Congressman Stephen Lynch is banking heavily on his union roots to appeal to the working class segment of the Democratic Party electorate. The state AFL-CIO was unable to endorse in the race, torn between Ed Markey, a 36 year member of Congress with a strong labor record, and Lynch, a card-carrying member of the Ironworkers Union. A frustrated Leo Fahey, business manager of Pipefitters Local 537, complained that “He’s one of us; that’s the difference. There’s a difference between a friend and a brother.”
Does that really matter?
It certainly does matter that union strength has waned, and not just for unions. As Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson tell it in Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, union political muscle was critical in “every major economic battle of the mid-century-from the successful struggle for an expanded Social Security program in the 1950s to the passage of Medicare in 1965.” Labor was an important ally in the civil rights movement as well.
Hacker and Pierson argue that the falloff of unions since has had two important consequences. First, the decline has contributed to growing economic inequality. Second, the deterioration has had harmful effects on citizen participation because unions brought working people into the process. Fewer members have meant “fewer get-out-the-vote drives, fewer voter education pamphlets, fewer pro-union advertisements, and fewer unionized workers in communities talking with friends, family, and neighbors about how they might vote.”
Hacker and Pierson go on to note that as labor power has waned newer liberal groups have arisen. They lean on the work of Professor Jeffrey Berry of Tufts, who has written of the old “materialist” wing of the Democratic Party being supplanted in importance by groups with “post-materialist” concerns – a shift from the “pocketbook concerns of middle- and working class voters to the social concerns of more affluent ones.”
One can see the materialist/post-materialist divide in the sorts of problems Lynch has with elements of the Democratic electorate. Progressive primary voters have expressed worries about his stances on abortion, gay rights, the environment to name just a few post-materialist issues. But Lynch also wounded himself with his vote against Obamacare. That one baffled even some among his core of unionized backers, who could not understand how a union guy could vote against the last great New Deal issue.
All things being unequal – and Martin Gilens in Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America shows that money inequality dominates our politics – working and middle class voters never have their policy preferences met, absent certain conditions. One of those conditions is the advocacy of labor unions. So unions are essential to any hope for a fair shake for working and middle class people.
Lynch’s challenge is to make the case that materialist issues outweigh post-materialist issues in a Democratic primary; and that it is more important to have a brother than a friend in the U.S. senate.