Organized labor has vanished, as if it were part of the story line of
a science fiction novel. Labor Day 2008 came and went and…nothing.
I searched through the newspaper…nothing. I looked at the TV schedule…nothing.
It was as if there is not and never was anything called organized
You may be saying that I am exaggerating this problem. After all, we just
completed the Democratic Party Convention; we are beginning the
Republican Party Convention; and Hurricane Gustav is terrorizing
the Gulf Coast, therefore, there is too much other news. Yet,
while all of that is true, topical stories are developed way in
advance. TV stations identify, with plenty of time to spare, which
documentaries they will show, as well as interviews they will
Organized labor seems to have vanished, at least from mainstream USA.
one level none of this should be surprising. The percentage of
workers represented by labor unions has been on the decline since
1955 (35%) down to approximately 12% today. Unions have been on
the defensive with employers actively undermining the right of
workers to join or form unions, as well as blocking virtually
every effort on their part to raise the living standards of their
members. Successive U.S. Presidential administrations have been
actively hostile towards labor unions and the rights of workers
to join them. Quite ironically, today’s right-wing Republicans
insist that workers MUST choose the union to represent them by
secret ballot without mentioning that free choice does not exist
when employers are permitted to intimidate workers before they
cast their votes.
It would be easy to stop this commentary here and shake our heads at the
anti-worker animus on the part of employers and governmental authorities.
The problem is that unions themselves allowed this situation to
worsen without sending out a battle cry and retooling themselves
to face mighty corporate opponents. For too long, the leadership
of organized labor believed in the pendulum theory, i.e., that
things were rough, but that the pendulum would ultimately swing
in the other direction and that success would soon be here. The
problem is that the pendulum seems to have gotten stuck.
While organized labor needs to do a hell of a lot more organizing, events
since the 2005 split of the AFL-CIO (the largest labor federation
in the USA) have demonstrated that fancy rhetoric and intense
organizing are not enough. The vision of labor unionism itself
must shift in a way that convinces working class people that it
is a cause with which to unite, irrespective of whether one happens
to currently be in a union or not. Secret deals with employers
in order to secure bargaining rights; the suppression of dissent
in the name of ‘unity’; fostering illusions that corporate America
can be appealed to in order to realize the value of labor unions
as partners in the future economic growth of the USA, are all
recipes for ultimate disillusionment, disorganization and despair.
Labor Day 2008, and this entire period up through the November 2008 national
elections, should actually be a period for labor union activists
to do some reflecting. This
may sound odd since we need to be out there in the trenches pushing
for pro-worker candidates, but I would say that humans can usually
do more than one thing at a time. Union activists and their supporters
need to be thinking through what steps unions can take to embrace
our allies in other social movements and chart a course that represents
a partnership. No, not a partnership with corporate America that
is interested in suppressing the rights of workers and their living
standards – rather, a partnership with other progressive movements
that are interested in significant change in the USA.
During the course of several visits to South Africa I was struck by how
different the union movement was there compared with the one we
have in the USA. In addition to its leaders being fairly young
(tending to be in their late 20s through early 40s) the movement
is very dynamic. Part of being dynamic was/is grounded in a vision
that the union movement is about changing society, or at least
being part of a larger group that is actively changing society
to the benefit of working class people. Rather than sitting on
the side lines, or even lobbying and handing out financial contributions,
the union movement in South Africa has focused on both the needs
of its members as well as the steps that need to be taken to represent
the interests of workers more generally in structurally changing
It seems to me that this is what Labor Day should be about.
Editor, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is the Executive Editor of BlackCommentator.com,
a Senior Scholar with the Institute
for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum
and co-author of the book, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path
toward Social Justice (University
of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized labor
in the USA. Click here
to contact Mr. Fletcher.