Will Unions Blow It?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Wages of ordinary Americans are stagnating. The gap between rich and poor is growing. And a Republican-led Congress is talking about both the minimum wage law and mandatory overtime-pay. "You have a situation that ought to be a dream for unions," says Thomas Geoghegan, a Chicago labor lawyer and the author of Which Side Are You On , a book about labor's decline. Instead, unions are only just now waking up for a long nightmare. For the past 20 years, they have pathetically tried to defend their dwindling membership, mounting suicidal strikes and funneling their substantial wealth into the campaign coffers of ungrateful politicians. Meanwhile, all but a handful of unions turned a blind eye to the problems afflicting the burgeoning ranks of low-paid and contingent workers, many of whom never thought of joining a union because no one ever bothered to ask them. With not a moment to spare, unions are reviving. Membership is up, albeit slightly, two years in a row. Mass organizing is occurring in the private-sector at the highest pace since the 1930s. And unions are shedding their dowdy image and ostrich-like tactics in favor of civil-disobedience, community organizing and an unabashed sympathy for the nation's lowest-paid workers, the very sort of people once scorned by labor's barons. Now labor's top leader can be counted among the rabble-rousers. On October 25, the biggest union federation, the AFL-CIO, elected John J. Sweeney as its president. While chief of the Service Employees International Union, Sweeney oversaw the pathbreaking "justice for janitors" campaign, which resulted in the unionization of 35,000 largely Spanish-speaking building cleaners. In a fiery acceptance speech, he vowed to make "massive efforts in the training of organizers, changing the face of our leadership and working together with our activists." With Sweeney's election, unions are making a bid to be taken seriously by people interested in social renewal and change. "Under Sweeney, labor can be a haven for all sorts of people who are upset, alarmed and scared about what's happening in the U.S.," says Geoghegan. That is just Sweeney's mandate. By embracing it so fervently, he has brought organized labor unambiguously within the nation's progressive camp for the first time since the 1950s. The move is long overdue. After siding with the Establishment during the civil revolts of the 1960s and sleepwalking through the Reagan-Bush years, unions are finally rediscovering their roots. "This has huge significance," says UC-Berkeley professor Harley Shaiken. "By effectively speaking for working people, and not just their own members, a revitalized labor movement can move the country away from the Right." The danger, however, is that unions may blow their historic opportunity to reclaim a central role in American life. And not because of ferocious resistance from employers either. Unions could fail in any number of ways to take advantage the rising militance of workers with low or declining wages. Hidebound unions in construction and heavy industry might call more suicidal strikes, ignoring the proven alternative of mobilizing the entire community -- consumers, church groups and other progressive organizations -- against employers. The on-going strike against Detroit's daily newspapers is a classic case where relatively well-paid workers failed to both clearly explain their grievances or win public sympathy in advance of their walkout. Ego-maniacal union presidents, meanwhile, might continue to build their private empires, eschewing the kind of coordinated efforts among unions that might expand the membership pie rather than shuffle the existing pieces. "We still have so many people out there just trying to take union shops away from one another," said Ron Carey, president of the Teamsters, the nation's largest union. "Why do we persist in organizing the organized, when the ranks of the unorganized are so large?" Unions must also play the gender card, making way for women leaders and members as if their very existence depended on it. For too long, most unions have spent their greatest energies organizing full-time jobs that are largely the province of men. Women are nearly half the workforce, but account for just one-third of all union members (and an even lower percentage of union leaders.) Yet women are more apt to join a union and more involved in organizing campaigns than men. This is partly because women are disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs. Women also seem more willing than men to rely on collective action to improve their working conditions. Whatever the reasons, "women are crucial to any union revival and renewal," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor at Cornell University and a leading authority on women and unions. Unions must address the changing nature of work too. Roughly a third of all workers are part-time, temporary or sell their services in the open market. These workers face big challenges in cobbling together enough work hours, further honing their skills through training or experience, and somehow nailing down medical, retirement and other fringe benefits. For unions to help the burgeoning number of "contingent" workers, "they have to fundamentally change the way they operate," says Barry Bluestone, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts. "If unions just recreate the organizing drives of the 1930s, they will fail." Instead, unions must frankly appeal to career ambitions of many workers, stressing professional growth and the commonalties within a job category, even if it comes at the expense of solidarity between all of an employer's workers. "Unions tend to think about homogenous jobs and fear that if they somehow respond to the individual needs of workers the collective will fall apart," says Dorothy Sue Cobble, a labor professor at Rutgers University. "The old notion that unions are at odds with professionalism needs to be rethought," Cobble adds. Finally, unions must make a decisive break with their authoritarian past. As they grow more insistent with bosses, they must become kinder and gentler with their own members. A number of important unions, such as the Teamsters and United Mine Workers, have revolutionized themselves through an honest commitment to thorough democracy. Other unions are showing a nation troubled by multi-culturalism that people of all colors and ethnic backgrounds can together run an organization without rancor. Still, "too many unions remain nervous about democracy," says Herman Benson, executive director of the Association For Union Democracy. "They don't understand that in a democracy the officials in power must be uneasy." For instance, Sweeney himself condemns direct elections of national union officers as inefficient and defends the decision by a Service Employees local in New York to surveil one of its dissident members. Only by embracing democracy, Benson insists, will unions make "a real turn." Other union activists also see their bright future clouded by the baggage of the past. The widening chasm between good and bad jobs could spur unionization, but it just as readily could provide more fuel for militias and other Nativist political movements. Only if unions open themselves up to the full range of American experience, these activists say, will unions regain the moral legitimacy, the popular appeal, and indeed effectiveness necessary to return them their heyday. During the AFL-CIO convention, one veteran organizer neatly expressed the schizoid sense in which unions have one foot in the future and one foot firmly in the past. "It's good to be part of history," said Wade Rathke, a union organizer from New Orleans and the founder of the community group ACORN. But he quickly added, "We just hope that history is being made."
G. Pascal Zachary has been a journalist for 25 years, including nearly 13 years as a senior writer for The Wall Street Journal. He is currently senior writer at Time Inc.â€™s monthly magazine, Business 2.0, and a lecturer in the communications department at Stanford University. He also contributes to many publications, including (most recently) The New Republic, World Policy Journal, The New York Times and The San Francisco Chronicle.