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Fate of the Union

Organized labor is steadily declining in membership and influence. Survival will require a radical shift.
 
 
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The news keeps getting worse for unions. According to the federal government, organized labor fell to 12.5 percent of the workforce in 2004, down from 12.9 percent in 2003. The percentage of private-sector workers in unions went from 8.2 percent to 7.9 percent. That's the lowest level since the early 1900's.

A dramatic and telling example of union shrinkage took place just last month. It didn't make the national news, but 50,000 workers lost their contracts and their bargaining rights when the newly-elected Republican governors of Indiana and Missouri took office and promptly reversed executive orders by previous governors that gave state workers collective bargaining rights.

All indications are that these kinds of assaults will increase. After Nov. 2, 2004, influential Republican strategist Grover Norquist proclaimed a broad campaign to further decimate organized labor as a high priority.

Labor's precipitous decline and its failure to assure victory for John Kerry have intensified debate within the "House of Labor" and its formal coordinating body, the AFL-CIO. On Jan. 10, a special meeting of the AFL-CIO executive committee reportedly agreed on a series of measures to restructure the organization in the direction of proposals made by Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, (SEIU). Formal approval for the changes will likely come at the March 1 meeting of the AFL-CIO Executive Council and, if necessary, at the AFL-CIO convention this summer.

Stern has been an increasingly outspoken advocate of the need for change. Notably, SEIU is one of the few unions to claim net membership growth in recent years. And growth is what it set out to achieve a few years ago by undertaking a major internal restructuring and reallocation of resources to organizing. Based on what Stern sees as SEIU's own success and its power as the largest union in the AFL-CIO, he has been advocating a similar restructuring and consolidation of the labor federation as a way to begin reversing the decline of union membership and influence. To that end, SEIU has proposed a "unite to win" plan.

How Did We Get Here?

Over the last four decades, two "weather" patterns have converged to create the proverbial perfect storm for labor.

The first is intensified employer opposition. The widespread perception is that unions are dying. The reality is that unions are being murdered. Years before the 1980 high-profile defeat of PATCO (the air traffic controllers union) by then-President Ronald Reagan, employers and their ideological allies were adopting an aggressive effort to deunionize the United States.

Just how employers wage a typical union-busting campaign was recently described in a long-overdue expose in The New York Times titled, "How Do You Drive Out a Union? South Carolina Factory Provides A Textbook Case," on Dec. 14, 2004. It's enlightening and worthwhile reading.

Union-busting is increasingly a large and lucrative crusade. It brings together managers, highly paid anti-union lawyers, "human relations" experts and communications specialists to pound into submission workers who even might support unionization. The deunionization jihad also works incessantly and effectively to discredit any and all unions in the minds of the general public. As if that weren't enough, the global mobility of capital has evolved to create exactly the right environment to make good on employer threats to eliminate union work, especially in the private sector.

And so the once viable, if not downright mighty, have fallen. The United Auto Workers (UAW) has less than one-third the members it had at its peak. Its penetration among the core membership in vehicle assembly is lower every single day than it was the day before. There is no longer a Rubber Workers union. It was absorbed by the also shrunken steelworkers union (USWA) after a ruinous strike left the Rubber Workers union battered and broke. The list goes on.

The response of unions to the assault by the union-busters has been slow, unimaginative and essentially ineffective. Self-inflicted wounds — corruption scandals, parochialism of all sorts, ill-advised strikes, self-serving, top-down leadership and more — don't help either.

Is A Big Change Right Around the Corner?

So, does the widely reported "ferment" in the AFL-CIO mean that necessary changes are now on the way and labor's fortunes will begin to reverse? In a word: No.

For starters, the "reform" proposals under consideration don't really address the problem of how to overcome employer opposition in any fundamental way. Even more important, they ignore or underestimate the other "global warming" trends that are melting the trade union organizations of the 20th century at such a rapid pace.

Yes, as the reformers say, the world has changed much and the AFL-CIO has changed little. But that is only a symptom. Generally speaking, the unions that make up the Federation haven't changed very much either because they have not recognized or acknowledged just how much the economic, political and social conditions of today differ from those that gave birth to the unions. The world has gone digital and the unions are selling film products.

This was quite evident at a "Labor at the Crossroads" conference last December in New York, sponsored by the Queens College Labor Resource Center and its quarterly publication New Labor Forum . The speakers were a who's who of high ranking, "new thinking" union officials, union-friendly academics and journalists. But only one, New York Daily News columnist and activist, Juan Gonzales argued that, "We have no analysis and no clear vision of what we have to offer." Not one other plenary speaker wondered, as did Gonzales, whether it means something different "to be a labor movement in the heart of the biggest empire ever."

To be sure, all of labor acknowledges the threat of globalization and the sheer size, reach and power of anti-union corporations such as Wal-Mart — but that's about as deep as is goes. The core narrative — "boss bad, unionized workers good" — differs little today from the story that labor has told since at least the 1930's. It's as though the New Deal was the pinnacle — and the end — of human progress.

Consider that organized labor still insists that unions are critical to sustaining the American middle class. At the risk of being rude, isn't that a great big elephant there in labor's living room? Hardly anyone, including employers, denies that industrial unions were essential in creating the middle class as we understand it today. But clearly, unions are not sustaining the middle class in 2005. Nor have they been for quite some time.

If being middle-class has something to do with having stuff — cars, homes, boats, cell phones, meals at restaurants, college tuition, foreign travel, big screen TV's, computers — there are scores of millions of American workers who don't belong to unions but who still have lots of stuff. (Many U.S. workers, of course, don’t; they are desperately poor. But that was also true when unions were at their peak membership and power.)

So, if millions and millions of workers have lots of stuff and if unions are down to representing a single digit fraction of the private sector work force, how are these workers getting it? Good question. Let us note some of the ways:

  • Massive personal debt. Hypothetical question: If workers at a certain General Motors plant in Flint, Mich. back in 1935 had VISA cards in their wallets, would they have sat down for 44 consecutive days? Would they have needed to? Would they have felt too much in bondage to risk it?
  • More work, less leisure. The U.S. ranks very high among industrial nations in the number of hours worked. Today's version of Ozzie Nelson of 1950's TV sitcom fame is working way more than 40 hours a week, and quite often at more than one job. Harriet has a job or two as well. And so do David and Ricky.
  • Technology and productivity. Mass production has become mass in ways undreamed of in the 1930's. That means there is a lot of stuff to be had.
  • High volume production, combined with the shameless exploitation of Third World labor also creates low prices. That makes more stuff available even to low-income people, many of whom get it at Wal-Mart. The stuff bar has moved dramatically. Consider: While union membership is the lowest in a century, home ownership is the highest ever. Or this: In constant dollars it takes less working hours today to pay for a new car than it did 20 or 10 or two years ago.

Quantitative change has become qualitative. The middle class, once created, begets the middle class. For example, you own your own home. You trade up once or twice. Your home appreciates. You can then borrow more. The net result is a consumer economy that feeds on itself — with, of course, a lot of help from advertising and other stimuli made possible by all-pervasive mass communications.

To be sure, economic inequality has also grown dramatically. Progressives think those with less than Bill Gates or Ken Lay should be resentful and rise up. But as author Thomas Frank and many others have noted, that is not what is happening. (One reason that workers can devote their political energy to "social" as opposed to "economic" issues may be that affluence makes doing so "affordable.")

So, where does that leave unions? Oblivious, confused and ignored by workers for the most part. That is especially true for those unions not focused on organizing workers at the bottom of the "stuff" economic ladder. (SEIU, to its credit, mostly does focus on that economic sector.)

Now, can one understand all this and still make a case that a new kind of union — quite possibly resting on the foundation of unions as they are today — is more necessary than ever? Absolutely. But the labor reform proposals currently under discussion are a million miles away from any such outlook.

Labor's language these days is all doom and gloom. It is devoid of any sense of opportunity or excitement that the new economy can be the foundation of an even better era of prosperity and democracy. Back when unions caught on like wildfire, they represented change, hope and progress. Now they are all about trying to get back what's been lost. It's as though the UAW had been founded back in the 1930's not to "seize the moment" of the emerging industrial proletariat, but rather to shut down the new factories and go back to the good old days when most people led idyllic lives on the family farm.

From the "ownership society" to "freedom" for Iraq, the "a better world is possible" rhetoric is ceded to the Bushies.

That's disappointing. But it's hardly surprising. The sad truth is that the union-prevention crowd's goals have, at least for the time being, largely been achieved. Despite the efforts of some of the most committed, decent and socially-aware people in our society, nearly all unions these days believe they have all they can handle trying to defend the wages and benefits of their remaining members.

Even that, more often than not, has the effect of driving unions further into the ground. The defensive struggles of unions generate headline after headline about failed strikes and negotiated give-backs. The perception that unions are special interest organizations concerned only about their own members, not the general welfare of all workers is further reinforced. What's happening to workers in the airline industry is a prominent case in point. So was the heroic but failed strike by Southern California grocery workers.

It's neither fair nor accurate, but it's understandable why a non-union worker might wonder why he or she needs to pay dues or sacrifice weeks of income while on strike to get lower pay, eliminated pensions and reduced health care. Can't a person get that on their own — and for free?

Crossroads or Cul-de-sac?

So, given all that, what are the unions debating about? Some of the "Labor at the Crossroads" sessions reported on innovative and promising programs such as the outreach efforts of the Los Angeles County Labor Federation. But overwhelmingly, most of the attention focused on a few "reform" proposals.

How about politics, politics and some more politics. Despite having repeatedly failed to elect labor-friendly candidates, (Democrats, after all, are pretty much selling "film products" themselves these days.) or get meaningful results when they did, more politics is the one thing that virtually all union leaders agree on.

You would think that given the magnitude of labor's political failures, the response might be to change strategy. But quite the opposite is happening. To a person, labor leaders agree that still more must be devoted to electoral activity. The differences among unions are not about whether, only about how much more, to spend. This outlook is fueled by a colossal denial machine that finds and highlights bright spots in each successive defeat as justification for pouring in still more money and person power. (Labor is thought to have spent at least $140 million in hard cash in the 2004 presidential election. That's not counting staff time and other resources.) This magical thinking comes wrapped up with a bright shiny bow and presented as an earth-shaking and revolutionary issue for labor to decide.

The other Big Idea reforms also reflect the theory that it’s about the resources. These reforms are about forcing union mergers and restructuring jurisdictions among the unions to get more leverage in the political arena. Some explanation is in order here. Two related factors are involved. The first is union density. The second is the size of unions themselves.

The density theory is simple: The greater the percentage of unionized workers in any industry, the greater their power to bargain better wages, benefits and working conditions. This is sometimes referred to as "taking wages out of play" by making labor costs for all employers in an industry roughly the same. Once density is achieved, employers are precluded from the race-to-the-bottom strategy of pushing profits up by driving labor costs down.

Historically, this assumption appears to be supported by what happened during the "golden age" of unions in the 50's, 60's and early 70's when productivity and "middle-class" prosperity exploded. But damned if another elephant hasn't made it into the living room. The "density-is-our-destiny" argument utterly fails to account for this basic fact: The unions experiencing the greatest decline in membership and bargaining power are the unions like the UAW, the Steelworkers and the Teamsters that once enjoyed virtually 100 percent union member representation in their respective industries.

Anyway, as membership has declined, unions have more often found themselves competing for the same groups of unorganized workers. The health care industry is probably the leading example. The "unite to win" brochure provides a chart that shows 30 different unions now represent health care workers. This fragmentation, it is argued, undermines any potential for achieving density. And, the theory also claims, just one union would do better at organizing in any given field or sector such as health care. (As a historical note, the AFL-CIO has had provisions in place to resolve jurisdictional disputes between unions for a very long time.)

To address these issues, the reformers want to consolidate the 60 or so unions that are now affiliated with the AFL-CIO into just a few organizations with a more concentrated focus on distinct economic sectors. Presumably, smaller organizations with more resources would be better able to prevail against big, multi-national employers. But the reality is complex. Much of SEIU's growth has come from mergers and affiliations. That seems to have worked well for them. But many industrial unions have also merged, affiliated and consolidated. Yet their overall membership — especially among manufacturing workers — continues to plummet.

In addition to mergers, the proposals from Andy Stern of the SEIU seek some kind of "rebate" of Federation finances so as to make more funds available to individual unions to use for organizing. Here again, though, a pesky elephant is in the living room. With a few significant exceptions, in organizing as in politics, increased resources have not produced improved organizing results.

In sum, the dominant view is that problems of organized labor are mostly about how existing labor organizations are structured and how their resources are allocated.

So it is that the focal point of the discussion is about how to rearrange the AFL-CIO. It's not about whether workers need different unions or different kinds of unions in order to deal with a different kind of economy. It doesn't assume that the economy has changed in any qualitative way — only that corporations are bigger and global. In short, it's not about searching for a new model altogether.

It's never stated openly, but below the surface, the proposed reforms seem driven as much as anything by angst and disappointment over the failure of the last "revolution" in the House of Labor — that being the triumph of John Sweeney over "old guard" candidate Tom Donahue in 1995.

The most clearly articulated alternative to the SEIU plan has been put forward by Larry Cohen, executive vice-president of Communication Workers of America (CWA). "It isn't the way we structure, it's the way we mobilize," is how Cohen defended his own 10-point program at the "Labor at the Crossroads" gathering. Cohen's plan emphasizes increased democracy within unions, intensified mobilization of union member activists and labor law reform as the key to reversing membership decline.

But there is virtually no one who believes that reforming labor law to make it easier for workers to form unions is attainable in the near future. To the contrary, the union-wrecking actions of Governors Matt Blunt in Missouri and Mitch Daniels in Indiana are but the tip of an iceberg of upcoming anti-union campaigns in several states. The campaigns will take different forms in different states. They all have in common the goal of restricting still further the ability of unions to bargain collectively, organize new members and effectively engage in political action.

Finally, another often expressed view is that labor needs better "marketing" in one form or another. Bigger ad budgets, and a union-friendly TV network are frequently mentioned. At the risk of mixing metaphors, if Smith-Corona had spent a billion dollars on marketing, do you think we would still all be using typewriters?

New Unions For A New Economy

Labor rights in the U.S. have never been strong. That's hardly surprising in a republic created on the economic and legal foundation of chattel slavery. The heritage of that DNA is not easily overcome. Indeed, contemporary union rights, such as they are, were an "out-of-character" 1930's response to labor unrest such as the sit-down strikes, in the context of what seemed then to be viable socialist states, most notably the Soviet Union. But those conditions don't apply today.

So it will surely take more than restructuring the AFL-CIO or vigorously enforcing the 1935 Wagner Act (although that would surely be a good idea) to create a new paradigm for workplace democracy in a new kind of global economy.

What will it take? It's not so obvious, but the opportunity is far greater than it might appear.

How can that potential be realized? It starts with acknowledging the economic, political and social forces that define the reality of the 21st century working class, not just in the Unites States but across the globe. From there, a truly exciting vision of a better world begins to come into view.

Frank Joyce is a journalist and labor communications consultant. He is writing a book on reinventing unions.