The Labor Movement Is 'Woking' Itself to Death | Opinion

In hindsight, the biggest warning sign for the prospects of unionizing Amazon's Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse was, well, a sign: a large placard, posted by organizers outside the facility's entrance, featuring Stacey Abrams dressed as Rosie the Riveter, declaring "We Can Do It!" through a COVID mask.

Adopting the failed gubernatorial candidate and progressive darling as the symbolic heroine of the campaign was part of an effort to link unionization to progressive causes—voting rights, racial justice and gender equity—that organizers thought would appeal to a predominantly Black workforce.

"Stacey the Riveter" may have been a hit with Democratic politicians, who posed for pictures with the sign on visits to the facility. But not so much with the workers themselves. Abrams lost her election by 2 points; the union lost its by more than 30.

Bessemer was hardly the first time that union activists have grafted progressive causes onto the labor movement. The year before, then-AFL-CIO president, Richard Trumka, pledged that organized labor would "be an ally" of the LGBTQ community and Black Lives Matter by "invest[ing] in Black transgender leadership" and "electing candidates...who understand the intersectionality of worker and LGBTQ rights."

This "intersectionality" of labor issues and virtually every progressive social cause has become a defining feature of union activism. United Steelworkers, for instance, has "encourage[d] all local unions to initiate LGBTQ+ activism" led by its Steel Pride affiliate organization. Labor leaders from the SEIU and other national labor unions, meanwhile, have formed the Labor for Equality Council to promote the Equality Act because "LGBTQ rights and labor rights are intrinsically linked." Labor reformers have fallen prey, too. Harvard University's "Clean Slate for Worker Power," for instance, maintains that its blueprint for redesigning labor law "must start with inclusion" and "address systemic racial and gender oppression."

But like the term "Latinx," such rhetoric appeals to credentialed progressives but alienates virtually everyone else. The American Compass Better Bargain Survey asked Americans whether they would be more or less likely to support a politician adopting an emphasis on "inclusion" and "oppression" when speaking about labor reform. College-educated Democrats were the most likely to support a politician speaking that way. Independents and Republicans of all classes said they were less likely to.

By adopting progressive rhetoric at the expense of real organizing, Woke Labor is undermining itself. Unions try to blame their waning economic power and inability to organize workers on employer intimidation and Republican policy, but the reality is that workers don't want what they're offering. The Better Bargain Survey found that less than 40 percent of workers would vote to form a union in their workplace. Ask workers opposed to unionization why they'd vote against it, and the most common reason is union political activity—cited by three-quarters of respondents.

Amazon union protest
People hold signs during a rally at the Amazon Spheres and headquarters in solidarity with Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, who hope to unionize, in Seattle, Washington on March 26, 2021. JASON REDMOND/AFP/Getty Images

Given a list of activities a hypothetical worker organization could do, workers rate politics and social activism as the least important. Given a list of the nearly 20 different political issues that the AFL-CIO and SEIU advertise working on, workers give majority support for working on exactly none of them. By nearly three-to-one, potential union members say they'd prefer an organization that focuses only on workplace issues over one that also takes on national political issues.

Of course, organizing is inherently political in some respects. But today the common economic interests of workers that might form the basis for collective action do not extend to any particular social agenda. Donald Trump won a majority of union households in Ohio and Pennsylvania last November. It's simply infeasible for unions to succeed as partisan political activist organizations under these circumstances.

So long as progressives use the labor movement as a platform for woke politicking, conservatives have the opportunity to build upon President Trump's inroads with the union rank and file. Pursuing worker-focused labor reform offers a promising pathway.

Workers say they want unions out of politics and in the business of supporting them directly. So why not cut them a deal?

For instance, policymakers could allow unions and other worker organizations to receive funding from employers and the government to set up training programs and provide health and unemployment insurance benefits to workers, but prohibit them from spending money on political campaigns or causes. This proposal earns wide support across classes and political parties, according to the Better Bargain Survey. Democrats, independents and Republicans all support it by three-to-one margins.

Neither party enjoys the exclusive allegiance of working-class and union households. If Big Labor and progressive activists have "woked" the labor movement into irrelevance, someone must work to rebuild it to better serve workers. Conservatives can lead the way.

Wells King is the research director at American Compass.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.