Time to look at truth: Is death near for labor?

Perhaps it’s time for loyal unionists to quit fooling ourselves.  In recent years, many of us have wondered about the future of our unions, but any talk of our unions dying has rarely been tolerated.

You’re only falling into the rhetoric of the anti-union crowd, was the warning.  As we’ve watched the percentage of workers in unions drop to 11% — and less than 7% among private sector workers – most of us have skirted the issue, using cute euphemisms like “strengthening unions” or “rebuilding organized labor.”

Brothers and sisters, it’s time to look at reality: unless matters change soon, the labor union movement (as we know it) may soon be so insignificant as to be nonexistent.  To be sure, we’re not in the grave yet; labor’s influence in the 2012 national election, for instance, was substantial in many ways, and in spite of President Obama’s relatively decent margin, he might not have won without labor’s support that gave the Democratic Party the wherewithal and bodies it needed to mobilize voters, particularly minority voters that were so critical.

If trends continue, the 2012 election may have been labor’s last hurrah.

Harold Meyerson, editor of The American Prospect and Washington Post columnist, writes that the death of the labor movement would be a disaster for the nation as a whole.  In a recent long essay, he argued that liberals in this nation should be reminded of how important the labor movement has been to passing vital progressive legislation and to fostering living wages and benefits for all Americans in the last 80 years.

Thus, the loss of a strong labor movement should be no trivial matter to liberals and all Americans who yearn for a just and progressive society.

Meyerson’s essay is worth taking time to read and digest.  Here are a few high points from the essay:

The weakening of labor in the last three decades has caused wages for all workers to remain stagnate – or to drop.

“ . . . Workers today are better educated and more productive.  What they lack is power!”

Growing employer opposition to unions has made it difficult to expand unionization into the service sector.  Weak labor laws make it easier for companies to stifle organizing.

Massive shift of manufacturing to the anti-union culture of the South weakened traditional blue collar unions.

History of unions opting in post World War II period to “business unionism,” coupled with failure of many liberals to support worker issues, caused labor to lose direction.

As moderate Democrats move to the middle, the causes of working people suffer.

What to do?  Meyerson has a few thoughts on how to turn things around, but agrees there is no easy solution in the offing.  It will take a potpourri of solutions to turn back the forces that seek the death of organized labor, and among them, he argues, are such promising actions as found in many municipalities throughout the nation where “living wage” and similar laws have been passed.  It’s easier to pass such laws in cities where labor remains strong to pass such laws.

Coalition building – that is, linking up with neighborhood groups, immigrant organizations or others – is critical, since labor can’t do it alone.  In an extension of this strategy, Meyerson refers to Stephen Lerner (who ran the SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign) who advocates broadening labor’s demands beyond workplace issues and joining with others to urge, among other causes, reforms in the banking industry to better serve the community.

One factor that Meyerson failed to mention is that labor may have lost the battle for the American mind.  In a democracy, the people should have the final say, but the people can make the wrong choice if they are fed with faulty information.

In the last election, President Obama was able to overcome some outlandish myths through a concerted and expensive campaign.  For the labor movement to survive as we have known it since 1935, we will need the same sort of truth-telling campaign.  That campaign must be built on more than rhetoric, and must stem from the instillation of a new spirit of innovative thought, openness and vigor.

Many in labor have begun doing much of what is suggested here; it’s obvious more needs to be done.  And, our liberal friends need to realize how linked their causes are with ours.  Time’s a-wasting.  Act now or the organized labor movement may indeed face a death knell.  – Ken Germanson, Dec. 5,  2012.


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