One, we don’t know enough about Lew’s actions while at the NYU to draw any definitive conclusions; he certainly wasn’t working in concert with or on behalf of the organizers. Yet it’s important to appreciate that this wasn’t his job. If he made some kind of decisive push against them, one that wouldn’t have happened in his absence, then that’s significant and something lefties are right to find appalling. But we don’t know — maybe we can find out during Senate hearings, though I doubt it.
Second and more important is whether or not Lew will actually be influencing policy rather than merely implementing it. The 2012 elections resulted in something of a two-sided political retrenchment, with the perpetuation of the status quo near-guaranteeing that no stimulus is in the offing for 2013. The near-term policy goal for liberals? Less austerity than there might be otherwise — at best. (Not quite Braveheart’s “Freedom!” when it comes to rallying cries.)
With the debt ceiling near at hand, however, the option of literally doing nothing is out of the picture. Doing nothing means potential economic armageddon. So there will have to be negotiations — even if the negotiations are over whether or not there should be negotiations. And that’s where Lew’s decades of experience in DC’s back rooms becomes valuable, potentially so valuable as to outweigh his ideological shortcomings. Don’t take my word for it: skip ahead to 3:12 and hear Paul Krugman, no Obama apologist, say the same.
Since I can’t speak to the behind-closed-doors persuasiveness of Lew, I’d like to instead comment on Isquith’s initial inclination: that is, to tweet “If Jack Lew’s job had anything to do with labor unions, this would matter.”
To me, what’s troubling is the clear delineation Isquith posits between cabinet positions which affect labor and positions which are immaterial to labor. In his mind, one can easily classify the duties of the treasury secretary as outside those narrowly defined boundaries; Lew, you see, would be advising the president on economic policy and negotiating over the debt ceiling—not say, enforcing labor law or conferring with Richard Trumka. (Lew’s role would also be quite different than his predecessor, Tim Geithner, even if they’d be occupying the same position.) Thus, whether Lew’s actions as an NYU administrator amounted to union busting—a matter I won’t wade into, though I’m loath to quibble with Josh Eidelson’s reporting—isn’t germane to his possible ascension to treasury secretary.
For those who put workers’ rights and economic justice at the center of their political project, however, Lew’s views and actions vis-a-vis organizing struggles are absolutely relevant. Every cabinet post, but especially those tasked with overseeing or crafting some facet of domestic policy, is relevant to labor, to workers. The degree of impact on the livelihood and freedom of workers varies from position to position, of course. But Isquith—not out of conscious anti-union animus, I’d hasten to add—is thinking about this in an insidious way. His easy compartmentalization of what positions will and won’t affect unions serves to reduce labor to a constituency or interest group.
And a weak one at that. Union density is low, workers are relatively impotent. A regrettable state of affairs, Isquith allows, but the inescapable reality, to Isquith, is that this further shrinks the decisions and posts that labor can claim affects it. Unions are no longer redoubtable movers and shaker. They don’t impact macroeconomic policy. They’re not a powerful constituency. But where does this leave workers?
Government rulings and statutes—most notably, the Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947 despite President Truman’s veto—have boxed in unions and induced them to act on a narrow set of issues that affect their members. Unfortunately, the proscription of certain solidarity-enhancing tactics—secondary boycotts, for example, which Taft-Hartly outlawed—has also often been exacerbated by union parochialism.
In short, narrowness of vision and narrow definitions of interests impede the construction of a vibrant labor movement—yes, one composed of unions and associated groups, but one engaged in a broader fight for social and economic justice. Stunted conceptions of labor by its would-be allies don’t aid that fight.