workers are in trouble.
past Labor Day, street reporters stuck microphones in front of union
members and asked whether America’s union movement can survive this
low point, and with union membership in the private sector at somewhere
around eight percent, it would be easy to say that the movement
is done and can’t recover its former vitality and strength.
the press asks the question, it’s usually in the context of the
presumption that organized labor is finished as a force in American
life, that it can’t be the support and backbone of a strong working
class that is the strength - economic and social, even cultural
- of the communities in which they live.
is a wrongheaded view, of course, but reporters are subject to the
same propaganda that everyone in the U.S.
sees, hears, and reads. And, the propaganda that unions are bad
and corporations are good has been spread through the country for
a century, in education, entertainment, and in the press, itself.
years ago, at a Labor Day picnic, a reporter for a local newspaper
arrived at the event and spoke with several people in attendance.
In discussing the event and the (bad) condition of labor, he was
told that everything was not so negative and was invited to speak
with some of the people who were more upbeat about the union movement.
said that he’d been sent by his editor to do a story about the demise
of organized labor. Even though he spent considerable time talking
with trade unionists and their supporters - many of them enthusiastic
and upbeat - nothing could convince him otherwise.
morning, the story about the demise of the union movement appeared
in the paper and there was little mention of the positive outlook
of some of those in attendance, even the ones who were - or were
about to become - leaders of their unions at the local level.
it must be said, in the years since, it hasn’t looked so good for
unions and his editor may have thought his instruction simply had
been recognition of the inevitable. There
are young workers, though - not a majority, certainly - who see
their future as more secure in the ranks of trade unionists.
analysts and most pundits don’t look any further than the state
of the unions when they assess the future of the labor movement.
It’s hard for them to see that all workers, union and non-union,
are suffering equally in a very unbalanced American economy.
is, the top two or three percent have incomes that are equal to
about the bottom 40 percent, but no one seems to be analyzing the
impact of these conditions on the country as a whole, and on the
society. A discouraged people will not be productive and people
whose livelihoods have been demolished by the economy don’t have
the money to spend on the things that we’re told keep the American
that the first thing the people were told after the attacks of Sept.
11, 2001, was to go about their business: shop and consume. That
was a time when we should have been thinking about things more important
than consumer goods that likely found their way to landfills within
people pay lip service to the idea that the next generation needs
to be brought along, cultivated, educated, so they can take their
place in society and be the leaders. This is most important in organized
labor, which needs to educate its youngest members about why there
is a labor movement, how it came to be, and the struggles and suffering
that brought it to life.
modern living standard was not given by the powers-that-be. It was
won by millions of workers over generations. But the young don’t
learn this in their grade schools or high schools. Unless they attend
one of the handful of colleges that specifically teach labor history
or labor studies, they don’t ever learn it until they are actually
involved in organizing and leading their own unions.
the virtual demise of manufacturing and industry in America, the natural progression of a young worker
- through the ranks, through an apprenticeship, through the mentoring
by the older workers, through working side-by-side every day - into
a seasoned worker and union member is no longer common in the American
“service industry,” the “information technology industry,” and the
“retail industry” that have replaced manufacturing and heavy industry
have not lent themselves to mentoring or apprenticeships.
they enter life after college, many young workers are faced with
the reality that the only jobs readily available are short-term
and low-wage. None of the jobs in the “new sectors” present themselves
as anything permanent and satisfying, so, as soon as they’re hired,
they start looking for the next job. This is true, no matter what
kind of degree or advanced degrees they have.
conditions don’t give much encouragement to young workers to get
involved and to make a place for themselves in their first few jobs.
Often, they think, “I probably won’t be around in a couple of months.”
But, it’s the same feeling about where they live and the kind of
society they might create for themselves.
stay in these jobs, for which they are overqualified, for long periods
of time, hoping that the economy will improve and they can get work
that is good for them and satisfying.
generation of young workers, under 35, is the subject of a new AFL-CIO
report, “Young Workers: A Lost Decade.” Its findings should be a
concern to all Americans. Economic researchers have pointed out
over the past several years that the coming generation will not
achieve economically what their parents achieved without college
are a few of the statistics: Thirty-four percent of workers younger
than 35 still live at home with their parents; 31 percent of young
workers report having no health insurance, up from 24 percent
10 years ago, and 79 percent of the uninsured say they don't have
coverage because they can't afford it or their employer does not
offer it; only 31 percent say they make enough money to cover
their bills and put some money aside - 22 percentage points fewer
than in 1999, and 7 in 10 do not have enough saved to cover two
months of living expenses - a real danger when so many jobs are
wants their children to do well in life, but the conditions that
existed for the past 45 years, or so, just don’t exist today. Success
will have to be measured by other than how much money a worker makes
or how big the house one lives in, or how luxurious a car one drives.
of these standard measures of success are going to have to be thrown
out and a new standard created. There doesn’t seem to be one in
the works and we don’t have a lot of time to do it.
there are exceptions to the statistics in the new report (which
can be read on the AFL-CIO website), but the numbers are of great
concern, and we’re not just talking about organized labor here,
we’re talking about the kind of society we’ve created for the coming
the union movement will be with us, as long as the right to organize
is not rescinded by the Congress, because the aspiration of workers
to represent themselves on the job is just as strong as that of
the founders to represent themselves and govern themselves, without
interference from the English crown. Unions are not going away,
but they will have to change.
do well, unions will have to move well outside of their narrow concerns
of the “bread and butter” issues of wages, benefits, and working
conditions. They will have to fit into the society at large in a
much more holistic way to attract the notice of young workers who
are looking for something larger than themselves.
economic system, our political system, and our other systems have
put up a wall around young people, many of whom can’t see over it
or through it and have come to believe that there’s nothing much
on the other side, anyway.
union movement, one of the most potent engines of social improvement
and self-governance, should be the thing that knocks down the wall
of separation. With the simple tools available to every individual,
it can be done.
only reason for failure would be the unwillingness of millions of
workers to stand in solidarity with one another, to set the goals
they want to achieve, and then go to work. This might require a
whole new culture of American unity, but we delay creating that
new culture at our own peril.
BlackCommentator.com Columnist, John Funiciello, is a labor organizer
and former union organizer. His union work started when he became
a local president of The Newspaper Guild in the early 1970s. He
was a reporter for 14 years for newspapers in New
York State. In addition to labor work,
he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the
land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land
developers. Click here
to contact Mr. Funiciello.