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Can Labor Beat Capital? Ask Hosni Mubarak

David Callahan

It's hard to believe in the power of organized labor if you've grown up over the past thirty years, a period of steady union decline. Conventional wisdom hold that the new service economy is inherently hostile terrain for labor organizers and, more broadly, that Americans just aren't the joiners they used to be. (Lots of civil society institutions have withered, not just unions.)

Also, the odds seem impossibly stacked against labor, even with strikes by low-wage workers sweeping the nation. Capital appears all-powerful right now thanks to a political system that favors those with money and a global economy that disadvantages national governments that seek to regulate transnational corporations.

More immediately, a glut of unskilled labor and lack of public outrage over low wages points to an uphill battle for organizers. In an Atlantic piece titled "Why the Fast Food Worker Strikes Are Doomed," Derek Thomspon writes:

The strikes would have a much better shot at inspiring a change in franchise- and corporate-level policy if fast-food chains perceived one of two threats: (a) a threat to the steady supply of food-service workers who want to be employed at any wage and (b) a threat from consumers demanding higher wages for their fast-food clerks by not buying burgers and fries at McDonald's. Instead, the big-picture doesn't reveal either of these pressure points.

But with yet another major strike scheduled for tomorrow, it's worth considering that everything we've learned about unions over our lifetimes and everything we believe about current political and economic conditions could be proven wrong, and in very short order. 

Hosni Mubarak could certainly speak to the fungible nature of reality. Maybe he imagined one day being disposed by a coup or an Islamist uprising. But by Facebook and Twitter? 

A central lesson of the Arab Spring is that seemingly immutable power arrangements can be upended virtually overnight by citizens armed with new technologies. Is McDonald's any harder to topple than Mubarak? It's hard to see why that would be the case.

Anyone who thinks they can predict a social movement's likely prospects in today's hyper-connected world is fooling themselves. Just predicting what social movements will arise at all is hard enough. Nobody saw the Tea Party coming. Nobody saw Occupy coming. Nobody saw the Arab Spring coming. And once these movements were up and running, they spread like lightning thanks to new techologies. 

And social media is just one reason why today's labor movement is in a much better position than it was a century ago, when it was going up against the steel, coal, railroad, and textile industries -- battles that it ultimately won. Consider a few other factors that are comparatively more favorable to labor: 

  • Stronger Legal Protections for Strikes. Progressives often complain about how much labor protections have been watered down over the decades, and how widespread modern union-busting is these days. But, of course, there are far more protections for workers now than was the case a century ago, when neither the National Labor Relations Board or the U.S. Labor Department even existed, much less most of today's labor laws, such as the minimum wage. Back then, governors would call out the National Guard to put down strikes, most famously in Colorado, where troops attacked an encampment of strikers and their families in Ludlow, killing some two dozen people. It's hard to imagine anything like that happening today. 
  • A More Favorable Political System. A century ago, many state legislatures were controlled by the trusts and it was these legislatures, not voters, who chose U.S. Senators. In turn, it was these Senators who had huge influence over the federal court system. So crucial elements of the American political and legal system were entirely controlled by corporate power in a way that makes today's influence of business over politics look modest in comparison. Moreover, unions themselves hadn't yet learned to play the money in politics game, which has certainly changed. If you check out's list of "top all-time donors" over the past 25 years, you'll find that unions make up 10 out of 15 of the groups on the list. It's fair to say that Eugene V. Debs could never have imagined having those kinds of resources -- much less imagined that so many politicians would take union money. 
  • Better Public Policies. The best evidence of how much more favorable the political system is for labor than a century ago lies in the array of public polices that redistribute wealth and help working people, including many policies passed in recent years. Nineteen states now have minimum wages higher than the federal floor, and most of those laws have been pased within the past decade. Thirty major cities have some kind of living wage ordinances. Most recently, laws preventing wage theft are starting to be passed. Oh, and did I mention that in the past twenty years, the Earned Income Tax Credit has been scaled up from a minor program to one that will send checks to 26 million working families this year worth a total of $60 billion? Needless to say, none of this existed a century ago, when only one state -- Massachusetts had only recently passed the nation's first-minimum wage law and modern social insurance and tax credit programs were still a few decades away. So unlike their predecessors, today's labor movement is starting wtih a strong base of pro-worker policies that can be expanded upon incrementally -- with hikes to the minimum wage, EITC, and so on. 

So are the fast-food worker strikers really "doomed?" That prediction seems premature, at best.