The last few months have demonstrated why institutions such as universities and corporations should stay out of politics. Labor unions, apparently, didn’t get the memo.
The United Auto Workers union recently signed a statement with dozens of other groups, including teachers’ and postal-worker unions, demanded a ceasefire in the Israel–Hamas war. The auto union claimed that the move resembled its past statements against apartheid in South Africa, and argued that, because the Israel–Palestine issue is so divisive among its members, peace in the region is in everyone’s best interest.
A lasting peace is indeed desirable, but the UAW’s statement is not a neutral call for peace. It demands the release of hostages but is otherwise one-sided. The signatories call for a ceasefire in Gaza and do not demand that Hamas stop firing rockets, let alone be stripped of power. The UAW and the other unions fail to mention how, exactly, Israel is supposed to forge a lasting peace with an organization committed to its destruction.
Unlike other institutions in hot water lately, unions have always been overtly political organizations, endorsing candidates, donating to campaigns, and using their political muscle to advocate for favorable policies. And when their membership mostly voted Democratic, this arrangement made some sense for the unions’ survival—though it was not great for the country and, in the case of public-sector unions, the taxpayer. But unions taking hard-left activist positions on social issues and on foreign affairs is harder to justify. Many of their members do not identify as liberal, and some even vote Republican. In one survey, a majority of union members said that they’d prefer that unions stay out of causes that don’t pertain to the workplace. Meantime, the UAW has an increasingly politically diverse membership, and given declines in manufacturing, it now represent more service workers, such as graduate students. If the UAW wishes to grow and keep its members happy, it will need to represent a wide range of political opinions—from those of an autoworker of Lebanese descent to those of an Israeli graduate student.
A union’s value is already questionable in a changing economy. As jobs become more mechanized and employers reward more productive workers, unions’ economic model becomes harder to justify. This may be why many people support unions in the abstract but don’t want to join one themselves.
The UAW won higher wages for its members this fall. But rather than take the win, it became more explicitly progressive, even as its most loyal long-term members—blue-collar workers—become more conservative. Demanding that their members fork over dues that effectively back political causes they might oppose will only further erode union’s support.
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