In These Times - June 8, 2021
ur political discussions often focus on how our side can seize an advantage in the context of a sharply divided electorate. Political parties try to motivate their voters and depress voters on the other side — elections are contested for tiny slices of “moderates” or “undecided voters,” groups that grow ever smaller as polarization increases. But what if there was a tool that could actually transform the way that people think, as voters and as citizens in a functioning democracy? There is such a tool: unions. America in general, and the Democratic Party in particular, needs to start taking the transformative power of unions more seriously.
Apart from schools — themselves perpetually contested ideological battlegrounds, proxy wars for federal, state, and local political fights over how to properly indoctrinate our kids — unions are probably the single most powerful institution in America capable of actually changing people’s minds about what they believe. Most institutions, from churches to political parties, serve mostly to round up people that already agree and try to turn them into a strong, coherent army on the political battlefield. Unions, on the other hand, take in everyone, based on the fact that they work somewhere, and then they give them the experience of participating in a democratic institution that works towards common goals. Unions are an education not in party politics, but in actual democracy — coming together with a broad group of people, with all sorts of separate identities, to fight for your own rights. Most Americans never get that sort of democratic experience anywhere else in their lives. A properly functioning union offers people the lived experience that no political buzzword or argument can ever match.
Only about 10% of Americans are union members, meaning that 90% of Americans have no opportunity to taste this transformative, unifying political power. Bernie Sanders is not president today because America’s labor movement is too weak. By this I don’t mean that more union members would have given more money or knocked more doors for Bernie. I mean that if significantly more Americans had the lived experience of organizing with their coworkers and fighting for a contract against a powerful boss while witnessing the power of solidarity, they would have been naturally more predisposed to accepting Bernie Sanders’ political beliefs. “Democratic socialism” as a pure political phrase will always be shoved into a box in the corner of the political spectrum, subjected to rampant scaremongering and red-baiting. But democratic socialism as something that you participated in as a working person when you came together with your colleagues to win significant life improvements is not something that any Fox News host can talk you out of. It is your life, and its benefits are tangible. Anyone who has been involved in union campaigns has witnessed this sort of personal evolution countless times. Our mainstream political discourse generally tries to deceive people. That becomes much harder when people have a counterpoint to the lies in their own lives, in the form of a union.
America is a racist country. America is also a segregated country. One feeds the other. Many white Americans have few places in their lives where they genuinely interact with people of other races as equals, and as allies. Unions are one of the few places where that can happen. And indeed, we know that unions serve to make white people less racist. ...
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