Can Labor Mount a Comeback?

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.

This entry was posted in Guest Bloggers, Working-class politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Can Labor Mount a Comeback?

  1. Dave Green says:

    Mr. Hanscom, as a thirty two year member, I am sure that you have had many learning experiences within our organization. My career with GM/UAW started in 1989, and I have seen tremendous change in that time. One thing you mentioned was that the UAW has not focused on “…preserving jobs, improving working conditions and wages and benefits for its membership…”.
    On the issue of preserving jobs: This is difficult in manufacturing when automation comes into play. Our government also plays a HUGE part in this when we give companies tax breaks for moving jobs overseas. This is one of our largest battles today. The UAW wants a level playing field, nothing more, and nothing less. Since the Union is only as strong as its members, preserving jobs is at the top of the priority list.
    Improving working conditions: The UAW represents many of the safest manufacturing facilities in the USA. I remember putting struts in the cars. Now the job has a power assist which is ergonomically correct. Companies don’t generally want to make their jobs ergonomically correct because it costs money. What the UAW can do is show the companies how much money can be saved in the long run if people are not getting hurt all the time. No union? Better bring your own PPE to work every day. In short, UAW members enjoy some of the best working conditions.
    Wages and Benefits: Did you watch the senate hearings? This is exactly what we have been criticized for as having “too much”. And what is the public’s perception? It is true that our wages have been frozen in the last contract. But we still make a good living wage that many would love to have. As for the “Two Tier”, I don’t agree with it. It seems inherently wrong to have people getting paid, close to half the wages, doing a similar job, BUT, those workers do have the opportunity to get the higher wage when an opening becomes available. Again, UAW members enjoy decent pay and benefits, arguably the best in the industry.
    You also stated that “(t)he UAW’s self appointed leaders are destroying our union and it is the membership that always ends up losing”. The thing is, the UAW leadership is elected and not appointed. The membership is the highest authority and their voice is through their leadership. Maybe some union leaders are not “in it” for the right reasons, but I believe most are. Regardless, it is the membership’s responsibility to take an active role and get involved. The union is only as strong as its members. This is one reason the UAW tries to preserve as many jobs as possible.
    Finally you stated that “The labor wars will have to be fought all over again because of today’s labor leaders’ selfishness and greed.” I have to admit that I agree with the first part of your statement that “(t)he labor wars will have to be fought all over again…”. It appears that with the growing amount of social and economic injustices that are occurring, unions will need to move back to their roots. That is, fighting for the working poor to gain some since of economic and social justice. Many workers get fired “just because”, others are paid barely enough to feed themselves and drive to work and God forbid they get sick. As for the” …labor leaders’ selfishness and greed”, nothing can be further from the truth. The labor leaders that I interact with are servants. The labor leaders I know do all they can for the membership they serve, and those that don’t should be voted out. Most of the labor leaders I know work many more hours than they are paid for. Selfishness and greed? I have seen it, but it is not the norm. Mr. Hanscom, as a union brother I am disappointed in the feelings you have for an organization that has preserved your job and given you the opportunity to work for the same corporation for 32 years, one that has afforded you to work in a safe environment with decent wages and benefits.

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  2. Doug Hanscom says:

    “As an officer of the UAW, I have seen my organization become leaner and more focused,” wrote Mr. Green. As a thirty two year member, I agree the UAW has become more focused, but not where it should be, and that is on preserving jobs, improving working conditions and wages and benefits for it membership, that’s according to the UAW’s Constitution. Instead, for the last thirty years the UAW’s leadership’s primary focus is preserving the corporation’s bottom line by forming partnerships with those corporations without the consent of its membership, and to their detriment. The UAW leadership’s secondary focus is self preservation of its single party seventy two year slate that consistently rewards and enriches itself while going out of its way to ruthlessly undermine reformist and activist attempts to reform it. The UAW’s self appointed leaders are destroying our union and it is the membership that always ends up losing. I don’t think these problems are limited to just the UAW, but to all unions, which is why they can’t seem to come together to fight a common cause like what’s currently happening to the autoworkers. An injury to one is an injury to all is no longer the Union’s mantra, its every Union Hierarchy for itself, memberships be damned. The labor wars will have to be fought all over again because of today’s labor leaders’ selfishness and greed.

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  3. Dave Green says:

    Great article. I have studied this topic at Geneva College and I believe that the face of labor is moving threw a transformational period. Labor organizations will grow, they need to. I also believe that labor unions (most of them) have learned from their past mistakes and are ready to move into the future. One of the most important aspects of these mistakes has been the lack of communication between different labor organizations. There are so many and they have all been seen moving in different directions. This is where some real change has already occurred. Labor today is more connected, as they need to be. Can labor get their political agenda in order for long term viability? Only time will tell. As an officer of the UAW, I have seen my organization become leaner and more focused. It is no longer the union against the corporation. The union has become an aid to the company, not a burden. There are still many that only see the past and what was. Mistakes were made, and will continue to be made. The goal is learn from them and move in the right direction. Unions are an essential building block for any civilized society where social and human justice is important.

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