Labor’s End?

Posted on January 26, 2011 by

Remember cigar-smoking union leaders, those portly white guys who sat around the pool at AFL-CIO conventions in Miami Beach?

We called them the “old guard” and blamed them for allowing what looked at the time to be a very foreboding decline in union density, power and influence.

When I started in the Labor Movement in the 1980s, the struggle to replace that generation with smart, progressive and militant leadership was well underway.

Now many national unions and locals around the country are led and staffed by a new breed, schooled in strategic thinking and coalition-building, and committed to organizing members for action and recruiting workers into the ranks.

The result:

The plunge in the number and percentage of union members continues without a blip.

The latest stats show 14.7 million union members in America; that’s 11.9 percent of the “wage and salary” workforce, a drop of almost a half a percent in one year and more than eight percent since 1983, when the rate was already tumbling.

I’m not accusing my friends and colleagues of incompetence, lack of commitment or anything of the kind.  In fact, many have been – and are – involved in heroic struggles to reinvigorate and rebuild the movement.

But the labor relations framework in the U.S. – effectively manipulated by a sophisticated union avoidance industry – makes union growth almost impossible.

For true believers – you know who you are – a fleeting moment of euphoria ended two years ago when labor law reform was buried by a senate filibuster and a white house with other priorities (the president, by the way, made one oblique reference to unions in his speech to congress this week: the UAW’s support for his free trade pact with South Korea).

Another daunting challenge facing the labor movement is the growing gap between the number of public sector union members (7.6 million) and those union members working in the business economy (7.1 million).

How do we convince nonunion working class taxpayers to support government employees being scape-goated for their “budget-busting” pension payouts?

Finally, a couple of interesting numbers on union distribution by states:

Of the big ones, California has the most members (2.4 million), New York has the highest percentage (26 percent).  But two “outlier states” also share the spotlight:

Heavily democratic Hawaii (23.5 percent) is no surprise.

But, ironically, the republican state of Alaska finishes second in union density (24.8 percent).  It’s where big oil pays union wages, enabling our giant state’s ethic of  “up by your bootstraps” individualism.

Comments (11)

 

  1. Excellent post! The ravages of the Reagan years are reflected in the decline of union membership, as well as the evisceration of the concept of labor itself.

    In higher education, unions are largely management’s gatekeepers whose efforts at championing wage inequity is hierarchical, and not substantive.

    Where are the champions of the working man, and the disenfranchised poor? No sign of it in current political leadership

  2. The labor movement needs some old thinking and some new thinking.

    For old thinking, it needs to spend money on old fashioned inside organizing and inside organizers. They need to train cadres of committed working class kids that they glean out of Chicano Studies, Black Studies, and similar college programs and send them out to get real jobs in targeted companies to unionize from within.

    For new thinking, the labor movement needs to recognize opportunities. For example, when the County Fed sends out armies of volunteers to bring union slate literature to union households at election time, they should also be delivering a survey to find out who in the household works in non-union jobs and if they want to be trained to unionize their workplace. Imagine how many organizing leads you’d generate like that.

    Imagine, imagine, imagine.

  3. David Palen says:

    Perhaps those new young “militant” leaders that replaced the old white guys (with young white guys) spent too much time on their liberal political agenda instead of representing workers in good old collective bargaining and taking care of members. Today, what are unions? They have become a means for collecting dues from working people in order to turn them over to the Democratic Party.

  4. Hi Lou, in Wisconsin the governor, both houses of the legislature, the attorney general and the State Supreme Corp. are wholly owned subsidiaries of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. It’s time unions give up on electoral politics and use what money they have left to educate, agitate and organize.

  5. Organized Labor, like the Left, needs to stop communicating internally and fighting over how many soap bubbles there are on a soap dish and get out of their bubbles as it were. Obermann has time on his hands now — a pop culturist bomb thrower has his uses. Use the forms of media at hand. Just as Harry and Louise were used to effectively torpedo Clintoncare back when, an new Harry and Louise, a bilingual Harry and Louise in fact, in TV ads and mini radio plays could go a long way in selling Obamacare.

  6. Mark Doering-Powell says:

    How do we convince people? The only way is by having an intelligent debate.

    In the rebuttal to the SOTU address, Ryan compares the US possibly heading down the road of Ireland or Greece. A worthy warning if not a bit of mild fear mongering.

    But in his comparison to Europe, he conveniently left out Germany, the country with the fastest recovery.

    How do they do this?

    1) They have a heavily unionized work force, and still manufacture things enjoying a trade surplus. A country of less than 85 million as one of the top exporters in the world. Its not done by cheap labor, but by people earning living wages.

    2) The govt is not seen as the enemy, nor are unions. They legislate things that will help their Wirtschaft (economy). For example, companies with 2000 or more employees have them vote for half of the company’s board members. Everyone is seen as being on the same team, and employees are well-represented even on the corporate level.

    How do we do it here?
    Pretty much the opposite.

  7. Lance Cohn says:

    The Working Class of this nation and of the World need the Labor movement now more than ever. Our Labor movement has taken a lot of punches in the last 30 years but, just like a good fighter it will rise up even stronger than ever.

    The fight is not over! The beginning of a new struggle is taking place. I totally disagree with those that say this is the end of the Labor movement; this is the beginning of a new Labor movement.

  8. Howard Ryan says:

    Hi Lou,

    I work with Labor Notes out of Detroit. I’m in LA this week and would like to touch base with you — among other things, to explore having an LA Troublemaker School. Please shoot me an email at howard@labornotes.org.

    Best,

    Howard

  9. Arieh Lebowitz says:

    Lou: You say that the resut of many national unions an locals around the country being led and staffed by a new breed, schooled in strategic thinking and coalition-building, and committed to organizing members for action and recruiting workers into the ranks is the plunge in the number and percentage of union members continues without a blip.

    You don’t give any evidence that the latter is rhe result of the former.

    On the contrary, you state that the labor relations framework in the U.S. – effectively manipulated by a sophisticated union avoidance industry – makes union growth almost impossible.

    Again, no evidence.

    The figures are daunting. Of course, But it seems to me that there are a whole raft of reasons why union membership is where it is, and not where many hope it would be.

    There are calls for approaches outside of unions to defend workers’ rights to better salaries, better working conditions, but I’ve seen scant evidence that these initiatives either have achieved much, or are on the threshold of doing so.

    We’re living in an environment in which very few workers entering the workplace or already there have relatives or friends in unions; in which most people entering the workplace or already there are even aware of the extent to which many of the best features of their worklife were secured, decades ago, through the efforts of the trade union movement. The major mass media, for instance newspapers, no longer have labor reporters. Same is true for the major TV networks including cable, and radio. These days, you’d rarely if ever find the cover of a major newsmagazine with the picture of the head of the U.S. labor movement, or a major officer. Kids in school who learn U.S. history learn precious little about teh labor movement, and this has been teh case for three or more decades.
    It all adds up.

    Oh, I almost forgot. The economic recovery is almost a “jobless recovery.”

    I don’t have all the answer by any means. But it is for sure not that the fact that the labor movement has newer leadership leads necessarily – or demonstrably – to the pickle we’re in now.

    I DO know that given a choice, a LOT of U.S. workers would opt to be union members.

  10. Arieh Lebowitz says:

    I meant, of course, that most people entering the workplace or already there are NOT even aware of the extent to which many of the best features of their worklife were secured, decades ago, through the efforts of the trade union movement.

    Which is why I think that the more that these things are brought to the average person’s attention – for instance, via a four or eight-page supplement to PARADE every month or two by the trade union movement – the better. Why it makes sense for local trade union activists to run for their local school council, or town council, the way right-wingers and conservative religious community activists have done for a few decades now. I could go on, but you get the point.

    • Lou says:

      I wrote this post to express some of the frustrations many of us in the labor movement are feeling right now – that it’s definitely confusing and painful to be so committed to what seems like a losing cause.

      I don’t want to blame anybody on our side, especially those who work so hard to build their unions and help workers.

      And I appreciate the comments because we’re all trying to figure out how to go forward from here.

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