A Worker-Union Disconnect
At the annual executive meeting of the nation's labor leaders this month, the AFL-CIO accused the Bush administration of being AWOL while US jobs have gone overseas and millions of Americans lack health insurance.
But where has organized labor been?
While America's workers struggle with the loss of nearly 3 million manufacturing jobs in just three years, downward pressure on wages, and skyrocketing health costs, the union executive body has pointed the finger at everyone else but itself.
Not that they caused these problems. But the obvious disconnect between a workforce with urgent, legitimate economic concerns and an organized labor movement that lost nearly 400,000 members last year, shows in part that unions are not meeting workers' needs.
"In part," because much of the decline in membership comes from attrition resulting from manufacturing layoffs. Still, the downward trend spans decades (from 35 percent of the US workforce in the 1950s to 12.9 percent last year - just 8.2 percent of the private sector). And it is a powerful statement that organized labor can make no net gains in membership in a period when workers need a voice more than ever.
While membership is plummeting, unions still have political clout. One in four voters came from a union household in the 2000 elections, and this year, the AFL-CIO plans to spend a record $44 million on get-out-the-vote efforts to back Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
Last week, it took the unprecedented step of asking the Bush administration to impose sanctions on China for alleged violations of workers' rights, citing bonded labor and unsafe working conditions. It's the first time that labor has petitioned the government to invoke Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 (corporations have used this to pry open markets in the past).
The move is more political than practical, but it at least shows the leadership is looking for new ways to apply pressure on a key issue.
Yet ultimately, political power comes back to membership. With no members, there will be no influence, and more important, no advocate for US workers.
A new labor-financed poll shows that half of those surveyed would join a union if they had the opportunity, so the demand is there. Unions can tap into it by breaking out of the collective-bargaining tradition - where they have less and less of a role - and offering dues-paying workers in non-union settings the benefits that union workers get, minus collective bargaining.
It's a way to provide services like health insurance and workplace legal advice in an era when employer giants like Wal-Mart discourage organizing. The American Federation of Teachers, for instance, has been growing through just such a strategy.
If unions want to avoid irrelevance, they must reconnect with workers.