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Philip Dine – Taking Back Labor Day

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(The following post is part of our Taking Back Labor Day blog series. Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)


When I hear questions about whether labor’s no longer relevant and has become a dinosaur, I have to chuckle – and then try to disabuse people or organizations of such a notion.

Why would it be the case that at the very time corporate influence is becoming more centralized, more powerful and more distant, that employees can suddenly cope with all their work-related issues as individuals, with no need for representation or collective efforts? On the face of it, that makes no sense.

That’s the philosophical response. In practical terms, we now have the biggest gap between rich and poor, and the largest share of the Gross Domestic Product going to corporate profits and the smallest going to wages/ salaries that we’ve had in some 80 years. And we find the middle class under assault at the very time labor’s been in decline, just as the middle class has expanded during the periods of labor’s greatest strength. This is, of course, no coincidence.

So the question is not really whether labor’s relevant or important, but what it can do to strengthen itself so it can meet those challenges. That’s such a large issue it could be the topic of a book (come to think of it, it is) but here are a couple of thoughts.

Labor needs to improve its political strategy. Spending all its time, energy and resources providing logistical assistance to endorsed candidates allows it only to have access to friendly politicians so it can remind them to live up to their promises. Barack Obama is a terrific public leader, but he’s found enough other priorities – economic stimulus, auto bailout and healthcare reform – to have the Employee Free Choice Act land on the backburner. The labor movement needs to complement its campaign work with a strong effort to make its own issues and values part of the political discussion, something that voters hear and think about as they decide how to vote, so that labor’s agenda gets a post-election mandate of its own.
Related to that, labor needs to effectively communicate its message well beyond elections, and explain to people why it matters to their lives. That’s not a hard case to make (see the above about wages, middle class, and so on). People need to know that it’s harder to form a union in this country than in virtually any industrialized democracy in the world, why that’s so – and why it matters. Tell them that 16 workers are killed daily on the job every day, and that union workplaces are safer. Let them know that the deindustrialization of America is damaging to our economic and national security – and that it flows in part from the way trade agreements are written and enforced, or not enforced.
A big part of the reason EFCA is languishing is that labor has not done enough in this political or communications sense. As a result, labor’s left waiting for the Democrats in Washington to decide to push the legislation. Meanwhile, there’s no pressure from constituents, because the public has no idea why something called the Employee Free Choice Act is necessary. Because the broader context mentioned above has not been presented, most people are simply presented with dueling ads, pro-EFCA and anti-EFCA, that they’re expected to make sense of. That’s quite a task, and many simply decide that this is a case of labor seeking a quid pro quo for its campaign work.
If labor is to take advantage of the current political and economic opportunities, it needs to sharpen its strategies. If it does, not only will Labor Days in the future feature a reinvigorated labor movement, working and middle-class people in this country will benefit – and so will the economy as a whole.

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” (2008, foreword by Richard Gephardt) has been called “one of the best books in years on the labor movement” (AFL-CIO); “inspiring” (Sen. Edward Kennedy); “a great book” (Bill Clinton); and “a playbook for a comeback for organized labor” (Boston Globe).The book outlines why labor is as relevant as ever, and looks at how labor can revitalize itself so it can meet the daily challenges faced by working and middle-class Americans. Dine is an adjunct professor of labor relations at George Washington University, a periodic labor columnist for The Washington Times, and a frequent speaker on labor issues. He has appeared over the past year on CNN, Fox, CNBC, MSNBC, C-Span, XM Satellite Radio and National Public Radio, and has spoken at various union conferences, Harvard Business School, the AFL-CIO, National Labor Relations Board, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Labor College. Dine 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, Providence Journal, Cleveland Plain Dealer and Newsday. For a decade he wrote the only weekly labor column at a metro newspaper (St. Louis Post-Dispatch). More information is available at http://www.philipdine.com and Dine can be reached at philipmdine@aol.com.


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Labor is as Relevant as Ever

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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.

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