LABOR 101, PLUS SOME EXTRA CREDIT. You owe it to yourself to read Nathan Newman's inspiring, irresistible "Why Unions? Labor 101." Folks here know I'm a health care guy, but one of the reasons why is my belief that among our health system's many destructive tendencies, it's largely helped doom the labor movement. To be fair, the union movement was often complicit, offering insubstantial support to national proposals and preferring to expend resources on improving limited benefits for their direct members. It's a sin they've long since repented for, with yesterday's UAW convention offering only the latest example. All that said, the most demonic, nightmarish vision for anti-union employers is letting a union arise and corner them into so-called "gold plated" health benefits. Given the double-time march of health costs, reasonable contracts negotiated now may prove financially unfeasible twenty years down the road (see the auto industry for an example of that), but an active union makes the removal of benefits well-near impossible. So as hard as employer's may fight against the promise of better wages and regulations, they'll battle exponentially more viciously against any force that would compel generous, and inflexible, health benefits.
For that reason, I think government-provided universal health care would substantially ease the Labor movement's struggles. And nothing, in my estimation, is one-tenth as important. As we move towards a service economy populated with relatively unskilled jobs, only unions will be able to demand and extract dignity for the bulk of Americans toiling in that sector. Newman explains how Labor made Vegas a union town and brought fairness and respect to cocktail waitresses, but it goes far beyond that. One of the most compelling events at YearlyKos was the Labor and Power panel, which featured an organizer with UNITE-HERE's hotel workers campaign explaining that the much-touted "Heavenly"-brand mattresses weigh over a hundred pounds, and yet older women, working on their own, are having to flip eight or ten of them a day, for minimum wage, and with no health insurance, despite the fact that hotel work features more occupational injuries than virtually any other profession. These people deserve more, and not only would they never get it, but we'd never know it, if not for unions.
One more thing. Before I started at The American Prospect, my colleague Sam Rosenfeld suggested I read Thomas Geoghegan's Which Side Are You On? Being for Labor When It's Flat On Its Back. Politically speaking, it was the most transformative book I ever read, and it ranks as my favorite nonfiction work to this day. If you haven't read it, you should. Once you do, you'll thank me, profusely, just as I did Sam. On a similar note, Chris Hayes of In These Times published an exquisite essay on the concept of Solidarity a couple months back. Read that, too.