Politics & Policy

Unions’ Focus on Woke over Work Rankles Rank and File

Teachers picket at Sullivan High School on the second day of a strike in Chicago, Ill., October 18, 2019. (John Gress/Reuters)
Big Labor’s foray into social justice may appeal to a growing white-collar base, but it creates other problems.

Los Angeles schoolteacher Glenn Laird has been a union stalwart for almost four decades. He served as a co-chair of his school’s delegation to United Teachers Los Angeles and proudly wore union purple on the picket line.

But Laird is now suing to leave UTLA and demanding a refund of the dues the union has collected since his resignation request. His turning point came in July 2020, when the union, the second-largest teachers’ union in the country, joined liberal activists to demand that Los Angeles defund the police in response to Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

Laird, who is white, was floored. The union seemed to have forgotten why schools hired more safety officers back in the 1980s and 1990s, when Los Angeles was one of America’s most violent cities. Laird is concerned about his union’s embrace of so-called social-justice issues.

“I would much prefer a union focused completely on wages, hours, working conditions,” he said. “When the union goes into political-activist mode, I think it dilutes the practice of what a union is supposed to be doing.”

Laird is not alone. He is among union rank-and-file nationwide chafing at their leadership’s embrace of woke politics as a means of reversing declining membership and maintaining influence in the Democratic Party — dissent shown in defections to Donald Trump in the last two elections as well as high-profile recent organizing defeats and court setbacks.

The departure from traditional union rhetoric — from the local level all the way up to the AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka, who died last week — reflects labor’s relative weakness and the recognition that its future depends less on “lunch-pail workers” than on progressive professionals in tech and elsewhere for whom values and social justice are key concerns.

“There are some tensions between the generally liberal leadership and certainly strong pockets of rank-and-file conservatism on social issues,” says labor historian Leon Fink, author of the forthcoming book Undoing the Liberal World Order. He adds: “The one place that leadership does exercise some autonomy is in the political sphere.”

Labor leaders hope to reap rewards for helping elect Joe Biden to the White House. He has pledged to become “the most pro-union president in history,” and he’ll make good on the promise if he ushers in the PRO Act (for Protecting the Right to Organize), which would effectively overturn right-to-work laws in 27 states that let workers opt out of union membership.

The PRO Act would force nearly 3 million dissenters into union ranks. The influx of these automatically enrolled workers spares unions the cost of persuading them to join. Unions collected $11.1 billion in dues and fees in 2020, but those revenues could nearly double to $20 billion if the PRO Act — which faces strong opposition from Republicans — is passed.

But within union ranks, the divisive nature of this strategy was amply illustrated in 2016, when the traditional union man was a driving force behind Donald Trump’s surprise victory, and in 2020, when Trump once again outperformed among self-identified union members.

Unions have always been political entities, but they have never been more heavily invested in politics. Union political spending has nearly doubled in the past 15 years. An IAW study found that unions spent $791 million on political activities and lobbying in 2020 — up from $427 million in 2006. About 90 percent of those donations went to Democrats.

Unions are not just alienating members like Laird. The recent attempt to organize an Alabama Amazon warehouse made blatant racial appeals to its largely African-American workforce. More interested in bread-and-butter issues than identity politics, the workers voted overwhelmingly against the union.

Struggling to connect with blue-collar workers, organizers are hoping that woke talking points will strike a chord with a new kind of union member. They have found success among liberal professions by marshaling ideological commitments. Unions have added tens of thousands of members on college campuses and newsrooms across the country.

Big Labor’s foray into social justice may appeal to a growing white-collar base, but it creates other problems. Diverting union funds to political causes has helped spur federal lawsuits that ultimately hamper union efforts. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled government agencies could no longer mandate union membership or fee payments as a condition of employment.

The end of forced dues payments led to optimism that unions would moderate their political activism and recommit to the paycheck interests of their members. That has not occurred.

Glenn Laird, the Los Angeles teacher, is hopeful that the labor movement can return to its narrow mission of fighting for teachers, rather than the interests of union officials who may “have aspirations of seeking public office in the future.” Asked if he could see himself re-enrolling in UTLA’s ranks someday, he had one word in reply: “Absolutely.”

This article was adapted from a RealClearInvestigations article published on July 13.

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