Several years ago, I spoke on a panel where an audience member posed the rhetorical question, "Can any of you envision a robust progressive movement that doesn't have organized labor at the center of it?"
The appropriate answer -- the one that wouldn't cause the labor-heavy audience to throw rotten tomatoes at us -- was, "No." And that was also the right answer. None of us could envision a vibrant liberal movement without labor because we'd never seen such a thing. From the New Deal to the civil-rights movement, organized labor has borne much of the weight of a broader progressive vision.
I have carried that question in my head ever since and try to revisit it periodically. Today, I think my answer would be, "We might have to envision it." At a time when workers in the private sector are more vulnerable than ever, organized labor represents only 7.6 percent of them. Labor's best hope of reversing that trend, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), doesn't have enough support to pass in its original form, which includes the "card check" provision allowing a majority of employees to form a union without the current gauntlet of obstacles employers put in their way.
Let's assume, though, that a compromise removes some but not all of those employer obstacles and that EFCA becomes law this year. It will still take some time before union penetration in the private sector starts to increase dramatically, and there may be other reasons that the 1950s relationship between workers and bosses will never be re-created -- for one thing, it is harder for workers to see their employers as adversaries when the company seems as vulnerable as they are. And, as Harold Meyerson has written, the most effective organizing unions have been tragically distracted by internecine warfare for much of the year.
Labor's lack of clout to pass EFCA in even the most overwhelmingly Democratic -- and progressive -- Congress in decades is an indication that we already have a successful progressive movement in which labor plays only a modest role. Union support was less crucial to Obama's nomination and his general election victory than it was to any previous Democratic president, which is why he's not obligated to twist arms to pass the bill. Many Democratic victories in 2008 were in states and districts where labor is weakest, like Virginia and North Carolina. And I know dozens of engaged liberals who have no idea why EFCA matters.
The new progressive coalition follows the lines of the "emerging Democratic majority" that Ruy Teixeira and John Judis predicted in their 2002 book of that name: minority, professional, and younger voters, with help from a large gender gap. This is a coalition that can win without a majority of white working-class voters, whether union members or not. (Those who were union members were always solid Democrats.) In many ways, that's good because it helps to bring an end to the culture wars that limited the party's ability to speak clearly about matters of fundamental rights and justice.
But it's also dangerous. A political coalition that doesn't need Joe the -- fake -- Plumber (John McCain's mascot of the white working class) can also afford to ignore the real Joes, Josés, and Josephines of the working middle class, the ones who earn $16 an hour, not $250,000 a year. It can afford to be unconcerned about the collapse of manufacturing jobs, casually reassuring us that more education is the answer to all economic woes. A party of professionals and young voters risks becoming a party that overlooks the core economic crisis--not the recession but the 40-year crisis--that is wiping out the American dream for millions of workers and communities that are never going to become meccas for foodies and Web designers.
Reclaiming the labor movement's role at the center of progressivism might involve thinking beyond the traditional model of organizing workplaces for collective bargaining. Perhaps it involves creating more fluid, transactional means of politically empowering working people, like the AFL-CIO's Working America affiliate. Forms of organization evolve, with direct-mail single-issue organizations like the Sierra Club giving way to online, participatory structures like MoveOn.org, and the structure of the labor movement may have to change as well.
The rest of the progressive world needs to feel a sense of moral obligation about questions like the future of American manufacturing and the working middle class. I can begin to imagine a progressive coalition that doesn't have organized labor, as we know it, at its core. But I don't want to imagine one that doesn't have those concerns at its heart.