This is not a happy time for the labor movement. But though unions are in deep trouble, their membership numbers and economic and political influence steadily declining, their future actually looks promising.
Conventional wisdom has it that the labor movement is virtually on its death bed because of challenges to the AFL-CIO¹s leadership raised by some of the country¹s most militant, influential and successful unions, joined together in a rival group, ³Change to Win.² Yet the challenges are just what labor has needed to finally reverse its decades-long decline.
As in the 1930s, when similar challenges were raised, the result almost certainly will be a labor movement revitalized by reforms that are sure to come from the interactions of the challengers and the leaders they are challenging.
Challenges and changes made in response, competition that¹s how progress is made, and that¹s what¹s happening now, as it did then.
Then, during the Great Depression of the thirties, it was industrial unions forming the Congress of Industrial Organizations to challenge the American Federation of Labor, which largely ignored the racially and ethnically mixed mass of generally unskilled workers in basic industries. The AFL limited its organizing primarily to skilled and semi-skilled white craftsmen who were organized according to their trade rather than by industry.
Overall, less than 10 percent of workers belonged to unions. Finally, however, unemployment became so widespread and pay and working conditions so bad that masses of workers rebelled most under the newly unfurled banners of the CIO.
Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt, fearful of revolution, responded by pushing bills through Congress that granted workers the right to bargain collectively with their employers. Millions of workers flocked to unions. Millions engaged in strikes and other militant activities. Pay rose substantially, workers won unheard -of fringe benefits, working hours were reduced without a reduction in pay, grievance procedures were instituted, job security greatly enhanced.
As the CIO grew, so did the AFL. By the time the competing organizations merged in 1955 to form the AFL-CIO in part to help labor combat an unfriendly Republican Congress and President -- one of every three workers belonged to a union.
Although the issues facing labor today are generally different from those of 1930s and 1950s, unions are again saddled with stiff opposition from a Republican Congress and administration.
George Bush, in fact, is unquestionably the most anti-labor President in modern history. His administration¹s refusal to adequately enforce the National Labor Relations Act, which was designed to further unionization, has been a major factor in creating the widespread anti-unionism that¹s reduced union ranks to only about 12 percent of U.S. workers. Bush¹s trade policies also have done great harm, shifting work performed in this country by unionized workers to unorganized, poorly- treated workers abroad.
Forming working alliances with foreign workers and unions that deal with the same multi-national corporations as U.S. unions is a critical need of today¹s labor movement. So is adjusting much more effectively to the shift from an economy anchored primarily by heavy industry and manufacturing to one that stresses the service and retail fields, merging unions that compete with each other, closely coordinating the efforts of those and other unions, and bringing more immigrant workers, women and minorities into unions.
Leaders of the AFL-CIO and the challenging ³Change to Win² group of unions agree on that and agree as well that labor must wage a major attack against Bush and other anti-labor politicians. Their main argument seems to be over the question of which of them can best do what needs to be done, and how much of labor¹s resources to put into political action, how much into the organizing of new union members.
In any case, thanks in large part to the ³Change to Win² challenge, the labor movement is on the way to doing what needs to be done.
We shouldn¹t forget that more¹s at stake than the future of American unions, as important as that is. Organized labor was the key instrument in the rise of a middle class, and as labor¹s share of the workforce has diminished over the past half-century, so has the relative size of the middle class. Strengthening unions will inevitably lead to an expanded middle class, to a better life for millions of Americans, whether they be union members or not.
Copyright © 2005 Dick Meister, a San Francisco writer who has covered labor issues for more than four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator. (email@example.com, www.dickmeister.com).