Around this time of year, it’s become traditional to question labor’s relevance, to take the pulse of unions and suggest that even if they once had a legitimate purpose they now are dinosaurs in a modern era. That’s understandable, in light of labor’s weak vital signs, but it completely misses the point, given what’s happening to working and middle-class Americans.
As most of us know all too well, the pendulum continues to swing sharply toward corporate interests, and, as a result, average Americans find themselves under assault at the workplace and in their economic lives.
Job security has gone out the window, and just this decade three million good-paying manufacturing jobs have vanished as well. Pensions paid for with wage concessions are too often honored in the breech. The share of the gross domestic product going to wages and salaries is the smallest in decades, the share to profits the highest. For the first time, a majority of adults don’t think their children will do as well as they have.
Trying to combat these and other trends, tens of thousands of workers were illegally fired or penalized last year for seeking to organize their workplace, just one of several factors that make the United States among the toughest industrial democracies in which to form a union. Not in law, but in practice.
As corporate power becomes more concentrated and often more distant, and employees find themselves buffeted by forces and trends they cannot hope to counter as individuals, how can it reasonably be argued that workers need no collective voice?
And so the question shifts from whether labor remains relevant to this: What can labor do to revitalize itself so it can address the challenges millions of Americans face on a daily basis? Here are a few ideas:
Wise up politically. Shift some of the energy and resources used for electing Candidate X to instead inject labor’s issues into the campaign discussion, so when its “side” wins there’s actually a mandate for labor’s issues. Problems such as the de-industrialization of America or inadequate labor laws will never be tackled after elections unless they’re raised during elections.
Stress values. Nine hundred impoverished black women won a strike on the Mississippi Delta against all odds because their union framed it as a battle of human decency, not of wages and benefits. This applies to politics as well. Labor cannot afford to let blue-collar conservatives/Reagan Democrats juxtapose their “values” with their economic interests, a formulation that makes the latter seem petty by contrast. Is it really so hard to argue that economic fairness or health care for your kids qualify every bit as much as values as preventing two gays from marrying?
Get out the message. For unions to survive, they need to help the public connect the dots between what’s happening to ordinary people and the decline of labor. But for that to happen, labor must communicate better – and stop lamenting unfair treatment by the media, which while true doesn’t excuse labor’s culpability in the deafening silence about unions and workers.
Make it all about the rank and file. Where labor has succeeded in recent years, such as the firefighters’ under-reported achievement in Iowa’s 2004 caucus, it was typically because labor leaders let workers take center stage.
Labor’s fate is, or at least should be, of interest to people far beyond labor’s immediate ranks. Here’s why: One key if often-overlooked reason the United States has long enjoyed economic and political stability has been a robust industrial relations system where management, labor and government voice their concerns. No single party or point of view always prevails, but a fair hearing marked by vigorous advocacy generally has led to reasonable public policies and private practices and, equally important, a feeling of inclusion.
The current unbalanced system, however, generates the skewed policies and practices that have left so many Americans disillusioned. In the short term, a few gain an advantage; in the long term, the situation is not sustainable. Righting this ship is in the national interest.
About the Author: Philip Dine, a Washington-based journalist, is one of the few remaining labor reporters and his labor coverage has twice been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His book, “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence” (foreword by Richard Gephardt) has been called “one of the best books in years on the labor movement” by the AFL-CIO; “excellent, inspiring and very readable” by Sen. Edward Kennedy; and “a playbook for a comeback for organized labor” by the Boston Globe.
Dine designed and taught a college course on the media’s coverage of labor, did graduate studies in industrial relations at MIT and spent two years researching labor unions and immigrant workers in France and Germany. His op-ed pieces have been published in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and Newsday.