MCViewPoint

Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Is the Woke Cultural Agenda of Union Leaders Undermining Support For Unions?

Posted by M. C. on April 15, 2022

Is the Woke Cultural Agenda of Union Leaders Undermining Support For Unions?

As national support for unions approaches record levels, interviews reveal: a rarefied form of progressive leadership threatens to dampen their appeal among workers.

Glenn Greenwald and Batya Ungar-Sargon

NOTE FROM GLENN GREENWALD: As is true with all of the Outside Voices freelance articles that we publish here, we edit and fact-check the content to ensure factual accuracy, but our publication of an article or op-ed does not necessarily mean we agree with all or even any of the views expressed by the writer, who is guaranteed editorial freedom here. The objective of our Outside Voices page is to provide a platform for high-quality reporting and analysis that is lacking within the gates of corporate journalism, and to ensure that well-informed, independent reporters and commentators have a platform to be heard.


By Batya Ungar-Sargon

Doug Tansy is living the American Dream. A 44-year-old Native Alaskan, Tansy is an electrician living in Fairbanks in a house he and his wife Kristine own. Kristine has a social work degree, but for 13 years she stayed home to raise their five kids. It was something the couple could afford thanks to Tansy’s wages and benefits, secured by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. All of Tansy’s union friends have similar stories; those who chose not to have kids traveled the world on the money they earned. 

Tansy started an apprenticeship right out of high school, a decision he calls “one of the best things I ever did for myself.” His high school pushed everyone to go to college, which Tansy did, but to pay for his first year he took a summer job working construction. It provided an instructive contrast with his college courses. “College was certainly challenging, but it didn’t excite me. Construction did. It grabbed me,” Tansy told me. “I was always told ‘find what your hands want to do, and when you do, do it with all your might.’ And I did.”

Tansy now serves as the assistant business manager of the IBEW in Fairbanks and as president of the Fairbanks Central Labor Council, which is sort of like the local chapter of the AFL-CIO. “I consider myself a labor person and that simply means a lot of what we do is focus on the middle class,” Tansy explained. “Putting really great wages into our economy and helping people save up to get ahead, to pay off a house.”

But the union is about more than just securing a middle-class life for working class Americans. Tansy calls it a fraternity. “If I ever have trouble, I can make one phone call and that’s the only call I need to make,” he says. “They will take care of the rest of it and whatever I need will be coming.” And this support system traverses ideological and ethnic divisions. The IBEW in Fairbanks has Republicans, independents, Democrats, progressives, and everything in between. Debates can get testy, especially when social issues like abortion come up in the breakroom. Tansy has also on rare occasions experienced racism. And yet there is a deep bond connecting the members of the IBEW that crosses ideological lines.

This bond is the result of a simple fact: that more unites members of the union than divides them, and that what unites them is sacred. “Having good wages, good benefits, good conditions, and being treated fairly and with dignity in retirement should not be only for Republicans or Democrats or red states or blue states,” Tansy explained. “To me, these are nonpartisan issues that should be for everybody. And that’s how we reach our common ground.”

Tansy’s story is not unique. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans who belong to unions in the U.S. make on average 17% more than their non-unionized brothers and sisters, with a median $1,144 in weekly earnings—compared to $958 for those not unionized. It’s not just wages, either. Unions offer apprenticeships and ongoing training, a debt-free career, a pension, and workplace safety and other protections. They give workers a seat at the table and a voice to balance out the power of the businesses they work for, no mean feat at a time when the majority of working-class Americans are living lives of precarity. Working-class wages decoupled from production and stagnated in the late 70s; it’s estimated that over $47 trillion of working- and middle-class wages have been sapped from the bottom 90% of earners and redistributed to the top 1% since then.

So it’s no surprise that approval of labor unions is the highest it’s been since 1965: 68% of Americans told Gallup they approve of unions last year. And yet, despite this fact, Americans aren’t signing up to join unions at record rates. Just the opposite: fewer Americans than ever belong to unions, a scant 6% of Americans working in the private sector. Many believe they are a dying institution in the U.S.

Some cast this as proof of yet another case of working-class conservatives choosing a cultural stand against their economic interests. William Sproule is the Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters and says his union is actively engaged in combating negative stereotypes about unions when recruiting. “In the South and other parts of the country, the Southeast, even some of the middle of the country, you say the word ‘union,’ people have been basically brainwashed to think that there are people like me who are some kind of fat-cat millionaires who are stealing money from their pension funds and all this other stuff, all these bad things they try to present about unions,” Sproule says.

Of course, there are political reasons unions aren’t popular in some corners of the South. Labor has for a century been affiliated with the Democratic Party and remains so. Sproule views the Democrats as much better for organized labor, and though the Carpenters Union will endorse pro-labor Republicans, right now he says it’s important that the Democrats maintain control over government. “The predominant anti-union forces do seem to come from the Republican Party,” Sproule says, citing things like punishing, anti-union “Right to Work” laws. The Carpenters Union advised its members to vote for Joe Biden based on the policies President Trump pursued that were hostile to organized labor—things like deregulations at the National Labor Relations Board and appointments of pro-business judges, among other things. 

For the rest see Glenn Greenwald on Substack

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