Can Unions Rebuild Our Democracy?

Our institutions have failed to protect democracy. Can unions take up the fight?

Alex Han

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

For so many of us, these are mostly dark times interrupted by brief windows of hope — and the road ahead is daunting. No matter how this year’s presidential election plays out, the contest’s ultimate winner will surely be pessimism, one of the few things Americans across the political spectrum seem to be in alignment on: pessimism for the future, pessimism for possibilities of transformation, pessimism for the idea that justice will win the day.

We exist in a political system built on institutions seemingly unable to fulfill even the basic function of producing policies that huge majorities of Americans support, like lower prescription drug prices, less debt, increasing the minimum wage, a cease-fire in Gaza. It’s no wonder that public polling shows, according to the Pew Research Center, that Americans’ views of politics and elected officials are unrelentingly negative, with little hope of improvement on the horizon.”

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There’s little evidence that our political system is anything but broken, and confidence in these failing institutions — from Congress to the news media to organized religion to the Supreme Court to the White House — continues to decline.

The necessary conversations in our movement spaces are mostly quite simple: What’s left? What’s worth salvaging? What can we carry with us? For those of us who see the power and potential of organized workers, the questions are sharper: What has our crumbling democracy meant for working people? Where are the centers of power within our labor movements? And, most importantly, can unions and workers ultimately change the horizons we’re walking toward?

(It is important to note that — from Starbucks Workers United to the United Auto Workers—we’ve seen some hopeful examples recently of unions setting such new horizons.)

One of our biggest challenges in answering these questions is that our politics — within labor, within our social movements — don’t seem to evolve; they only stumble from crisis to crisis. We exist in an interconnected landscape that previous generations could never have imagined, but the algorithmically fueled engines of online interaction seem to divide and distract as much as they connect. The panopticon of social media has actually served to atomize us, endangering the very idea of collective experience and action.

It would be a mistake to simply blame our pitfalls on technology. For all our talk of solidarity, we have to be honest with ourselves that our movements so rarely live up to anything that truly resembles and honors it. Part of this conundrum is a familiar dynamic — for many of us on the practical Left,” our view of the world has been defined by what we are not and the forces we are arrayed against. But the answers aren’t as simple as saying what we are for” and what we are against,” which can force us into cycles of reaction.

The necessary conversations in our movement spaces are mostly quite simple: What’s left? What’s worth salvaging? What can we carry with us?

Our response must be a refusal to allow our imaginations to be limited by our immediate needs — and recognize instead that the steps toward building a better world require setting our sights and horizons higher than mere survival. 

We desperately need these new horizons, and we need to raise them beyond the contours of our practicality.

Demonizing enemies is an adequate organizing strategy for the nihilist Right, which aims to hold onto power for the good of a handful of elites. If our project is not just defending democracy — but demanding and creating it — then we require a different approach.

We should open ourselves to seeing the signs of a bigger horizon wherever we can find them. Is the demand for a shorter workweek one that can help us lift our eyes? Can we imagine reconstructing our unions and organizations into ones that can respond to our real needs and hopes?

Labor is, indeed, the source of all wealth. The collective actions of those who provide that labor are the building blocks of democracy — and the way to construct new horizons.

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Alex Han is Executive Director of In These Times. He has organized with unions, in the community, and in progressive politics for two decades. In addition to serving as Midwest Political Director for Bernie 2020, he’s worked to amplify the power of community and labor organizations at Bargaining for the Common Good, served as a Vice President of SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana for over a decade, and helped to found United Working Families, an independent political organization in Illinois that has elected dozens of working-class leaders to city, state and federal office. Most recently he was executive editor of Convergence Magazine.

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