Why Unions Are the Seeds of Democracy

Scott Walker has struck another blow against democracy.

On Monday, the Republican Wisconsin governor signed into law a bill that made Wisconsin the nation’s 25th right-to-work-for-less state. For Badger State workers, this is nothing short of a disaster. Contrary to what you might hear on Fox So-Called News or read in The Wall Street Journal, right-to-work-for-less laws are not a recipe for economic success.

In fact, according to the Economic Policy Institute, “8 of the 10 worst states in terms of quality of life are [right-to-work] states.” And that’s not even the worst of it.

Studies also show that workers in right-to-work-for-less states make less money, get skimpier health benefits, and are more likely to die on the job than workers in Union Security states. Republicans, of course, like to argue that all this doesn’t matter because right-to-work-for-less states have lower unemployment rates.

But that claim doesn’t really hold up to much scrutiny.

In reality, 7 of the top 10 states in terms of unemployment rate are right-to-work-for-less states, and if anything, the lower unemployment rate in some right-to-work-for-less states probably has more to do with population size than union-busting.

So whatever way you look at it, right-to-work-for-less laws like Wisconsin’s are a raw deal, both for workers and the states they live in. They also pose a mortal threat to a democratic workplace, and that’s arguably a much bigger problem. That’s because the real purpose of right-to-work-for-less-laws isn’t to lower wages or gut health benefits - although those are some nice side benefits as far as corporate America is concerned.

No, the real purpose of right-to-work-for-less laws is to totally gut the negotiating power of unions, the most important check we have against concentrated wealth and power.

You see, in its natural state, capitalism looks a lot like feudalism. The CEO is the King, and often lives and travels like one. The senior executives are the Lords, and amass great wealth and control the lives and fates of those under them.

The workers, on the other hand, are serfs, and if they dare defy the king or his lords, they can be punished in ways up to and including imprisonment. This was the way it was for most of our history until the 1930’s when labor unions, after years of violence at the hand of elite corporate bosses, finally won the right to organize.

The result was a two-generations-long period of economic equality that Reagan abruptly ended in the 1980’s when he began the modern day war on labor.

Make no mistake - unions were fundamental to the broad levels of prosperity that we saw between the New Deal and the Reagan Revolution. That’s because, like the legislative branch in our checks-and-balances system of government, unions are a counterweight to the power of the executive.

Without that counterweight, capitalism reverts back to its feudal origins, which is exactly what’s happened since the Reagan years.

Thanks to the right’s war on labor, union membership is now at a decades-long low, and, as a result wealth inequality is now at a decades-long high.

But unions don’t just make the economy more democratic, they also make the political system more democratic. Unions are the seeds of small “d” democracy.

When people join unions, they learn what it’s like to work cooperatively towards a common goal and they learn the value of direct action against entrenched power. It’s no coincidence that the period in American history that saw the highest levels of union participation in the workplace also saw high levels of political activism, and it’s no coincidence that as union membership has plummeted over the past few decades, so too has the faith average Americans put in our political system.

It’s time for that to change. Faith in democracy, whether it be in Washington or the workplace, is fundamental to the survival of our republic.

So call your local congressperson today to tell them you support card check, oppose right-to-work-for-less laws, and believe that, as the old labor song goes, “there is power in a union.”


Kend's picture
Kend 7 years 46 weeks ago

This is nothing like feudalism. You can not rise to the top in feudalism. Capitalism you can.

debcef's picture
debcef 7 years 46 weeks ago

As a 6th generation Wisconsinite I live daily with Walker's damaging actions. As a retired educator I am appalled by his attempts to destroy our public schools. I implore readers and listeners of yours to read Diane Ravitch's blog where you'll find a complication of articles and insights on Corporate attempts to

to privitize our schools. Also, please read Robert Putnam's new book "Our Kids."

It is eye-opening and gut-wrenching!

johnbest's picture
johnbest 7 years 46 weeks ago

That doesn't make sense. If one cannot rise to the top in feudalism then how did they get so rich? The Cock Brothers got rich inheriting their father's millions he earned building refineries for Stalin in the 1930's. Many of the other billionaires also got rich through inheritance. They are the greedy 1% who have reduced us to feudalism. You see, it all started with Saint Raygun. Some of the 1% like Buffet earned their millions and are decent human beings. The ones who inherited it are assholes.

chuckle8's picture
chuckle8 7 years 46 weeks ago

Kend -- Do you know what social mobility is? Before raygun the US was among the top, maybe 3rd, in social mobility Now with raygunomics we are near the bottom. These stats are among the OECD nations.

The US is not at absolute feudalism yet. The trajectory is headed that way. Us lefties what to reverse that trajectory.

PFNELKAK 7 years 46 weeks ago

assumed you ment. 'compilation'
Do you have Diane's website?

Loren Bliss's picture
Loren Bliss 7 years 46 weeks ago

Mr. Hartmann clearly knows the great good unions have done for us and why they are more vital than ever. I know those facts too, as do most visitors to this website. But most of today's U.S.citizens, their minds locked down by Ayn Rand public schools, have no clue: a genuine Moron Nation, they reject the truth of class struggle just as vehemently as they reject the truths of evolution, terminal climate-change and racial or gender equality. And we ourselves are not without guilt in this dismal process, for too many us have forgotten unions would never have won human rights for workers here were it not for the fact the Soviet Union with its threat of global Marxism terrified the U.S. Ruling Class into making the (minimal) humanitarian concessions our capitalist overlords have now all but abolished...forever.

2950-10K's picture
2950-10K 7 years 46 weeks ago

Unions are a form of representative democracy, vital to the workplace. Only a fool, or someone who has never worked for a living, would trust and believe that a common characteristic of a non union workplace is benevolent dictatorship. Greed requires intervention, without collective bargaining you end up with Walmart.

The Fascists especially hate unions because we are a voting bloc to be reckoned with, a voting bloc that rarely sides with their Republican Party.

ezwriter's picture
ezwriter 7 years 46 weeks ago

Does anyone know that our government was intended to be a republic? Check out Aaron Russo on youtube, the difference between a democracy and a republic. I prefer the sovereignty of a republic.

Ben Franklin said, "A democracy is when two wolves and a sheep are deciding what to have for dinner, and a republic is when the sheep has a gun"!

2950-10K's picture
2950-10K 7 years 46 weeks ago

Thomas Jefferson said: "The government is the srongest of which every man feels himself a part."

debcef's picture
debcef 7 years 46 weeks ago

Thanks for catching that error. Her

website is at: dianeravitch.net

Cainer's picture
Cainer 7 years 46 weeks ago

The Koch Bros. are a perfect example as to why we need to raise the inheritance tax. Once these 2 SOBs die off, what kind of empire might they leave behind to their progeny? America was not founded on the principles of royalty and their continuance and the Kochs are a perfect example of why this practice must be stopped.

Kend's picture
Kend 7 years 46 weeks ago

John the Koch bros made a lot more money than their father did. Yes it was easier with the start they had but many families blow their inheritance. Kings only loose their wealth to other kings. This goes both ways. The Kennedy's made there money bootlegging hooch and it was passed down. The Clinton's made money, well who knows how, and their daughter is all ready worth millions.

chicagotim's picture
chicagotim 7 years 46 weeks ago

I grew up in a "right to work" state. My father voluntarily belonged to the union where he worked because he felt like it was the right thing to do, and he wanted a say in what the union did. Others chose not to join and would only go along with the union on walk outs or strikes if it seemed just to them. How is that not a democracy in action? Does mandatory membership somehow make it more democratic?

chicagotim's picture
chicagotim 7 years 46 weeks ago

Really? Millions of us have never been in a union and somehow seem to eek out a very nice living by having something better than a union card... it's called a college diploma. When I don't care for how I've been treated, I get another job. I've worked at places that were decimated by people quitting for greener pastures. I'd much rather chart my own course than wait for "big daddy" to bend to the demands of the union. I think that's how the vast majority of white collar professionals operate in this century. And as America is rapidly becoming white collar...

RLTOWNSLEY's picture
RLTOWNSLEY 7 years 46 weeks ago

@ johnbest, They're called family Dynasties and the Right in this country continues to support their existence with ongoing reductions of inheritance taxes that insures the continued existence of future generations with the same family name and objectives, Thom is right, this system is identical to Feudalism where the leaders of these Dynasties amass and retain great wealth that is generated by the work of their serfs under them yet the leaders maintain full control over all the wealth and the lives of the serfs.

RLTOWNSLEY's picture
RLTOWNSLEY 7 years 46 weeks ago


Obviously you've missed the change with most White Collar jobs being outsourced over the Internet to foreign companies with highly educated employees working for much less money and no benefits. Your very expensive college education, that has led to the creation of an array of economic classes that are increasingly dividing us as a country, now qualifies you to get first dibs on those jobs at 7/11 ! Current statistics show that 40% of recent college graduates are still living at home after months, and sometimes years, searching for a job that will allow them to live independently and payoff their massive college debt. Your Right wing, 'Every One For Themselves', mantra is rapidly leading in one direction, the descent of this country into a third world economy competing to be the lowest cost provider of labor for the rest of the planet. Once the TPP is signed off, and it will be because there's no unified groups left to stop it, you and many others will finally see those expensive degrees for what they are, just another con to get your money ! Unions were our last chance to do what the oligarchs have long fought against, organizing average working Americans into a unified group that was able to demand safe and stable living conditions that promoted what we once cherished in this country, freedom from the economic tyranny that now threatens the very existence of this Constitutional Republic.

mathboy's picture
mathboy 7 years 46 weeks ago

Our system is unlike feudalism (or rather manorialism), in that manorialism started with a firm division of classes--land owners and everyone else. The only way to rise in class was through marriage or murder.

The U.S. is more like the fading stage of medieval times when the aristocrats had amassed enough wealth to rival the power of the nobles and kings, to make the official government their puppets. This had nothing to do with manorialism or feudalism; it was a replacement of them. Democracy was supposed to make that wealth irrelevant, and it has failed at it.

mathboy's picture
mathboy 7 years 46 weeks ago

Since ezwriter feels like repeating himself, I will too.

The senses of "republic" and "democracy" have evolved in the last 200 years. In modern parlance, a republic has an elected executive, and a democracy has an elected legislature. These are much more useful definitions.

Acting as if the prototypes are the only legitimate uses of the terms annoys me. The people in the Roman Republic elected exactly 2 officials--the consuls. The legislature worked the same as it had under the Roman Kingdom (in which one person--the king--was elected for life by the senate and the curiae). The Senate was unelected, and the people (only those within the city itself) were divided into 30 curiae, each of which had one vote. By the way, the USSR was a republic (that's what the 'R' stands for), but it didn't have anything like representation of the popular will. Nor did Saddam's Republic of Iraq or Kaddafi's Republic of Libya. The Athenian form of democracy can be fitted into the definition I gave above. Due to the small scale of that nation, a citizen with certain qualifications could elect himself as one of 6,000 representatives of the entire populace in something like a proportional representation system (each qualified citizen being a different party).

RichardofJeffersonCity's picture
RichardofJeffer... 7 years 46 weeks ago

I've written about the importance of society organizing into democratic institution like unions for a long time now.. I have blog post here at Thom's blogs, as well as, my own blog.




This is just a handful if anybody is interested - Here is link to my blog with a lot more on unions and democratic organizing along with other opinion pieces and forum responses from other activities.


chuckle8's picture
chuckle8 7 years 46 weeks ago

ezwriter -- However, I prefer a democracy to our current state of governance. In our current state of goverance (based on the Ben Franklin quote) one of the wolves enslaves the other wolf to serve him the sheep for lunch. If the sheep had a gun, the oligarch sheep would have a tank.

chuckle8's picture
chuckle8 7 years 46 weeks ago

Does anyone disagree that when we say "democracy" that we mean a constitutionally limited democratically represented republic? It is just so much easier to say democracy.

PaulHosse's picture
PaulHosse 7 years 46 weeks ago

Unions have represented the foil to the power of the corporations. Unions have served to not just to grow the Middle Class, but to protect the interests of the Middle Class from the greed and power of Big Business. As unions have continued to decline, we've witnessed the corresponding decline of the Middle Class to the point where it doesn't seriously exist any longer as a class, but rather on the same side of the economic gulf as, and apart of, the Working Class.

With unions, we saw more than just better wages and benefits, we saw better and safer work environments, more fair working conditions. We saw better treatment o employees, improved hiring conditions for minorities. Home ownerships increased as did opportunities to attend trade schools and college. In fact we saw an continuing improvement in the overall quality of life, not just for employees, but across the board.

Now, with unions all but gone in the private sector and in trouble in the public sector, we've watched the decline of real wages in terms of earning power, the reduction or elimination of benefits, the near disappearence of the Middle Class, and an increasing mistreatment of workers (a "take it or leave it" attitude by management). Unions, with all their problems, have served the American Workforce as the a counter weight to the power of Wallstreet's boardrooms.

Mark J. Saulys's picture
Mark J. Saulys 7 years 46 weeks ago

ChicagoTim, people still benefit from unions even when they don't belong to them because of the effect unions have on an economy and a society in general that empowers the common worker and citizen. Union negotiated compensation and working conditions set a standard for the whole industry and the whole society and political economy.
It is not democratic for individual workers to choose against democracy. Workers and common, I.e., not-rich, people in general only have political and economic power if they unite. Anyway, the working person who doesn't want membership of a union and is not wildly decieved does not, outside of putative theory, exist.

Mark J. Saulys's picture
Mark J. Saulys 7 years 46 weeks ago

Unions also advocate on common people's issues outside the workplace in the general political and economic arena and every member should be able to participate.

Mark J. Saulys's picture
Mark J. Saulys 7 years 46 weeks ago

Kend, Kend, Kend, Kend, Kend, capitalism naturally gravitates toward a system of inherited wealth, power and privilege and then sowing it up for just a few families. Without things like free or very affordable college education, unions and other things that prevent too much income inequality there is very little social mobility in a society and social status is, in effect, mostly inherited.

mathboy's picture
mathboy 7 years 46 weeks ago

Franklin's quip uses "democracy" to mean an untempered democracy, one involving the tyranny of a majority (two wolves against one sheep). But what the U.S. has is some mechanisms (the sheep's gun) to avoid that tyranny: decentralization of power, over-representation of minorities, and under-representation of majorities. Those don't really make it a different form of government.

Aliceinwonderland's picture
Aliceinwonderland 7 years 46 weeks ago

Kend says “You can not rise to the top in feudalism. Capitalism you can."

Remember, Kend: Shit floats.

chuckle8's picture
chuckle8 7 years 46 weeks ago

I still think just pass "card check" and the middle class will return.

All we need is 61 dems in the senate and a majority in the house.

Progressive Republican's picture
Progressive Rep... 7 years 44 weeks ago

It was intended to be a reprsentative[democratic] republic. A pure democracy is essentally mob rule.

I'll pass.

chuckle8's picture
chuckle8 7 years 43 weeks ago

I would be against a pure democracy because I would have to read all those damn bills.

Why does anyone believe that pure democracy would be mob rule?

Pure democracies seem to have the common thread that no one shows up to vote (e.g. ancient Greece and labor unions).

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