Commentary Magazine

Is Labor Back?

This past March, the federal government published statistics that could hardly have come as welcome news to organized labor. Despite seven years of economic expansion and a drop in unemployment to the lowest level in decades, union membership in the United States has continued to decline in both relative and absolute terms. If, in the mid-1950’s, 35 percent of workers (and over 50 percent in the major industrial states) were enrolled in unions, by 1997 the overall number had fallen to a mere 14 percent. In the private sector, the shrinkage has been particularly acute; unions today represent only 10 percent of workers not on the government payroll.

These numbers must be especially embarrassing for the current leadership of the AFL-CIO, which came into office promising to reverse a long downward trend. It was, in fact, discontent over labor’s eroding base that led to John J. Sweeney’s election as AFL-CIO president in October 1995. Though a member in good standing of the labor establishment, Sweeney had campaigned for office as an insurgent, depicting his predecessor, Lane Kirkland, as stodgy, unimaginative, and incapable of bringing in fresh blood or of energizing the rank and file. Crusading for office under the slogan “America needs a raise,” Sweeney promised a labor movement that would be more dynamic, more creative, more open to women and minority groups, more aggressive in pursuing its political objectives, and more confrontational in its relations with management.

Once at the helm, Sweeney did indeed begin immediately to shift the AFL-CIO into a more combative stance, and, after almost three years, he can point to several interim achievements. In the 1996 national elections, the AFL-CIO entered the political arena with a vigorous campaign, spending $25 million of its members’ dues in an advertising blitz that helped Democratic candidates ride to victory in a number of key races. Labor has also flexed its muscles on Capitol Hill, working to defeat legislation that would have given President Clinton authority to negotiate trade agreements with foreign countries on a “fast track.” At the factory gate, the Teamsters union, an AFL-CIO affiliate, organized a strike last summer against United Parcel Service, forcing one of America’s most powerful companies to make significant concessions at the bargaining table. And last year the AFL-CIO also launched an ambitious organizing drive, managing to induct 350,000 new members.

All told, Sweeney has thus gone some distance in reshaping the AFL-CIO’s image and even in beefing up its ranks, if hardly in sufficient numbers to offset ongoing losses. He has also won a new respect for organized labor among certain constituencies—primarily Democratic-party activists and radical academics—that had previously spoken of it only in derisive tones.

Yet despite these accomplishments, the new leadership has made little progress in solving the more fundamental problem of trade unionism’s declining significance in American life. Not only has membership fallen off, but unions have been nearly invisible in the ongoing national discussion of such workplace issues as “flextime,” maternity leave, and the like. Nor do American policy-makers take seriously the various protectionist schemes of tariffs and import controls that have been elaborated by labor’s professional economists. To make matters still worse, as the new AFL-CIO leadership moves to discard labor’s traditional independence in favor of an open alliance with the Democratic party and various liberal-Left groups, it may, if anything, end up exacerbating the movement’s predicament.



Of the factors that lurk behind the steady contraction of labor’s ranks, a number are admittedly beyond the control of the AFL-CIO. Perhaps the most important is the process of “de-industrialization” that, beginning in the 1960’s, has transformed the shape of the American economy through the simultaneous pressures of global competition and technological innovation. Factory after factory in the nation’s industrial belt—and precisely in those industries where organized labor once enjoyed its greatest strength—has either reduced output, closed, moved to the nonunionized South, or relocated abroad. A toll has also been taken by the deregulation of key industries like trucking and aviation, a process that has opened up competition between union and nonunion enterprises and put the former, hamstrung by restrictive work rules and higher salaries, at a decided disadvantage.

Still other factors contributing to labor’s decline include aggressive efforts on the part of corporations to keep unions from organizing nonunion shops. In some sectors, management has also fared surprisingly well in campaigns to have existing unions “decertified” by workers themselves. In addition, the Reagan administration compounded labor’s woes in the 1980’s through pro-management appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. And when Reagan dismissed air-traffic controllers en masse in 1981, after their union struck in violation of federal law, the effect on labor-management relations over the next decade was incalculable.

The cumulative impact of these trends, plus others of labor’s own devising, has helped place the movement in its current institutional bind. Although labor spokesmen naturally tend to focus on Reaganite conservatism and corporate “greed” as the sole causes of their difficulties, the truth is that neither can fairly be held responsible. Free trade and American participation in the global economy are somewhat likelier culprits, but for decades these have enjoyed consistent backing in both the Republican and Democratic parties. In recent years, deregulation, too, has had strong bipartisan support.

One thing that really has rendered many traditional trade-union functions superfluous is the explosion of federal workplace rules. Union membership is supposed to confer certain benefits, but it has become harder to say what those benefits are. As federal bureaucracies have added layers of regulations governing every aspect of the workplace, from the rights of dismissed workers to safety and health and sexual harassment, the special protections once afforded by unions and symbolized by the shop steward have come to matter less and less. But there is a great irony here. The very type of governmental expansion that has led to the marginalization of the unions’ role is something that the AFL-CIO has not only long supported, but proudly claims credit for. Here is truly a case of being hoist by one’s own petard.



If organized labor’s explanation for its straitened circumstances is decidedly less than satisfactory, the prospects for deliverance from its woes are also quite doubtful, notwithstanding the short-term victories to which I have already pointed. Some of the organization’s most highly publicized membership drives, for example, have taken place in low-wage industries with transient employees: strawberry workers in California, casino employees in Las Vegas. These can hardly serve as replacements for the once-stable base composed of highly paid steelworkers, automobile workers, and long-haul truckers.

Similarly, although AFL-CIO officials comfort themselves with gains in membership among civil servants, here too serious problems loom. A new generation of fiscally conservative governors and mayors has set out to reduce the role of government and the size of its workforce, and by and large these officials do not enjoy close relations with local union establishments. More often than not, indeed, they regard unions as impediments to reform. Seeking ways to reduce the cost of government services, they increasingly look to privatization schemes that turn decision-making power over to employers less constrained than municipal governments in resisting union demands.

Some areas do offer limited potential. Health care has been expanding rapidly, and (unlike steel mills or knitting factories) hospitals and clinics do not have the option of closing up shop and moving their operations to Guatemala. A number of AFL-CIO affiliates are already preparing drives to enlist a broad range of medical personnel, from hospital orderlies to doctors. But the health-care industry is itself under tremendous pressure to curtail costs, arid growth in this sector cannot possibly be counted on to offset the overall decline in union membership.

It is, in fact, difficult to envision any sort of organizing strategy that would enable the unions at this late date to stem the deterioration of their base. Sweeney and other leaders may invoke the spirit of the 1930’s and a bygone age of successful militancy. Yet conditions today do not remotely resemble those prevailing during the Great Depression. Joblessness is low, and the distress of those who suffer from it is cushioned by unemployment compensation and other welfare measures. And while times can be harsh for the unskilled, Americans with an education or a particular trade can often look forward to a wide range of career opportunities in fields where unions simply do not exist. Finally, unions in the old days were often aided by the ham-fisted policies of management; today, a supervisor who invites unionization by mistreating his employees is regarded as a failure and is dismissed.



Labor’s inability to find new members is precisely the reason it has been turning more and more to politics in order to pursue its objectives. That is, the efforts to influence election campaigns and lobby government serve as a means of achieving through the ballot box and legislation what can no longer be obtained by sheer weight of numbers and collective bargaining. And this in turn suggests that the militant mood of the AFL-CIO is no passing phenomenon, and that its turn toward greater and more openly partisan political engagement will be pursued with ever more vigor and determination.

To be sure, this turn was already evident under Sweeney’s predecessor. Not long after George Meany stepped down as the AFL-CIO’s leader in 1979, the newly-installed Lane Kirkland abandoned the organization’s historic stance of political independence in favor of a strategic alliance with liberal special-interest groups like the NAACP and the National Organization for Women (NOW). As labor has become more engaged, its institutional orientation on a whole range of issues has begun to shift from, essentially, the Center to the Left.

Where, for example, the AFL-CIO had long treated affirmative action with wariness, in the 80’s it took to supporting racial preferences, first in the name of righting past discrimination and then, in the Sweeney era, in the name of open-ended “diversity.” To garner support among women, it endorsed the notion that women’s wages should no longer be determined by the marketplace but according to the feminist principle of “comparable worth.” Stirrings of even more radical change were visible within AFL-CIO affiliates like the Service Employees International union, where middle-aged veterans of the New Left as well as a younger generation of activists were invited to assume staff positions.

Under Sweeney, even as a somewhat more conciliatory approach is being pursued on narrower issues involving cooperation between labor and management, the change in the composition of the machinery has intensified, to the point where a genuine radical-leaning culture has begun to take root within the AFL-CIO apparatus. This is most evident in the recruitment of personnel. One source is composed of operatives from left-wing splinter groups like the New party, the Labor party, and the Democratic Socialists of America (which Sweeney himself joined after his election as AFL-CIO president). Another and larger source is made up of individuals hailing from the environmental and feminist movements, the offices of liberal Congressmen, and even the Clinton administration. With this combined new crop of activists taking charge, AFL-CIO conferences and publications have regularly begun to showcase a view of America as a society built on the ongoing exploitation of the working class and the oppression of women and minorities.

Whether the AFL-CIO’s policies will shift even further to the Left remains an open question. What is much less open to question is the damage that Sweeney’s brand of partisanship is likely to do to the cause of labor itself. For one thing, the continuing problem of corruption within union ranks, in the past most often a matter of simple venality, has taken on a strong ideological coloration as union involvement in political affairs intensifies. In a scandal now under investigation by the Justice Department, Sweeney’s close aide, the AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka, appears to be deeply involved in a money-laundering scheme to aid some of his left-wing allies in the Teamsters, a scheme that also included a strange mixture of organizations ranging from the Democratic National Committee to radical fringe groups like Citizen Action. Though Trumka has invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify, Sweeney has stood firmly behind him, and indictments of high-ranking officials are a distinct possibility. This sort of thing is hardly calculated to enhance the movement’s image and reputation.

For another thing, labor’s involvement in political campaigns is causing a serious backlash of its own. On June 2, the voters of California defeated passage of Proposition 226, a “Payroll Protection” initiative that would have banned unions from continuing to spend membership dues on political campaigns without annual written approval from each member. But only a massive push by labor, including the expenditure of $11 million in a TV campaign, ensured the defeat of this referendum, which in early surveys enjoyed huge levels of support. Measures similar to it are likely to come before voters or legislatures in several other states. They represent the most serious challenge to labor’s self-declared institutional interests since the 1950’s, when a number of states abolished the so-called closed shop by enacting right-to-work laws.



There is considerable evidence, indeed, that in places like California, it is precisely labor’s leftward turn that is contributing to its present vulnerability. Not only is public opinion dismayed by the AFL-CIO’s partisan approach to politics, and by its consistent support of candidates on the left end of the Democratic party, but many union members themselves have become severely disaffected from the politics of the organizations they pay to represent them. This, too, is an old story. More than 40 percent of union members voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and again for George Bush in 1988; in congressional elections, more than a third of union members cast ballots for Republicans over the past decade or so. According to one pollster, 82 percent of union members favor a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, and 87 percent would require welfare recipients to work in exchange for benefits—both positions firmly opposed by the AFL-CIO.

Inevitably, a price has to be paid for the lack of ideological congruence between, on the one hand, what has become the AFL-CIO’s center and, on the other hand, the American grassroots, including many union members themselves. The California referendum suggests that the bill is already coming due, and one can only hope that labor’s close call there will lead to a serious reassessment of its current direction.

Not so very long ago, organized labor provided a leftward-drifting Democratic party with a centrist anchor, helping to wage a valiant struggle from within against the isolationism and cultural radicalism that doomed the Democrats to defeat after defeat. Today labor is attempting to impose a program very like the one that pushed the party to the margins. Though the road ahead is rocky no matter which direction the AFL-CIO turns, one thing is certain: if those running the organization persist in their current path, they will only accelerate American trade unionism’s steady decline.


About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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