How to Save the U.S. Labor Movement

union strikeThe first step in saving the labor movement is recognizing that it needs saving. Sadly, many union leaders — including Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO — refuse to accept this reality, choosing instead to dismiss the current threats against labor unions as “exaggerated,” or limited to this or that Republican politician.

In fact, the labor movement — especially public sector unions — is facing nationwide attacks by Democrats and Republicans alike.

On a state-by-state basis unions are being blamed for the budget deficits that are the result of the Great Recession — itself triggered by Wall Street and fueled by declining taxes on corporations and the rich.

This massive recession is certain to create deficits for years to come, guaranteeing that the cross-hairs will remain firmly on the backs of labor unions, since the backs of the corporations escaped the cross-hairs by their domination of the two party system and media.

This anti-union atmosphere will thus grow, and will soon affect all unions, much like high unemployment has already weakened all unions by pushing down wages and lowering union membership.

And union membership is already drastically low: with 7 percent private sector unemployment, unions are already facing near extinction. The attack on the public sector, if successful, will completely destroy the power of unions in relation to the power of corporations.

Labor’s diminishing clout is already recognized by politicians of both parties; indeed, the current attacks would not be happening if it were otherwise. Big business now has undisputed and complete control over both parties. The New York Times reports:



”The reality is that the U.S. labor movement has steadily lost influence, politically, socially and economically. Labor believes that President Barack Obama is taking it too much for granted; he is.” (March 7, 2011). 



A recent member of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) International Executive Board, Stephen Lerner, was more blunt when he spoke at Pace University: “Unions are almost dead. We cannot survive doing what we do.”

It is in this context that solutions must be proposed, debated, and pursued. Labor unions do not need genius-caliber ideas or fancy gimmicks to save themselves; there are numerous practical, common sense solutions that could be implemented immediately. Below are six:

Go on the offensive. No struggle of any kind can be won on a purely defensive basis. Yet many labor unions seem content with continually fending off corporate attackers, taking steps backwards as they do so, since waging defensive campaigns uses precious union resources. Purely defensive campaigns imply weakness, since a powerful organization would choose to use its resources in a more empowering way.

Concessionary bargaining is a prime example of unions not flexing their muscle, and sadly, it’s become the new norm for many unions, which weaken themselves further with every new concession-filled contract. The union movement will not be able to grow significantly as long as it persists in concessionary bargaining. Who would want to join a union and pay dues if the results are progressively worse contracts?

Labor unions are capable of conjuring powerful social forces when they do go on the offensive. Oregon unions decided to mobilize in favor of a Tax the Rich and Corporation measure that would reduce the state deficit: union members flocked to phone banks and door-to-door canvassing, winning over the community with a landslide election victory that saved hundreds of millions of dollars in social service cuts. The events in Wisconsin proved that unions would have tremendous community support to go on the offensive against the anti-democracy Governor Walker. The non-union working class in Wisconsin correctly viewed the unions’ fight as a battle against the status-quo, and they wanted to join.

Mobilize the community. One of the biggest mistakes unions have made over the years has been to disconnect themselves from the community. Unions became insular organizations unconcerned with organizing new members or fighting for working people in general, mistakes that can easily be remedied by reversing course. The media is focused on demonizing unions in the eyes of the broader working class, but unions can fight back by waging real campaigns to save Social Security, Medicare, or other national programs like food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, and especially addressing unemployment. Fighting for the unemployed by demanding a public works program would boost the image of unions in the eyes of working people nationwide. The union movement cannot win by itself; it is too small. SEIU has recognized this in their fledgling campaign called Fight For a Fair Economy. But a truly successful campaign would require that all unions become involved. cont’d on page 2

Published by the LA Progressive on July 8, 2011
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About Shamus Cooke

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org). He can be reached at shamuscook@yahoo.com