Unions, liberalism, and a tragic age

Last week, labor organizers finally won a vote to unionize an Amazon warehouse. Amazon, of course, spent multiple fortunes attempting to bust the union before it began (and is still trying to get the election result thrown out).

Organizers are, justifiably, very proud of their effort. They have fought and fought, losing again and again, with the unionbusting abuses by Amazon growing more and more outrageous. It is quite understandable they should feel like this is their achievement.

Yet as people celebrate victories like this, I keep feeling like something is getting left out. Even as working Americans are becoming eagerly pro-union, in relative terms, the whole foundations beneath organized labor are under an assault which has little standing in its way.

Our political system, including too much of the Democratic Party, has either dismantled collective bargaining protections or permitted their dismantling for decades. It is, again, very understandable that a lot of people fighting for these unions feel like they’re doing it on their own, without help from government, without allies among politicians. The fight is unreasonably hard, the elections are absurdly unfair, corporate employers violate rules basically with impunity.

But the very existence of rules at all, of elections which can be won, of the specific prize for which they judge the fight to be worth it—all of this is policy infrastructure which was created by politics and which politics is taking away.

There is a clear difference between the Democrats who mostly, very belatedly, support not only preserving collective bargaining rights but strengthening them considerably, and the Republicans who not only want to shred what remains of those rights into confetti, but also want to rig the political system so that Republican power and policies are permanent.

I don’t get the impression that this is at all a consideration among the resurgent labor organizing movement, let alone the public which professes broad support for it, or that it is close to becoming a consideration.

As usual, I don’t think there is much which can realistically be done about this, at this point; I like to believe that things could be otherwise but I’m not sure how. Complacency is obviously a big part of human nature, or at least human culture. Things work a certain way for a while and most people just stop taking seriously a possibility of them not working that way.

It seems to be a much bigger issue than unions and collective bargaining rights, too. I have mentioned Teri Kanfield’s interesting observation that most people just don’t notice or imagine how much even a frustrating, pitiful, dysfunctional liberal democratic government improves their lives compared with an entirely unrestrained autocracy, and that I quite agree. Just this evening I listened to my state representative talk about how, amid hotbutton controversies which at least some people notice, the Republicans who run Ohio are regularly changing laws to take away e.g. more and more consumer protections, with basically zero notice.

Meanwhile, while this can be explained as ignorance, complacency, apathy, etc. I think that it can also usefully be thought of as a tendency for infrastructure to be taken for granted, a tendency which liberal institutions themselves seem to share. From journalism which relies on actively protected press freedoms, to advocacy organizations which rely on legislators who care about public input, to political organizations which rely on elections being winnable, to almost the whole array which relies on a fair and impartial legal system; American liberalism just seems incapable of dealing effectively with the assault on these things, probably in part because most people have neither the imagination nor the training to make any alternative seem real until well after it has become real. The international liberal order seems similarly at a loss.

It astounds me how slow learning is, generally; this is really kind of a separate topic, but the past week’s “discovery” that invading Russians committed horrible war crimes in Ukraine just felt surreal. I mean, we established this weeks ago, I have receipts?

I have to suppose realization that the buttons and doors and other infrastructure of liberal democracy just aren’t workable will be very slow in coming, too slow.

I like to imagine that it could be otherwise, that infrastructure like this can somehow be more valued, both to protect it and to assist the case for further progress, through better understanding that people are benefiting from collective action and not simply “getting it done on their own” in natural conditions. Just as I like to imagine that a stronger democracy is possible, maybe even one capable of the challenges of a huge multiethnic empire like the US.

But I don’t think we have or are anywhere close to the kind of systems which could accomplish that.

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