher had been targeted because of an effort by the school system to remove senior teachers.  Brill insinuates that the teacher was used by union leaders for political purposes, and he tells a convoluted story in which he hints that the union was being uncooperative with his investigation.  He does not, however, state anywhere that the union was hailing its defense of a drunken teacher.  In fact, the union announced that this teacher was the victim of the kind of job action that unions are supposed to protect their members against.

But this really should not surprise anyone.  Attacks on unions typically include misleading statements such as these, much in the way that criminal defense attorneys are accused of "being on the side of criminals."  And for Kristof, the idea that someone with a drinking problem -- who, even according to Kristof's source, was not a problem in a classroom again -- was defended by the teachers' union is proof positive that the union defends people who do not deserve to be defended.  Notably, even when Kristof announced his newfound support of unions last February, he could not help qualifying that support, pointing "especially" toward "the private-sector unions that are now dwindling."  He just could not bring himself to throw his support to unions wholeheartedly.

I should not be too hard on Kristof.  One can pick up a newspaper any day and find someone who should know better defaulting into that kind of mindless, damaging thinking.  For example, in an article in yesterday's New York Times about a bipartisan group of scholars that has agreed to a (pretty bad) set of anti-poverty proposals, Eduardo Porter quotes the liberal academic Sheldon Danziger saying that the proposals are "modest.  If we had a system where people were not fearful of the Tea Party or of unions, you could get 60 percent of the House and 60 percent of the Senate to agree."  Danziger thus argues that unions are in the same category as Tea Partiers, stubbornly opposing enlightened policies and bringing members of Congress to heel.  And he's the liberal.

When even the people who need to rely on unions to advance their political goals are so deeply uncomfortable with organized labor, it is no wonder that conservatives are having a field day.