Labor’s Lost

Posted on March 7, 2010 by

Much is made of the continually declining rate of unionization, now 12 percent of the workforce, down from 20 percent in 1983.

That’s not all.

The majority of union members in the United States now work for local, state or the federal government.  There are eight million unionized public employees in the U.S.  Jobs include teachers, cops, letter carriers, social workers, housing inspectors, motor vehicle department clerks, tax collectors, public health professionals, janitors, engineers and air-traffic controllers.

Nearly four in ten government workers in America are unionized.

Compare that to the rest of the economy where less than seven and a half percent of the workforce is union.

There’s one way to describe a Labor Movement which represents one out of fourteen private sector workers:


In certain specific businesses and industries – transportation, utilities, media and entertainment – unionization still influences wage rates and benefits.  (Although work hours in film and TV production in Los Angeles are dropping, crew members, writers, directors and actors are mostly covered by union contracts). 

Then there is that very specialized category of working men (yes, only men) who earn, on average, the highest union salaries in America:  Major League baseball players. 

The notion of a “revitalized” Labor Movement has been in the works for the past twenty years or so.  Committed and courageous union members, professional organizers, progressive “coalitionists” have done some fine work, particularly among immigrant communities. 

Los Angeles – once the epitome of the “open shop” town – has been elevated to the status of a model union city for its immigrant organizing and political clout in the region and state.

Yet despite some positives, the Labor Movement is a marginal institution.  For most American workers in retail, finance, high-tech, sales and light manufacturing, unions are nowhere to be found.

The political class and many American voters view organized labor as an appendage of the Democratic Party. 

But outside of a few nods in Labor’s direction (the most impressive was the appointment of a very pro-worker and pro-union Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis), Congressional Democrats and the Administration failed to deliver meaningful reform, particularly the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it just slightly easier for unions to organize private sector workers.

On top of that, Republican’s managed to brush aside – without much fight-back from Democrats – a pro-union appointment to the National Labor Relations Board.

Harold Meyerson’s piece a couple months ago really nailed it when he wrote of a near “unmitigated disaster” for Labor in Obama’s first year.

This has openned a particularly deep wound among Labor’s peculiar universe of union leaders, true believers, organizers, educators, activists, operatives, reps and others.

We know unions are imperfect institutions.  But are we the only ones who believe that closing the income and wealth gap – not to mentions preserving our democracy – requires a living and breathing Labor Movement?

Comments (3)


  1. Richard Slawson says:

    American workers have lost the history of the labor movement and it needs to be retold. With the legal decisions that has roadblocked workers from choosing a Union, a National Labor Relations Board that consistantly sides with corporate interests, major manufacturing jobs that were heavily Union and U.S. Presidents that have provided no consistant Labor policy, it’s a wonder that the U.S. has as many Union members as there are.

    Labor can’t complain about the situation – we need to change it. Public Relations on behalf of American workers and tough bargaining are what workers want to see.

    California may be viewed as an ideal, however, with the ongoing anti-worker, anti-Union campaign that is paid for by a long list of corporate interest, is having a negative effect on good wages, good benefits and good conditions. It seems that this campaign is to convince every worker, that since they don’t have a Union or someone else is making more by having a Union, they should be both jealous and against “them.”

    Labor’s future is in the hands of the leaders of today. Labor needs to push back now, not just in California, but in every State.

    With 14,000,000 Union members the Labor movement is stronger than ever if Labor can target its effort.

  2. The history of the Labor movement is certainly important, and those of us that are of the “believer” ilk, as Lou refers to, can find that history fascinating. But, there is little connection with current trends and those of the past, in the minds of most Americans, especially when we illuminate the Labor movement in that “once upon a time in America” lime light. The Labor movement in America still clings to the notion that it exists and functions as a matter of law in the United States. For the most part, the Labor movement has become a non-profit with additional legal restrictions imposed that defeat the goals that the “movement” advocates. Having long lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the American electorate, the Labor movement continues to hope that the institution will be redeemed and renewed from out of legislation crafted by the representatives put into office by disenchanted and unsympathetic voters and by, of course, Corporate interests.

    The truth is that there is no real recourse or legal remedy available to working men and women, and the growing numbers of unemployed, emanating from under the law, that can succeed in addressing and providing remedy for their grievances within the confines of the legal system. There is no real right to strike; there is no real right to organize and the general public knows it. There is this impending sense of doom, as a result, that comes from the realization that the government of the United States works for the rich and powerful, corporate state and clearly not the people of the United States, just as the results of the first year of the Obama administration examples.

    Never before have we seen such an extreme polarization between the fewer and fewer, rich and powerful and the rest of us. The Coup De Tat was accomplished during the “W” years, not just the wholesale looting of nation. We just don’t want to admit the truth of it to ourselves. Of the many examples – stacking the Supreme Court with nit wits and ideologues to erode the rule of law; establishing dictator like, Presidential power, ignoring the rule of law, without any prosecution or penalty; etc.,etc.

    Fascists set the tone and control the content of national debate. Fascists own and control most all the media, swaying even well educated people into the Fascist mindset. Fascist messages pervade everywhere, their mantras being: “government does not work or is hopelessly ineffectual”. “We as citizens are incapable therefore, of governing ourselves”. “If not for our Corporations, God only knows how we all could survive.” The debate always leads to the “we should all agree to giving all the money and power to those that already have most all of it.” “Government should be business, i.e. a Corporation.” “Remember how it felt to feel proud of your Country?” (Military jets, fireworks and teary song singing, added)

    Rather than Jews and Gypsies, the American Fascists target Sex Offenders and Illegal Immigrants. Common citizens see the differences with that polarizing, us and them, viewpoint. American Human Rights organizations ignore the worst Human Right violations in the United States since the wholesale deportation and confinement of Japanese-Americans during WWII and chose instead to talk about voting rights in Yemen or defend gang members involved in the obviously corrupt “War On Drugs”. Every where are perceived terrorists of some kind or other. Despite significant drops in crime over the last twenty years, the Fascists stir vigilantism with emotional distortions, misinformation and classic scapegoating, all standard from the Fascist tool chest. The American public have bought most all of this, as the endless criminal investigation shows and popular vigilantism trends continue to promote the Fascist prison state we find ourselves captive in. Fear pervades all aspects of society today. Better than fearing actual brown shirt militias roaming our streets, is climate of fear created by the surveillance and role playing by an ever extending law enforcement network of citizen informants and .politicized snitches, where everyone has become a perpetrator of some real or imagined, or speculative future crime.

    There will be no savior arriving on a shiny horse. There will be no legal rejuvenation of the Labor movement. There will be no sweeping legislation, turning the tide for the better in America. The American worker is reduced to serfdom wage slavery in a Fascist state where only feudalistic corporate relationships are relevant. There will be no breakup and regulation of the monopolized “Too Big To Fail” Banking, Corporate power machine. The Fascists have the Power, they have the Money and they will not just decide to give any of it up. Perhaps huge general strikes and larger scale organized collective action can stop this United States of Corporate Fascism. The only end of Fascism, historically, has been except the wholesale collapse and defeat of that organized society. We are on a runaway Fascist train, careening towards a future of further societal destruction, large scale famine and world war.

    Come on, we all knew this would end up happening, eventually. There will be blood in the streets in the fight for freedom and the battle for social and economic justice. Some of that blood will be most probably be mine and that of family and friends and fellow citizens, but this blood will not be shed in vain. I cannot fear death and I will not fear the fascists. We no longer have to wait for some future event or apocalyptic revelation. The revolution begins, right here, right now! Perhaps, what is left of our defeated Labor movement will now get off their backsides and organize to truly fight these Fascists.

    Die with your boots on!

  3. bet and win says:

    Interesting concept to present the ideas with nice theme.

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