Get Up, Stand Up
It was heartening to read Garret Keizer condemn the fact that labor leaders “turned their backs” on Bernie Sanders’s candidacy in 2016 and willfully scorned their own members by refusing to conduct any meaningful poll of their preferences [“Labor’s Last Stand,” Essay, September]. Like many members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, I was stunned by our leadership’s endorsement, during the 2016 Democratic primary season, of Hillary Clinton, arguably the least union-friendly candidate, who initially refused to support a $15 per hour minimum wage.
Many of us cannot surrender to the suggestion that this endorsement stemmed simply from garden-variety cronyism, and we are left with a suspicion of corruption among AFL-CIO leaders. Eugene Debs’s goal of the working class emancipating itself cannot occur as long as the largest unions leave themselves open to such suspicions—especially when those same unions have made it effectively impossible for members to replace their representation with a more accountable union.
Perhaps Congress will eventually pass laws that require more transparency and accountability from union leaders. If not, unions themselves must bear some of the blame for their members who, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME, are wondering whether they should continue paying their dues. This would be a profoundly tragic outcome, since even a union that makes misguided presidential endorsements is an invaluable ally to workers.
I agree with Keizer’s assertion that labor has been marching in lockstep with the Democrats for too long. Most of today’s leaders couldn’t muster the intellectual imagination—let alone the courage or conviction—to buck the Democratic Party, as United Mine Workers of America president John L. Lewis did during the Second World War, when he led his members in a strike to win decent wages and benefits. This lack of political vision can be partially attributed to the class background of union staff.
Keizer acknowledges that “union staff are not necessarily recruited from the rank and file,” but this understates the problem. Labor unions function largely as employment agencies for middle-class idealists who either failed to complete college or couldn’t find work in their field of study. The clear majority of union staff and officers therefore know little about the lives of average workers. Most of the “movement” in labor today is the sound of this staff jumping between unions, initially looking for their place in a romantic class struggle but eventually settling for a job that pays well without necessarily helping or respecting the workers it ostensibly represents.
In the wake of the Janus decision, labor unions need to ensure that they are enticing workers to join, rather than leave, their ranks. This will be best achieved by supporting radically better outcomes.
Americans overwhelmingly agree that working families should have pathways into the middle class, but employers are not going to give up ground without a fight. More cogent campaigns will be beneficial not only to union members but, ultimately, to the broader economy. It will take only glimmers of success to help resuscitate unions.
St. Paul, Minn.
I commend Rohini Mohan for bringing to light the violence at the heart of India’s burgeoning right-wing Hindu fanaticism [“A Template for Hate,” Letter from India, September]. Threats against and attacks on those perceived as critical of the Hindu ideology are ongoing in parts the country—violence that is enabled by the normalizing if not tacit acceptance by political leaders like Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Despite his love of tweeting, Modi took almost two weeks to address the killing of Mohammed Akhlaq.
Of course, Modi—who, as chief minister of his home state, oversaw the massacre of hundreds of Muslims—is not alone in accepting such violence. So long as citizens and especially elected leaders remain resigned to the existence of far-right extremism—whether in Uttar Pradesh or Charlottesville, Virginia—the brutality will continue, and the humanity of those who shrug and accept it will erode.
Mine Own Engineer
Mort Rosenblum outlines the extent to which natural resources are pillaged by the mining industry [“Range Wars,” Folio, September]. It is up to elected officials to withstand industry pressure and to consider the long-term costs of such projects. Too often, when mining projects cease to be profitable, the mostly foreign companies in charge (which minimize their tax liability) tend to either go bankrupt or simply pay the Environmental Protection Agency a token fine to clean up the mess. Neither is a solution that addresses the broader consequences of the project: taxpayers are left subsidizing cleanup attempts, and the nation is left with yet another abandoned mine, adding to the half million that already exist.
“Labor’s Last Stand” incorrectly stated the proportions of public- and private-sector union membership. While rates of union membership are substantially higher in the public sector, there are still more total union members in the private sector than in the public.
Additionally, the essay incorrectly stated that 6.5 percent of public-sector workers belong to a union; this number refers to private-sector union membership. We regret the errors.