Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

About That Big Labor Union Victory

facepalmIt’s an emerging Washington pundit-class genre: Big Labor’s big comeback. But as with many Beltway memes, there’s often less than meets the eye. And so it is with the latest round of stories. A couple of weeks ago, we saw the following three headlines after a trade bill lost a procedural vote (from Politico, The New York Times, and The Atlantic, respectively):

Labor won POLITICO

Labor's Might NYT

Big Win Atlantic


“Labor’s Might.” “Huge win for labor.” “Big Win for Big Labor.” Oh really? Well, not so much, it turns out. The bill that labor blocked (Trade Promotion Authority, which sets rules for final negotiations and approval or rejection of trading arrangements) was revised and just passed Congress, with the President expected to sign it. The big, huge win that revealed labor’s might … lasted all of two weeks.

Now, if you happened to browse the headlines, you might have missed the reversal. Neither The Atlantic, the New York Times, nor Politico—the sources of the triumphant headlines above—mentioned unions’ defeat in their headlines on the final passage of Trade Promotion Authority Wednesday. The Wall Street Journal recognized the fortnight’s switch in fortunes:

WSJ Licks Wounds


After talking tough about cutting off pro-trade Democrats from its political slush funds and suspending contributions until trade was defeated, the AFL-CIO and Richard Trumka have turned the taps back on, acknowledging certain defeat. Despite numerous “hot takes” and think-pieces on how labor was turning a corner, there isn’t evidence that that is happening. The SEIU’s efforts to organize the restaurant industry have seen something like $50 million chase essentially no gain in membership to date. Now the AFL-CIO’s much-ballyhooed “huge win” on trade has evaporated before it sank in. We can be certain that Beltway pundits will proclaim Big Labor’s renaissance again: It’s almost as certain that it will be more rhetoric than reality.


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