Monday, October 8, 2012

Can There Be an Effective Labor Movement in the United States?

Harold Meyerson has written a long and reflective article for The American Prospect: If Labor Dies, What’s Next? The labor movement and the union movement have long been identical. Meyerson presents a status report on the union movement that indicates a bleak future, if any future at all. However, he concludes on a note that suggests a new form of a labor movement might yet emerge.

Meyerson presents a depressing picture of the state of the union movement. Anti-union legislation and lax enforcement of labor laws have made it possible for companies to prevent union representation if they should choose to. They have sufficient legal and illegal means at their disposal to ensure that workers can be coerced into refusing to vote for union representation if necessary. Unions tried to turn the rules more in their favor by supporting Democratic control of the White House and the two houses of Congress. They contributed "$400 million and hundreds of thousands of volunteers" to that effort.

"....they pushed legislation that would authorize the NLRB to recognize a union if a majority of workers simply signed affiliation cards—a process called ‘card check’—rather than go through an election that management had learned how to game. Once more the effort died in the Senate."

"It didn’t matter that without a change in labor law, private-sector unions might fade to oblivion. ‘We didn’t move a single Democrat who wasn’t already with labor to move on our behalf,’ says Andy Stern, SEIU president during the 2010 battle."

That failure was followed by the resurgence of Republicans in the 2010 election and the deliverance to them of control of several critical state legislatures. Recognizing unions as their staunchest opponents, they used the fiscal crisis as an excuse to limit the power and influence of the public-sector unions. Some of the Republican actions were effectively countered, but it still represented a net loss for the unions.

Meyerson’s most troubling claim is that the tie between the union movement and the Democratic Party might be unraveling.

"Some leading Democrats believe their party can build an enduring majority that doesn’t have much of a place for unions. Their strategy is based on demography—that through the growing numerical strength of Latinos and Asians and the steady support of blacks and highly-educated white professionals, Democrats can put together an electoral coalition that will sweep them into power for many decades."

"As for the unions’ ability to deliver white working-class votes to the Democrats—it’s not going to matter. The white working class is shrinking as a share of the electorate, and the union share of the white working class is shrinking alongside it. Who needs ‘em?"

Perhaps foreseeing the conflict between Chicago’s mayor and the teachers’ union, Meyerson included this comment:

"Already, some Democratic mayors, among them Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel and Newark’s Corey Booker, are building coalitions that array their city’s corporate elites and minority communities against their cities’ unions."

Meyerson describes union leaders as generally despondent about future prospects. They invested heavily in organizing and in politics and had little to show for it. The Great Recession might have generated interest on the part of workers, but it didn’t.

"Unlike the ‘30s when workers flocked to unions, the current recession has only intensified labor’s downward spiral and business’s ascent."

A detailed history of the union movement’s slide is provided. The ultimate issue to be faced now is not so much the lack of need for a strong labor movement, but the inability of the union movement to adapt to changing times.

"To the young, even to most campus activists, unions are a holdover from their great-grandparents’ generation, speaking a language as incomprehensible as Old English: solidarity, shop stewards, seniority, strikes. Where are unions in the new economy? Can a union do anything for a temp? A part-timer? A software writer? A barista? Will anyone under 30—will anyone over 30—even notice if unions cease to be?"

If one chooses to believe that the union movement is becoming irrelevant, does it follow that an effective labor movement is irrelevant or impossible? Meyerson does not believe so. The unions’ struggles of decades past raised the wages and living standards of everyone; the need for that struggle to continue is just as urgent today.

Meyerson twice resurrects this quote from long ago:

"’Class conflict is essential if freedom is to be preserved,’ historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in his 1949 book, The Vital Center, ‘because it is the only barrier to class domination’."

Phrases like "class conflict" and "class domination" don’t easily roll off of peoples’ tongues these days, but a case can be made that we are in a state where class domination effectively exists. Employers have unlimited power to control wages and benefits. In most areas there is no market force to push wages higher in competition for scarce workers; rather there is a glut of workers. For them, the only floor is the federal or state mandated minimum wage. Meyerson points out that employers have taken advantage of their dominant position.

"Today, wages and benefits make up the lowest share of America’s gross domestic product since World War II. Wages have fallen from 53 percent of GDP in 1970 to 44 percent today. Profits have been growing at wages’ expense. Michael Cembalest, J.P. Morgan’s chief investment officer, has calculated that reductions in wages and benefits were responsible for about 75 percent of the increase in corporate profits between 2000 and 2007."

Given that traditional unions are not the answer, but that a labor movement is needed, what must happen? Meyerson suggests several approaches that are being considered. Most involve broadening the scope of union activities to become more involved in important social issues. There are a lot of people out there who are unhappy: homeowners, indebted students, and anyone who has to deal with banks, for example. Could they all be corralled into a single movement? Perhaps, but what would that have to do with unions per se?

The notion of a broad-based approach to gaining better conditions for wage-earners begins to resemble more traditional political organizing. Of Meyerson’s possible approaches, the most compelling is his description of local political activism in the Los Angeles area. He describes the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE). This organization created programmatic platforms, recruited candidates, and waged successful campaigns for local political offices. The goal was to use the leverage provided by government assistance to businesses to force those businesses to be more supportive of workers and of the community in general.

"LAANE’s first major victory was persuading the city council to require cleaning companies with which it had contracts to pay their workers a living wage—a sum several dollars higher than California’s minimum wage....Over the years, the scope of such ordinances was broadened to encompass card-check unionization at hotels and sports arenas that received redevelopment funds; local hiring requirements for developers of major projects; and clean air standards for trucks at the Port of Los Angeles. Some of these ordinances have served as models for living-wage and other laws in more than 140 other cities."

This example seems suggestive of where the labor movement must go. There are many people who would never think of joining a union, but who would be in favor of a living-wage law—which is nothing more than a healthy rise in the minimum wage that is tied to a local cost of living. There are a number of social issues where there is popular support, but political blockage at the national level. Perhaps the most effective strategy in the long run is to return to working at local and state levels to establish conditions and laws that hopefully will set the example for broader implementation.

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