United States work stoppages and organized labor activity in 2023 are reaching a level not seen in decades, as hundreds of thousands of workers across the country take to the picket line. Meanwhile, a dysfunctional federal government narrowly avoids yet another shutdown as the country careens toward a polarization-induced catastrophe. Could unions be the solution needed to save American democracy?
Things are bad, and they’re getting worse
It should come as little surprise to anyone even slightly engaged in observing American politics that this country is deeply, bitterly, debilitatingly polarized. In fact, research has shown that the American public is the most polarized it has been in over twenty years, and it shows no signs of depolarizing any time soon. Similarly, Congress is more polarized now than it has been in the past 5 decades. This seemingly unbridgeable divide has numerous consequences. Most recently, uncompromising partisanship in Congress led to the removal of the Speaker of the House from office, a first in American history, and almost led to a government shutdown that was only narrowly averted. One does not have to think very far back in time to remember any number of other incidents in American politics resulting from extreme polarization, a trend perhaps most exemplified by the attacks on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Polarization isn’t just a threat at the governmental level. Crime data collected from (admittedly flawed) police reporting indicates that hate crimes are at their highest this century, and politically motivated mass shootings have become a regularity.
Even more concerning than the current heights of polarization are what they might spell for the future of this country. Researcher Rachel Kleinfeld suggests in her piece “Polarization, Democracy, and Political Violence in the United States: What the Research Says” that fear of threats to democracy from the other side of the political spectrum is increasing tolerance for anti-democratic behavior from politicians on both sides. If polarization continues to fuel this trend and anti-democratic behavior from politicians rises in frequency and intensity, she troublingly predicts that the U.S. could reach a crisis of inclusion similar to what it experienced under Jim Crow. Of principal concern then to anyone interested in avoiding that dystopic vision of the future is how to reduce polarization and avert democratic catastrophe.
What is to be done?
Kleinfeld’s conception of America’s potential future, linking the currently predominant style of polarized advocacy to a democratic doomsday scenario, is a bleak one. However, things are not without hope. She posits an alternative: “Instead, intense mobilization efforts built around a positive future vision are needed to galvanize voters without exacerbating antidemocratic attitudes.” What we need is organization around something other than just slowing down the rate of decline, something more radical than just going back to brunch, something that motivates cooperation and collective action towards a shared goal despite political differences. What we need is more labor unions.
Throughout this country’s history, unions have demonstrated themselves to be a force for progress. We have unions to thank for the weekend and the 8-hour work day, for getting child labor banned, and so much more. But what makes them so necessary in the fight against polarization today is that they are organized around a cross cutting cleavage: class. People of all political perspectives, genders, ethnicities, sexualities, religions, and creeds are workers. As members of the working class, they have common material interests, even if they’re extremely polarized. What a union does is organize them around that shared interest despite their differences and enable them to work towards common goals, like better pay and benefits. And as research and the slew of headlines this past year both prove, unions can achieve those goals very effectively. Kleinfeld suggests that the specific kind of organizing needed to reduce affective polarization is “pluralistic work that coordinates groups to act on shared goals, despite other differences of opinion.” What is a union if not exactly that? Through collective bargaining, disparate and polarized groups work together towards achieving prosperity that they can share in, prosperity denied to them by a political elite whose commitment to prioritizing the rich crosses party lines.
Some may argue that unions aren’t enough, or that the process of increasing union density is too slow to avert disaster. The problems facing the world, they say,- rising fascism across the globe, dwindling resources, and an encroaching climate apocalypse to name a few- are impossibly large, lovecraftian in their incomprehensible scale and the abject horror they induce. And it’s true, to an extent. Your local Starbucks unionizing won’t singlehandedly stop global warming. But it is a start. History has proven unions’ ability to pressure the government into making serious changes. What if instead of your local Starbucks, it was every Starbucks? What if it was every coffee shop? What if it was the entire workforce? Allow yourself to imagine, just for a moment, the kind of progress that could be achieved by an organized working class pressuring their representatives with the credible threat of a general strike behind them. Unattainable and pie-in-the-sky as that may feel today, it is a political reality that can be made manifest with specific, tangible steps. Perhaps it will never come to pass, but struggling to create a better world has to be more worthwhile than resigning ourselves to the end of democracy. In the immortal words of Ralph Chaplin, is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?