The Union Power Paradox

Posted on September 10, 2010 by

If congressional democrats avert catastrophe in November they can thank the American Labor Movement.

But they won’t.

Sure, union leaders will be on the stage for the victory speeches and hear grateful candidates attest to the importance of workers and unions to their election.

Most of those democrats, however, will not return to Washington determined to revitalize the one institution which gives them political life and has the potential to correct the ever-widening income gap in this nation.

Though unions are a critically important democratic party constituency group – providing money and “on-the-ground” resources essential in close elections – restoration of the American Labor Movement remains a distant idea to most elected officials.  Only a handful of union fanatics (you know who you are) believe that a broad and powerful worker-based institution is essential to American democracy.

Union reach and influence in the private economy continues to decline.  Except for certain niche sectors – fractional and regional segments within transportation, media, health care, manufacturing and construction – the nongovernment workforce is almost entirely – more than 90 percent – nonunion.

And unionized public sector employees – who now comprise the majority of the American Labor Movement – have become a target of both parties in the pension fund “crisis” facing cities and states across the nation.

So when you hear about how powerful and pivotal American unions could be in November, keep in mind that this is a shrinking institution which is fighting for its life everyday.

And while desperate democratic candidates plead for union help, most of them refuse to admit – even to themselves – their complicity in organized labor’s demise.

Let’s say we get lucky and hold onto both houses.  Wouldn’t you think relieved and thankful democrats would move labor law reform and union-friendly trade policies to the top of their agenda?

Don’t bet on it.

Comments (5)


  1. Jon K. says:

    The problem is that Labor has a MAJOR public relations problem among the non-union public (and I’m not just talking about Conservatives.) Too many young people “don’t get it.”

    Unions need to put rebranding themselves at the top of their priority list, but it’s not. Politicians want to be associated with cool tastemakers and unions have forgotten what it takes to be “cool.”

    • Jon K makes a very good point, because lousy PR and communications in general touches a significant part of the problem with labor today. Every time I hear Duffy on the radio talking about Los Angeles teachers and education, I can’t imagine that he wins over a single person, not even me (NB, I have three school age children in LA Unified) and I’ve been a shop steward, have taught labor history, and have been pro union since my dad told me that I would go instantly to hell if I ever crossed a picket line.

      Unions do not know how to deliver a message, and they need to learn how. But as many scholars and journalists have noted, unions have been on the bad end of a corporate and conservative class war waged against them for going on thirty years. And now we see the results.

      That said, unions are absolutely medieval when it comes to presenting themselves to the public, which must be an ongoing and constant effort at education. The AFL-CIO should spend less money on loser politicians that abandon them as soon as elected, and put more money and energy into social media and other ways to reach a broad base of the American people. Harder than it sounds, but what is easy for unions at the moment?

      After all, how in the world did that wanker Markos Moulitsas (Daily Kos) become a player in contemporary politics? Where is labor’s equivalent?
      kerry candaele

  2. Lou says:

    Good points.

    Unions do sometimes seem to compound their problems with inept messaging and PR. Labor’s “image” is – and has been – a big concern for many years (racism and featherbedding were real – not just imagined – issues). But one of the reasons unions look so parochial is because they’re weak and constantly on the defensive.

    Despite all this, polls show that many – if not most – American workers would join unions if that option was available.

  3. I do wonder about those polls. We all do our own soft empirical (anecdotal) polling as we go through daily life, and mine tells me that most of the people I encounter, and most especially the young, don’t want any part of unions. The image of a union “boss” for the young? Sylvester Stallone in that movie where he played a union organizer. Or, believe it or not, Jimmy Hoffa and Teamsters with crowbars. There have been other and better films made my progressives, but people don’t see them.
    And most of the educated young see themselves as “creatives,” outside the constraints of the regular rules. They call it freedom, and why not, at least until they are old enough to have that back problem that needs attention and they don’t have the union arranged health program that pays for the fix. Hey, I see a commercial in the making!

    By the way, it looks like Thomas Geoghegan’s Were You Born On The Wrong Continent: How The European Model Can Help You Get A Life, gets into the positive role of unions in creating that counter-model to the U.S. I hope it sells well.

  4. Gavin says:

    In addressing Lou’s blog – Jon has a good point on raising public awarness. Meg has managed all to easily to make the word “Union” sound like a dirty word to thew public eye. Extremely distubing. I think Unions in general need to go “Hollywood” in a big way in their effort to getting out information to the public of what unions are about. There is more splash and attenntion to and by by the public on the next Avatar Movie than on Unions. Remember that labor education in any form or part is no longer taught in secondary schools, hence a big lack of awarness on the younger crowd.

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