The Real Enemy of Unions

Article/Op-Ed in Washington Monthly
Felix Lipov /
May 1, 2011

Barry Lynn wrote in Washington Monthly about how small business owners and union members have a shared enemy: monopoly. 

Last August, on a blazing-hot Nebraska evening, I sat in a cool hotel bar in downtown Omaha and listened as a team of Dockers-clad union organizers joked, drank, and argued their way into an alliance with a group of southern and western ranchers. The organizers, from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), made a simple argument: Meat-packing houses like JBS and Smithfield their already immense power swelled from years of mergersare using their dominance of cattle markets to hammer down what they pay for beef and for in-house unionized meatcutters. So rather than scrap over nickels, perhaps the ranchers and workers should lock arms and fight for bigger stakes.
Cowboys and labor? Plotting together? Polo shirt and bolo tie? In recent years, the two groups have, on occasion, signed the same statements against foreign trade. But closer to home, ranchers and unions have tended to view one another as rivals for the same wafer-thin slice of the retail dollar and as parties on opposite ends of a gaping cultural divide. It wasnt easy, one union organizer summed it up recently. In recent years, we have not been friends.
Yet half a year on, its evident that the alliance was no momentary fling, no mere enemy of my enemy excuse to clink a few beer bottles before stumbling back to opposite ends of the political corral. When the Justice Department held a series of hearings last year on concentration in agriculture markets, including cattle, the UFCW helped to pack the room for the cattlemens testimony, one of the only times in recent decades that an American labor union has promoted stronger enforcement of anti-monopoly law.