The high road: Organized labor's future depends on leadership

Friday, June 3, 2005

The American labor movement has reached a cataclysmic stage. The percentage of organized labor membership in private industry is a quarter of what it was in most of our lifetimes and shrinking fast.

More importantly, the image of union members -- and American working people generally -- has been pilloried in the media and by elected officials at all levels. Union laborers have been stereotyped as caring only for job security and benefits, without regard for company competitiveness and innovation.

American workers, like an abused wife, have been pummeled to the point where they have begun to see themselves as the problem and deserving of punishment. When multibillion-dollar auto or airline companies run into financial trouble, labor is the scapegoat, despite the fact that it represents a tiny portion of overall costs. Management excesses and missteps are forgiven.

The unions' ills, like that of their corporate counterparts, are simply a matter of leadership. Union leaders are sincere and committed, but they have gotten off message. Labor has and will always have the moral high ground: All workers deserve to be treated with dignity and paid a living wage. If that point is lost, labor, in the face of globalization, has nothing. And, labor does not consist just of union members. It is all working people, from hi-tech engineers to teachers to Wal-Mart cashiers.

About 150 years ago, Karl Marx described capitalism's overarching imperative as the need to maximize return. Although Marx's focus on state-controlled businesses and equal rewards for unequal contributions has proven untenable, his economic analyses did engender a period of social enlightenment throughout Europe and America. Increased solidarity among working people led to the development of the union movement.

In the U.S., the Knights of Labor was formed in 1869. The International Workers of the World and eventually the AFL-CIO followed. The AFL-CIO reached its peak membership in 1945 when 35.5 percent of all American workers were members. Today union membership in private industry is below 8 percent.

Several reasons have been offered for the decline in union affiliation. Some point to the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy and suggest that service workers are less inclined to join unions. Second, many of the gains achieved by labor unions under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (mandatory union membership at union shops) were reversed by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947.

Taft-Hartley enabled passage of right-to-work laws by Southern states beginning in the late 1940s. Right-to-work allows non-union employees to enjoy hard-won union wage rates without paying union dues. As a result of Taft-Hartley, many manufacturing companies moved their operations to the non-unionized South. Today, foreign auto companies in the South indoctrinate their workers about the evils of unions and have threatened to close plants that voted to unionize.

The image of unions was further eroded in 1957 when Senate hearings on labor racketeering first revealed the control exerted by organized crime on business and labor, in particular the Teamsters.

In spite of these developments, the reality is that unions remain labor's only voice. The loss of union participation has coincided with a significant reduction in U.S. wage rates. Real wages dropped 20 percent from 1973 to 1998 and have barely increased since.

Income disparity between workers and management also has grown. In 1980, CEOs earned 42 times the average worker's pay. In 2000, CEOs earned 531 times that of the average worker. The $1.1 billion annual Wal-Mart dividend paid to five Walton family members would cover the wages of about 70,000 of the company's store employees (at $7.50 and hour).

Increased union participation in the U.S. would improve wages for all workers. Giving workers a voice, whether on a factory floor or at Wal-Mart, would help raise income, benefits and working conditions. Union membership also frees workers to provide candid feedback to management on issues of safety, productivity and innovation. Second, union participation creates worker solidarity. Solidarity occurs as a person identifies their needs with the needs of others. It requires caring and sacrifice.

Recent calls for the AFL-CIO to merge unions and spend more on organizing amount to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The ship of labor must be made seaworthy from the inside out. Workers need to come to unions because of what they stand for, not just what they promise.

Labor must take the high road. This means buying American-made goods even when the cost is higher, buying union-made cars, and not shopping at Wal-Mart or other anti-labor retailers.

Solidarity is not about sloganeering. It is about real support of fellow workers. Union members should not call for preserving American jobs while wearing Chinese-made clothing and footwear. Every purchase counts. Union leaders need to educate their members on the importance of their individual contributions and refocus them on shared communal values. These union leaders, in effect, represent all American workers.

Eli Fishman is the owner of Cape Shoe Co. in Cape Girardeau.

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