Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Labor's on the March - At Last
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Organized labor's friends, organized labor's foes, and just about everyone else has been saying it for a good long time: Unions are in deep trouble, their membership numbers and economic and political influence steadily and steeply declining.

But after years of doing little except talk about reversing the decline, labor's leaders finally seem determined to attempt some decisive action.

It's a matter of survival, says President Andy Stern of the Service Employees International Union, the country's largest. For with only one worker in 12 belonging to a union, "we are gasping for air as a labor movement."

A half-century ago, one in three workers carried a union card. But since then, adds Stern, "our employers have changed, our industries have changed, and the world has certainly changed, but the labor movement's structure and culture have sadly stayed the same."

Stern is one of five major union leaders who have joined in a highly ambitious effort to change labor. The aims of their "New Unity Partnership" most importantly include radically restructuring or replacing the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization that encompasses virtually all unions.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and his fellow officers don't necessarily agree with all the new organization's specific proposals, but agree that far-reaching changes are needed - and soon.

They also agree, as do all the AFL-CIO's affiliated unions, that the first step must be an all-out campaign to deny President Bush re-election in November. His administration's failure to enforce the laws that prohibit employer interference in union organizing drives has been a primary factor in keeping more workers from joining.

Sweeney says that if Bush is re-elected, "nothing we're talking about will be even remotely possible. George Bush is simply the worst president we've ever had to deal with. He and his cronies are as cold-blooded as bounty hunters when it comes to workers and our unions."

Although not as important politically as they once were, unions still have clout. One-fourth of the voters in the 2000 elections came from union households, for instance, and in this year's election the AFL-CIO plans to spend $44 million on getting them and others out to vote for Democrat John Kerry. The Service Employees alone is dispatching 2,000 members to work full-time as Democratic Party volunteers in 17 states where Kerry and Bush are running neck-to-neck.

The Service Employees' Stern and others argue that once the election is over, the AFL-CIO must turn virtually all of its attention to organizing workers and to further political activity aimed at strengthening and winning broad public support for the severely eroded civil right of workers to organize.

Surveys show that at least 42 million non-union workers want to unionize but won't try because they fear employer retaliation. That's nearly one-third of all U.S. workers. Every year, more than 20,000 who do try to organize unions at their workplaces are punished, half of them fired, despite the provisions against such action in the National Labor Relations Act.

If unions are to grow, the law must be strengthened by increasing - and strictly imposing - the penalties for the blatant violation of workers' union rights that's become all too common.

But there are other matters important to unions that also require broad public help, and unions have begun to seek that help. The Service Employees, for instance, has launched a campaign via the Internet to line up supporters for universal health insurance. The AFL-CIO has created a rapidly-growing community affiliate, Working America, that already has enlisted several hundred thousand people to campaign alongside unionists, not just on reforming the labor laws, but also on such issues as increasing the minimum wage and ending tax breaks that encourage employers to shift jobs overseas.

Internal reform is also necessary, note those who are trying to revitalize labor. For starters, they want the AFL-CIO to streamline its highly cumbersome bureaucracy so as to enable the federation to act quickly and decisively, primarily by replacing its 54-member executive council that meets only twice a year with a much smaller body that would meet monthly and focus almost solely on organizing and political action.

What's more, the number of AFL-CIO affiliates would shrink from 65 to as few as 20 or even fewer through mergers of unions in the same or similar industries. Unions would otherwise add to their strength by forming new alliances on geographic as well as industry lines and bargaining jointly with employers. The alliances would include foreign unions which deal with the same multi-national corporations as U.S. unions.

But organizing, as John Sweeney says, "is the A-No. 1 priority for the union movement."

He's been saying that repeatedly since assuming the AFL-CIO presidency in 1995, urging unions to spend at least 30 percent of their budgets on recruiting new members. But most unions have been spending no more than 5 percent, far less than needed to train organizers and meet the other costs that can amount to as much as $3,000 for every new member.

The need is for an intensive national organizing drive coordinated through the AFL-CIO and its local, regional and state organizations, with union volunteers and staffers literally going door-to-door to talk with potential members at their homes as well as talking to them at work and at rallies. Part of the cost could be met by assessing AFL-CIO affiliates a monthly organizing fee of $1 per member - a total of about $16 million a month.

The chief target has to be giant retailer Wal-Mart, whose virulent anti-unionism has kept its 1.3 million employees' pay and benefits at or very close to the poverty level while it has raked in huge profits. As the country's largest private employer, Wal-Mart has become the role model for employers everywhere.

Attempts to unionize Wal-Mart's 3,500 U.S. stores already are underway, but much more is planned. Significantly, organizers are working with the community groups whose concern over the unfair competitive pressure of Wal-Mart on local retailers has blocked the company from opening new stores in their areas.

Organizers also are working with local political groups and attempting to enlist them and others to help convince workers to join, and discussing such promising new tactics as forming organizations of workers who support unionization but make up only a minority of those at their workplace. They would get most of the fringe benefits covered by union contracts, political representation, even job training while they tried to persuade their fellow workers to opt for unionization.

There's talk, too, of creating organizations of the nation's millions of jobless workers to press the Federal Government for a major public works program that would give them jobs repairing and rebuilding the country's badly deteriorated infrastructure, as the government did during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Organizers also are quite aware that they must intensify their recruiting of particular groups of workers who remain under-represented in the leadership and rank-and-file of unions - women and younger workers, white collar professionals, Latinos, African-Americans and low-wage immigrants. It's as essential that union members generally be given a greater voice in union operations, which are too often controlled by a small, self-perpetuating hierarchy at the top.

More's at stake here than the future of American unions, as important as that is.

Organized labor was the key instrument in the rise of a middle class, and as labor's share of the workforce has diminished over the past half-century, so has the relative size of the middle class. Strengthening unions will inevitably lead to an expanded middle class, to a better life for millions of Americans, whether they be union members or not.

Copyright Dick Meister