Monday, June 28, 2004

Drippy Dick, Johnny Sunshine, and Labor's Pains

The two names we're hearing most often in the eternal vice-presidential mooting game are Dick Gephardt, zillion-term Congressman from Missouri and badly failed presidential candidate, and John Edwards, one-term Senator from North Carolina and admirably failed presidential candidate. Both have their institutional supporters: Gephardt is the choice of the Teamsters and various other old-line unions, while Edwards seems to be the preference of many Congressional Democrats, the executive board of the Service Employees International Union (90 percent picked Edwards in a straw poll, according to SEIU head Andy Stern) and, at least by the lights of some polls, the Democratic primary electorate.

I've set out the case against Gephardt again and again; for those who don't feel like scrolling down or exploring the recent archives, I'll kindly refer you to this Matt Yglesias piece about the severe problems with a Kerry-Gephardt ticket. (And Gephardt's home-state Kansas City Star picks up the theme, noting that there's no guarantee he'd even swing Missouri.) Today I'm more interested in looking at the role of the unions in this choice, and where organized labor in general is going.

The slow-motion decline of the labor movement over the last four decades or so has been well documented. As the workforce has grown, the percentage of unionized jobs has dropped, a result of both macroeconomic changes leading to job losses in highly unionized industries like automotive and other manufacturing fields, an increasingly hostile policy climate toward unionizing new industries, and corruption and plain old bad decisions on the part of union leaders themselves. Labor is commonly acknowledged to be "at a crossroads"; they went all-out to beat Bush in 2000 and failed. This time they seem to have pushed even more chips to the center of the table. And they unquestionably have John Kerry's ear.

But who are "they"? The schism between "old labor" and "new labor" seems to be playing out in the ongoing drama around Kerry's vice-presidential pick. The Teamsters, who want Gephardt, represent labor's past, for better and for worse: the great accomplishments of mid-century organizing and unprecedented gains for working people, and the ugly legacy of corruption, bigotry and cynicism that has tarred the efforts of organized labor to regain relevance in the new century. The SEIU, whose members apparently back Edwards, doesn't have immaculately clean hands either--my fellow New Yorkers might remember 1199/SEIU kingpin Dennis Rivera's deeply cynical endorsement of George Pataki in the gubernatorial race two years ago--but there's no question in my mind they're on "the right side of history." They've been high-profile in organizing, they've roughly doubled their membership over the last decade or so, and they've earned the respect of employers with a willingness to partner where mutually beneficial (1199 and the Greater New York Hospital Association co-run a training and education fund, to give just one example), matched by a willingness to go to the mattresses when necessary to defend members' interests. (This Harold Meyerson article offers a good summary of SEIU's achievements and challanges, and the historical moment for labor.)

SEIU leaders realize that the next great frontier for labor is organizing low-wage workers in the service economy. I went to a great event last week with Beth Shulman, author of The Betrayal of Work, and one of the points she made was that industrialized jobs weren't "good jobs" until they got organized... and then wages doubled, benefits surged, and a new road to the middle class was paved. We've seen how this can be done anew with janitorial and hotel jobs in Nevada and elsewhere; as Shulman put it, unions can change "bad jobs" into "good jobs."

Edwards seems to get this; Howard Dean surely did, and that's why SEIU is behind those two men. If Gephardt gets it, I haven't seen any evidence; his union ties are to the past, not the future. Kerry needs to look ahead.

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