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After Wisconsin, Whither Labor?



by John D. Cameron

In the wake its the failure to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker last month, numerous pundits have once again declared that the American labor movement is doomed.  The line goes that organized labor has lost its political clout and its declining membership in the private sector means it is headed for the dustbin of history.

Yet, as Mark Twain would have said, the rumors of labor’s death are greatly exaggerated. 

No doubt about it, Walker’s victory was a setback for working people, but not only for the labor movement.  His agenda includes a broad assault on the rights of others as well – poor folks on Medicaid, women needing reproductive health services, children seeking a decent quality public education, all of us who need clean water and breathable air.  Walker’s attack on public employee collective bargaining was his first priority only because he knew that organized labor would be the most powerful opponent to his right-wing blitzkrieg.

The recall itself was always an uphill fight, made more difficult by the unprecedented amounts of corporate money that flowed into Walker’s coffers once it became a national cause-celeb.  It didn’t help that his Democratic opponent, whom he had defeated two years earlier, sparked little passionate support and had had difficult relations with traditional Democratic-leaning communities when he was Mayor of Milwaukee.  And, it should be pointed out, despite the controversy he provoked, Scott Walker’s approval ratings were always relatively high – far higher than those of Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, according to recent polling.

Yet the recall struggle was the logical extension of the progressive pushback against Walker in Wisconsin, and it was a battle that had to be fought.  To its credit, despite the trepidations of some of its leadership, labor went all out and made a massive commitment to winning, just as it had in Ohio last fall where it resoundingly defeated Governor John Kasich’s similar law repealing bargaining rights.  (Note – Ohio is twice as populous as Wisconsin.)  On balance, the American labor movement is certainly embattled and its long term fate unclear, but it is hardly moribund.

Yet what of labor’s future?  Can it stem its losses as a percentage of the workforce, and regain momentum for its economic and political goals as the global economy continues to shift so dramatically?  The heyday of American labor (at least in the private sector) coincided with the U.S. dominance over the world economy after World War II.  With other nations in ruins and American manufacturing at its peak, accommodating organized labor’s demands was both easier and lot more profitable for the titans of industry (and politically it also helped distinguish us from our Cold War enemies on the other side of the Iron Curtain.)  Not that anything was ever given away to labor – strikes and organizing struggles continued as unions like the Autoworkers and the United Steelworkers fought hard in the [post-war years for the basics of middle-class security – health coverage, pensions, fair work rules, and wages that kept up with the cost-of-living.

Among the most dramatic of those battles was the extension of union rights to workers in the public sector.  State and local government employees, at least in the lower ranks including the nation’s vast army of school teachers, were long treated to second-class status – poorly paid, subject to patronage and political favoritism, often prohibited from striking or fighting for better job conditions.  Many of those workers were women and people of color, and social movements around civil rights and feminism that arose in the 1960s fused with their struggles for justice and dignity in the workplace.  Martin Luther King’s fateful 1968 trip to Memphis was to support the city sanitation workers’ battle for union recognition.  Out of those fights emerged large and powerful public employee unions like AFSCME and SEIU, grounded in that movement tradition and of necessity more politically engaged than their counterparts in private industry.

The peak of union density (and of real earnings and the middle-class share of the nation’s wealth) lasted until the end of the 1970s.  Newly-elected President Ronald Reagan’s attack on the air controllers’ union PATCO in 1981 is often cited as the beginning of labor’s troubles. Yet it was global economic change, especially the dramatic-decline in U.S. manufacturing supremacy after the recession of the early ‘80s, that really began the steady slide in union membership and union density.  Though public employee unionism continued to grow – Illinois did not even enact collective bargaining rights for teachers and government workers until 1983 – labor failed to make significant inroads in organizing workers in hospitals, hotels, banks and the other large workplaces of the growing service sector. 

Global economic change however, has also brought new opportunities to the labor movement elsewhere.  Though there are few reliable statistics, as of last year the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions estimated its membership as 155 million in 156 countries. This excludes the former Soviet-bloc nations in which, according to the World Federation of Trade Unions, unions have another 75 million members, not including China.  Union density in Europe, North America, Japan and Australia is still 38% (and the U.S. is not the lowest.)   Perhaps even more significantly, unions are growing in the emerging nations where they are playing an increasingly important political role.  Hosni Mubarak was only toppled when the Egyptian government unions went on strike and winning democracy in the Middle East is synonymous with recognizing labor rights: even the Emir of Qatar granted the right to organize and strike, the eight-hour day and a ban on child labor in recent years. 

The connection between organized labor and democracy is basic: it is the fundamental role of the labor movement is to democratize the workplace and the economy.  It is not just through increasing wages, which does redistribute wealth and power, but also through winning fairness, respect and dignity for workers – giving them a say in the terms and conditions of their employment.  Though many unions themselves have issues with internal democracy, even the most conservative unions redistribute power in the workplace.  The bigger “movement” unions, especially those in the public sector, do so at the ballot box as well, which is precisely why the hatchet-men for the corporate elites like Walker, Kasich and Chris Christie of New Jersey have put a bulls-eye on collective bargaining rights for public employees.  And it is not just these Republicans ideologues by any means – the attack on government unions has been joined by plenty of Democratic officials, many of whom have benefited from strong labor support in the past.

So can the labor movement, in the U.S. anyway, be saved?  If it is, I believe it will have to be part of a bigger movement than its own ranks.  Twice in the recent past, progressive labor officials have led dramatic organizational rebellions at the highest level aimed at revitalizing the movement.  In 1995, the public employee unions teamed up to elect John Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO pledging a new approach to labor.  At best it was a minor success: while AFL’s political program was vastly upgraded, the continuing inability to organize new members at scale meant labor was, at best, running in place. A decade later, frustrated union progressives (most prominently Andy Stern, Sweeney’s successor as president of the SEIU) led a traumatic split in the AFL ranks, forming a new coalition called “Change to Win” with vows of massive new organizing and reforms to labor’s political and structural organization.  It fared even less well and soon devolved into inter-union battling among its own ranks while failing to measurably increase its membership.   It is not by reinvigorating its leadership or improving its performance at organizing and mobilizing workers alone – critical as these are – that the labor movement will grow. 

The challenges to the labor movement in the U.S. are, in fact, part a broader global struggle.  The battles over “austerity” on the streets of Europe are part of the same fight.  Essentially, the drive to reduce the share of wealth for working people – whether it is public pensions and retiree health care for government employees, “entitlements” like Social Security and Medicare for ordinary Americans, or retirement age, work rules and wage levels for European workers – is also a drive to reduce democracy.  It will not further increases income inequality but inevitably corupts the mechanisms for democratic decision-making – in the U.S., unlimited, nameless political donations buy election outcomes like that in Wisconsin; in Europe elected officials are deposed by “technocrats” accountable to bankers rather than the electorate.   

The good news is that the democracy movement is both energized and clear about the importance of labor to its success.  The Occupy Wall Street activists have framed the fight – the 99% versus the 1% – in economic justice terms but they fully understands the political power of the latter.  “The banks get bailed out/We get sold out.”  The hundreds of thousands of non-labor activists who have flooded Capitol Square in Madison, knocked doors in Ohio and rallied across the country to support collective bargaining get it, if not all the millions who’ve signed their petitions or turned out to vote.  

As the Wisconsin recall vote showed, however, this will be a prolonged and tough struggle.  There will be no easy or quick victories that last – winning democracy in the workplace, in our communities, in our government and across the world, which requires us to build a strong labor movement and other progressive institutions, is the work of our lifetimes and of the generations to come.

It is in that context – as part of the global movement fighting for democracy and justice – that there is hope for labor’s future:   

  • That means fighting for basic economic security – good jobs with fair wages, health care and retirement security – for all.
  • That means fighting for an economy that grows based on widely-shared wealth rather than the accumulation in the hands of the few.
  • That means fighting for the right of everyone to realize their full potential – including access to quality education, full civil rights and liberties and a health, sustainable environment.
  • That means fighting for genuine democracy, not just ending the distortions of money in elections, but right down to the basics of collective bargaining for all workers.

Realizing that hope is far from certain and it is quite possible that organized labor in America can continue to wither.   Yet resistance to injustice is inevitable, and it is our job to organize it.


John D. Cameron is the Director of Political and Community Relations for AFSCME Council 31, 9th Congressional District COPE chair for the Illinois AFL-CIO, and Secretary-Treasurer of Citizen Action/Illinois.