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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

The Union Way

The Great Battle

When the shipyard electrician Lech Walesa led the trade union movement in Poland in the 1980’s, he and his movement – Solidarity – were the toast of the West. The Polish Pope received him, Ronald Reagan praised him, the Nobel Committee awarded him. Imagine. Such tributes for a union movement and its leader that, not incidentally, brought down a Communist government.

When young people took to the streets of Cairo recently, commentators noted that Egypt lacks many of the institutions that contribute to a stable democratic society, including having no tradition of unions to represent workers, advocate for better working conditions and, by definition, create a middle class that works. Ironically, the very conservative National Review – usually no friend of unions in the United States – celebrates the impact of new “freedom” for trade unions in the Arab world.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and that state’s GOP majority hav yet to explain why ending collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, particularly teachers, helps improve classroom learning or delivery of public services in the land of the Packers. Same goes for Idaho’s leaders who have gone down the same path, ending collective bargaining for educators.

All this begs a question: Why do we believe a union movement that helps foster true democracy in eastern Europe or the Middle East somehow cuts against the American way here at home? The answer is pretty simply: politics.

You can date the demise of the Democratic Party in Idaho, for example, to the legislature’s passage, after years of trying, of right to work legislation in 1986. The Idaho AFL-CIO, never huge in numbers, had nonetheless traditionally been a force in the state’s politics helping fuel the rise of successful political careers for guys like Frank Church and Cecil Andrus. Right to work started the decline of labor involvement and effectiveness in the state’s politics that continues to this day.

While recent polling indicates that most Americans reject the kind of efforts aimed at organized public sector workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere, there is little doubt that organized labor has failed to find a message and articulate an appeal that begins to explain to millions of non-union American workers why unions are important in Warsaw, as well as in Madison and Boise.

The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg may have identified one line of argument. He wrote recently: “Organized labor’s catastrophic decline has paralleled—and, to a disputed but indisputably substantial degree, precipitated—an equally dramatic rise in economic inequality. In 1980, the best-off tenth of American families collected about a third of the nation’s income. Now they’re getting close to half. The top one per cent is getting a full fifth, double what it got in 1980. The super-rich—the top one-tenth of the top one per cent, which is to say the top one-thousandth—have been the biggest winners of all.”

I’m not sure I understand all the reasons, but it also cannot be denied that while organized labor has lost membership year-by-year since the 1950’s, America’s basic manufacturing infrastructure has also declined at the same time and at a worrying pace. Sadly, I think, the kind of jobs that once employed blue collar guys who carried a lunch bucket to work are not nearly as important to the American economy as they once, and not that long ago, were.

The history of organized labor in America is in the main a story of building a sustainable middle class; jobs for moms and dads with wages that can support a family, pay a mortgage and save a few bucks to send the kids to college.

Have there been excesses during the up and down American labor story, of course. Violence was once a routine part of the unavoidable tensions between management and workers. But where unions remain a force today, as in the rehabilitation of Michigan’s automobile industry, hard headed negotiations – and big concessions – have replaced the sit down strikes that crippled the auto industry in the 1930’s.

The challenge to organized labor now, as it faces fresh assaults across the board, is to convince more Americans that banding together and advocating a position with your employer isn’t un-American, but actually a vital part of a sustainable democracy.

Andy Stern, one of the more forward-looking labor leaders in the country before his retirement, recently gave a fascinating interview to the Washington Post.

Here is one line from Stern’s interview that pretty well sums up the challenge organize labor faces: “We [organized labor] need an ideology based around working with employers to build skills in our workers, to train them for success. That message and approach can attract different people than the ‘we need to stand up for the working class!’ approach. That approach is about conflict, and a lot of people don’t want more conflict.”

True, but Americans do want good, middle class jobs. If a vital, constructive union movement is good enough for democratic Poland or for the democratic aspirations of Egypt, maybe it could work again here.

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