A reader who describes himself as a labor-relations professional who has been on both sides of the table, and who is now in academia responds to my column on the decline of private-sector unions.
You mentioned the leftist lean of many union pioneers. I believe that this has added to organized labor's woes today, especially as John Sweeney has put more emphasis on political action than on organizing. The result has been the very close association of the AFL-CIO with the Democratic Party. While this makes sense given the populist message of the Democrats, many blue-collar workers are quite conservative -- pro-gun, nationalistic, anti-socialism, religious, anti-environmentalism. While they may have gripes with the privileged nature of rich Republican families, the “elites” of the Democrats have been attacking many of the institutions that the blue-collar foundation of Big Labor identifies closely with. I've met more than a few Teamsters and other union members who despise the college-beatnik attitude of the Democratic elites towards the blue-collar community and its cultural ideals.
I think John Sweeney has tied the movement too closely to the Democrats and their social causes, and that many workers are ill-served by this. If the AFL-CIO could restablish its core premise as securing better contracts for workers rather than the raft of unrelated causes it has become ensnared in, I think more potential union members would give it more thought.
The liberal alliance of Big Labor and the Democrats also creates dissonance when you consider that left-leaning environmentalism is often in conflict with the kinds of industries that have been heavily unionized. Auto manufacturing, coal and mineral mining, timber, oil, shipping and transportation, mill workers -- these are all targets of the greens who operate in conjunction with the Democratic Party apparatus, and the jobs lost when environmental activism drives these companies away -- such as in Montana's mining towns and the timber industry along the West Coast -- come straight out of Labor’s power base.
Another problem for Big Labor is the savvy of the business and legal establishments. Managers and management lawyers are smarter than ever, and can find ways to diffuse potential conflict before it causes enough bad blood to make workers desire a union vote. They have also found loopholes which allow them to put workers into slots where they can’t unionize, through “payrolling” or permanent part-time status or varying jobs just enough to make bargaining unit determination difficult. Syndication and franchising have also played against union interests; many jobs have been reduced to “rest stops” for unskilled teenagers wanting to earn a few bucks. How can a union organize a McDonalds when most of the employees there won't be there this time next year anyway?
People of my generation (which someone once labeled as “Gen X”) are very savvy people, we're good at running numbers, and we aren't much into the romanticism of the George Meany days. We have seen communism implode, socialism fail, and organized crime chased out of the ranks of the Teamsters. We don't care for class war. What we want to know is how having an organized voice is better than having profit sharing, how seniority is more valuable than performance bonuses, and how security is better than mobility. We need to see numbers, and our media-saturated youth has made us, I believe, more skeptical of rhetoric and cynical about emotional claims than the old guard of Labor might think. From where we're sitting, Labor hasn't done much to demonstrate its value, and until it repositions itself as being business-centric rather than politically-focused (and produces some hard numbers on how collectivism can deliver better quality of life for workers than individual betterment), there will continue to be a decline in unionism among the younger generations who should be forming the core of the labor movement.
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