fbpx Skip to content

Have Unions Left Labor Behind?

The labor movement can take credit for the creation of Labor Day, but now, 128 years after Labor Day was first celebrated, America finds itself facing a very different labor movement than that of our forebears. 

Labor Day is when we celebrate the contributions everyday workers make to our country. It is a celebration of the industry and work ethic of the American people, and an acknowledgement that these efforts have led to a strong and prosperous country.

This is something we can all rally around – that America needs Joe the plumber as much as Bob the banker.

But while the heart of the day is something we can still celebrate, the labor movement has morphed into something many of us no longer want to commemorate. The union leaders of today are unrecognizable compared to those who worked for noble goals like the elimination of child labor and the physical safety of workers.

That isn’t to say that early labor leaders were saints. Far from it. Some championed radical movements and behaviors. Others sought for laws like prevailing wage and the minimum wage to keep black migrants, who had moved from the North from the South after the Civil War, out of the workforce.

But while there were some early labor leaders who championed Marxism, today almost all labor activists openly champion socialism.

The focus for unions has shifted away from blue collar workers and their hopes and dreams, which depended on a thriving capitalist economy, toward goals centered on growing government and against private wealth creation.

The unions made this shift in the 1960s and 1970s when they moved away from private sector to public sector organizing. Many politically motivated governors and state legislators were happy to help unionize their state workforces.

The move to organize public sector workplaces gave unions an even stronger reason to push for higher taxes and bigger government.  

The elected officials who benefit from union largesse have been all too happy to see the money flow from taxpayers to workers to union leaders, then back to the politicians in the form of campaign donations.

Union coffers have grown fat from the public sector, which doesn’t often shrink like the private sector in lean times, but instead just keeps growing.

With this flow of wealth, unions have become experts in funding and training progressive activists and community organizers who then work to elect the politicians who continue to reward them by growing the public sector.  

It is a self-perpetuating circle.

To find evidence of this coalition you can look at the platforms of former presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who were favored by many labor leaders.

Included in both the Warren and Sanders platforms was the elimination of the Electoral College, an end to cash bail, a ban on fracking, Medicare for All, opposition to international trade deals, and the cancellation of all student debt. Both would also prohibit states from having Right to Work laws.

Their platforms closely aligned with the political goals of the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the country. The union would like to see laws passed that would make it almost impossible for companies to fire an unproductive employee, or for freelance workers to start an independent business.

Unions even further to left are clear about their aims. The Industrial Workers of the World union says on its website that its aim is to: “Achieve industrial democracy – a post-capitalist, classless society in which workers manage the economy and share responsibility for decision making within their workplace and industry.” A group of self-described “militant educators” who organize under the name UCORE (United Caucuses of Rank and File Educators) fall under the IWW umbrella.

These are not the unions of our great-great-grandparents, who embraced the economic freedom and opportunity found here in the United States.  

This Labor Day we can celebrate a country built by the American worker into what it is today, and we can celebrate the freedom we have to keep working and keep trying to make things better, not because of but despite today’s labor movement.

Suzanne Bates

Suzanne Bates is Senior Writer and Researcher with Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector workers offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment in 2020, Suzanne worked as a journalist for the Associated Press, as Policy Director with the Yankee Institute, as a contributor for The Hartford Courant, and as a regular commentator for WNPR’s The Wheelhouse.