The changes so evident in many aspects of American life appear to favor the resurgence of a powerful labor movement. How likely, in fact, is that to occur?
Union leaders like John L. Lewis, George Meany, and Walter Reuther once helped shape American economic and political life. Labor’s halcyon days are not about to return anytime soon — if ever — but after three decades on the defensive and still lacking in household names, the labor movement is poised to recapture a share of its former clout.
Three distinct developments have created the potential for labor’s revival, starting with an incoming administration friendlier to unions than any since LBJ’s time. Not only does Barack Obama have few policy differences with organized labor, politically he owes much to unions that spent well over a quarter-billion dollars and enlisted more than a quarter-million volunteers on his behalf. And labor leaders like Rich Trumka, Gerald McEntee, Jim Hoffa, and Andy Stern worked quietly to ease the concerns among working-class whites that had been so evident in battleground states during the primaries.
In addition, after years in which public attention focused on external security threats, it’s now aimed like a laser on the economy, including jobs, trade, pensions, health care, and, more broadly, the gulf between the rich and the working class. These issues are labor’s bread and butter, and the recent financial meltdown only raises the stakes.
Finally, polling shows that Americans feel the pendulum has swung too far toward the corporate side. And, for the first time, a majority says their children won’t fare as well as they have.
The initial battlefield where these political, economic, and attitudinal shifts will likely come into play involves the Employee Free Choice Act, which Obama co-sponsored as a senator. The bill is a priority for labor, which views it as key to organizing in the workplace. But while a major political effort on its behalf might seem a no-brainer for a pro-labor administration, Obama’s first priority will be to repair the economy, requiring measures for which he’ll need the business community’s support. He might prefer to focus on sweeping actions where consensus exists, rather than push a narrower issue sure to spark a scorched-earth business reaction.
Moreover, labor has not made much of a public case for EFCA, while opponents have for months run ads mocking it as a payback that lets union “bosses” intimidate workers into supporting a union while depriving workers of the secret ballot. This PR blitz, only recently joined by labor, misrepresents what the proposal does and leaves out the broader context. A labyrinthic union election system, replete with opportunities for employer intimidation, currently makes it harder to form a union in this country than in other western democracies. Look no further than the tens of thousands of workers annually awarded back pay by the National Labor Relations Board because they were improperly fired or disciplined for exercising their legal right to form a union.
As union leaders grapple with EFCA, they’ll encounter some of the labor movement’s broader challenges in exploiting a promising environment. Whether labor ultimately survives as a serious force depends in part on how it navigates a dual set of demands.
For starters, labor needs to distinguish between its immediate legislative goals and long-term survival, and mesh the two. It will do unions little good to force a quick battle on EFCA if they lose in the Senate, or to prevail at the cost of then being told by the administration to get lost for six months. Some moderate Republicans would welcome a compromise on the bill, perhaps on the secret ballot or mandatory mediation provisions. But labor’s political instinct long has been to burrow down every two years, pour resources into phone banks and other logistical activities for Democratic candidates, and then fight like crazy for pro-labor legislation. Unaccustomed to having allies atop all branches of the federal government, labor should resist the urge to capitalize immediately and instead figure out how to press its agenda without hurting itself and those very allies by overreaching.
Equally important and perhaps more difficult, labor must improve its ability to communicate. Labor’s criticisms about media unfairness are justified, but unions would benefit from less complaining and more action. Unions have provided scant information to combat the notion that they’re irrelevant to today’s economic realities, when just the opposite is true. It’s no coincidence that the working class has been reeling for years as labor has been weakened, nor was it an accident that the time of labor’s zenith, from the late-1940s to the mid-1970s, marked the greatest expansion of the American Dream. But labor won’t reverse its fortunes unless people connect the dots between their mounting economic anxieties and labor’s decline. From labor’s perspective, the pounding — largely unfair — the United Auto Workers union has taken on the auto bailout discussions doesn’t augur well.
If labor can display some political deftness and also find its public voice, the country might witness something nearly forgotten – a resurgent American labor movement ready to play a major role in the nation’s life and restore balance to our industrial relations system.
Philip Dine, author of State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence.