Labor: The New Gay, or Bailout Punching Bag?

JEFF MORROW: Welcome to your new culture wars.

Right now,  the culture divide is economic, rather than social. The parts of the country not lucky enough to be “Real America” may still have their sodomite inclinations, but their true horror is evoked by their leaders with another “s”-word, the dread “socialism.”  This may explain the death of card check unionization.

Card check revisions to the National Labor Relations Act (and its various successor amendments) are perennial visitors to Congress, proposed and promptly scuttled. But this was supposed to be different: broad Congressional majorities and a Democratic president. This time the issue was for real, forcing senators like Arlen Specter to engage in uncomfortable balancing acts between his (new) Democratic constituency and his old center-right inclinations.

Then, two weeks ago, card check went away, unable to secure sixty votes in the Senate.

At heart, card check’s demise represents boils down to the 1970s and 1980s, the dusk of the last liberal era. By the Reagan era, liberalism and those Democrats who represented it (by no means all the Democrats at the time) had been left behind by the zeitgeist. They were, as is so often said, out of touch. But this had little to do with the social issues that, by the 2000s, would be used to brand liberals as essentially foreign. In an era marked by profound economic decline, it was the appearance that the Democrats inhabited an LBJ-era fantasy land that alienated them from the center.

Now the Democrats have returned to power (much more uniformly identified with left-of-center politics) in a period of great economic turmoil. Not coincidentally, the social issues of the 2000s seem to be losing their sting, and the opposition is framing the culture wars in terms of economic preferences.

That’s where card check comes in. Unionization in the private sector is in the single digits, percentage-wise. It has been steadily declining since the late-1970s, making unions the perfect throwback in the collective consciousness to that bygone paleoliberal era. As labor unions become less relevant to the lives of most workers (a condition that card check would seek to reverse), major legislation for unions bears the scent in the popular consciousness of anachronism.

With the majority expending so much energy on a more government-oriented health-care reform plan, a full-throated card check push might simply have felt too risky. The Obama era is an attempt to convey a “post-”ness of his presidency that suggests the future. Post-boomer, post-racial, post-partisan. With the health care debate accentuating the “pre-” that still remains, card check never had a chance.

To be clear, although there is much I find desirable about a card check system, I have rarely seen an issue in which proponents have failed so miserably at framing. (In fairness to Democrats, the reasons to support card check are complex and sometimes uncomfortable.) Republicans have pretty successfully set the issue up as: if you can get a union without holding a secret ballot, you will be forced—likely by mobsters—to join unions you do not want to join.

In an era when holding on to one’s job is the paramount concern for broad swaths of the electorate, concerns about labor unions for many outweigh those about civil unions. Until the economy restabilizes, bold economic policies like health care reform, the stimulus, and, yes, card check are the new wedge issues by which a Republican opposition will try to signal that the Democrats have abandoned Real America. Against that backdrop, card check may as well have been gay marriage.

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