Last year, the percentage of U.S. workers who belong to unions dropped to 14%, a nadir not glimpsed since the final, desperate year of the Hoover administration. Yet, from GOP politicians like Gov. Pete Wilson and numerous right-wing activists come frequent jibes at the political prowess of Big Labor. Putting muscle behind mouth, they are spearheading costly initiatives in California and elsewhere that would require unions to get annual permission from their members to spend dues money on state and local electoral campaigns, though workers already have the right to quit a union and get their dues reimbursed if they object to its political stand. What are conservatives so afraid of?
Since 1995, the AFL-CIO, under the aggressive leadership of President John J. Sweeney, has spent millions to broadcast its views and get sympathetic candidates, almost all of them Democrats, elected. Yet, labor's fortunes continue to sag. Every year, thousands of wage earners get fired, illegally, for trying to organize a union where they work. Even many Democrats oppose changing the law to make it harder for employers to intimidate labor activists. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO's opposition to foreign-trade agreements does little or nothing to keep good manufacturing jobs at home. Despite a booming stock market and low employment, general wage rates have increased only slightly since the last recession.
Exaggerated alarms about labor's clout are nothing new. Throughout U.S. history, the foes of unionism have vastly inflated the true strength of the movement. A century ago, unions were accused of mounting violent strikes to tear down the state. Toward the end of World War II, the right-wing press claimed the industrial unions of the CIO controlled the Democratic Party and were steering the nation toward socialism. In the 1980s, conservatives such as Ronald Reagan alleged that teachers' unions were ruining the public schools.
In truth, U.S. unionists have been nearly perpetual underdogs, both in the workplace and the political arena. They begin with the ideological odds stacked against them. In a nation that prizes self-reliant individuals and the promise of social mobility, unions are easy to brand as collectivist, coercive and class-bound. Few bosses are willing to surrender a measure of control to an independent body of employees; they typically agree to do so only on those occasions when a union has persuaded most employers in the same industry to go along.
The United States, unlike every other industrial nation, has never had a major party solidly committed to labor's aims. Most politicians thus naturally tilt toward the desires of wealthy constituents, who create jobs and finance campaigns, instead of ordinary citizens who merely do their jobs. Class solidarity is regularly trumped by other sentiments. During the heyday of the New Deal, the core of Democratic strength was still in the white South, where union activists enjoyed about the same level of intolerance accorded atheists and interracial lovers.
Nonetheless, organized labor did grow handsomely during the 1930s and '40s (when its numbers increased fivefold) because, for once, it had several key factors working in its favor. The Great Depression had discredited any notion that the big businessman was the worker's best friend. Franklin D. Roosevelt and other northern Democrats encouraged labor organizing, first, to boost purchasing power, then, to avoid wildcat strikes during World War II.
Most important, rank-and-file activists, some of whom were indeed radicals of one doctrinal stripe or another, built an energetic mass movement. New unions of auto workers, electrical workers, longshoremen and farm laborers authentically represented both the hunger for economic security and a desire for a voice on the job that gripped wage earners from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. Most big cities hosted massive Labor Day parades. In the late '30s in Los Angeles, film stars like Robert Montgomery and Lionel Stander rode on floats, and Louis Armstrong and Count Basie entertained the crowd. By 1945, one-third of U.S. workers held a union card.
Then the long, steady decline began. Some reasons are macroeconomics: the shift from blue-collar employment to service and clerical jobs (historically non-union), and vigorous foreign competition that trimmed the bottom line. But of equal significance was labor's inability to counteract a gathering bloc of powerful opponents at home: Sunbelt entrepreneurs determined to keep labor costs low; a new breed of union-busting consultants; a growing middle class that felt unions were only for proles, and rising conservative politicians who targeted labor, correctly, as a key champion of liberal causes. Faced with this barrage, "new" Democrats increasingly viewed unions more as an albatross than the vote-hunting hound of old. Meanwhile, Jimmy Hoffa and a corrupt handful of lesser bullies cast all organized labor in a sordid light. "Let's Put the Movement Back in Labor," read a plaintive bumper-sticker by the mid-1980s.
When Sweeney and his team of fellow reformers took over the AFL-CIO, they thus had a massive task before them--to rescue the unions from creeping irrelevance. In less than three years, they have made an impressive start. Organizing new members is now the federation's main priority, and successes have been won at U.S. Air and the booming resorts of Las Vegas. Through a new program called Union Summer, several thousand college-age youths have tested their ideals against the realities of an organizing campaign; a good number are now deciding to make labor their career.
Unfortunately, the larger obstacles to a comeback remain. Last year's United Parcel Service strike was the most popular work stoppage in decades, but the scandal that engulfed the Teamsters soon after revived, fairly or not, the bad old image of stogie-chomping thievery. Teamsters leader Ron Carey will, no doubt, be an unwilling poster boy for the initiatives to limit the funds that labor spends on politics. Union-organizing drives are risky and expensive, and any victory is only the first step toward changing conditions on the job. With a good lawyer and enough cash, employers can often delay signing their first union contract for years. And, despite their warm rhetoric before union audiences, neither President Bill Clinton nor his heir apparent aspires to be the second coming of Roosevelt.
Only a broad social movement can restore labor's fortunes and give conservatives a serious reason to wail. Every union blooming in the past was driven by a moral claim as much as an economic one. The immigrant rage that followed the 1911 New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the sit-down strikes of the late 1930s and the California grape boycott of the 1960s all breathed a simple truth: Democracy and respect on the job are basic to a good society.
Elections are but one means to that larger end. The chance for a union revival depends, not on funding campaigns, but on awakening a spirit among ordinary Americans who care little about what politicians say but a great deal about improving their own lives.