Friday, March 11, 2005

Roll the Union On

The Moose bemoans the absence of the old labor presence.

The Moose is an old union mammal. He once was a union steward and served as a staffer for two national unions. Unions have been essential in both advancing rights for workers and promoting progressive legislation for the nation.

The labor movement also used to provide a solid grounding for the Democratic Party in the middle class. When private sector unions were predominant in the AFL-CIO, the donkey was unmistakably the party of working people. Today, the party is more a reflection of the various special interest groups, the very poor and the highly educated upper middle class.

In addition to promoting a progressive domestic program, the AFL-CIO under George Meany and Lane Kirkland advanced the democratic agenda abroad. Until the crack-up of the McGovernites in '72, the Democratic Party was known as a party that brandished tough international credentials due in no small part because of the influence of the labor federation.

The Moose was prompted to think about his union days after reading Fred Siegel's review of a recent biography of Lane Kirkland by Arch Puddington. Siegel wrote about Kirkland,

"He may not be much remembered today, but Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO from 1979 to 1995, was a great man, and not only as a labor leader. He was an architect of America's victory in the Cold War and a person of considerable intellect whose sense of history--and of American interests--was often well ahead of the curve."

The Moose remembers hearing Kirkland speak at a rally for Polish Solidarity in the early '80s. When the business community was silent, labor under Meany and Kirkland spoke out against totalitarian injustice whether it originated from the left or right.

Kirkland was defeated by more leftist leaders who decried the decline of the labor movement. Ironically, that decline has not been reversed under their leadership, and now those one time insurgents are the targets of another uprising. John Judis points out in the New Republic,

"Under Sweeney's leadership, from 1996 through 2004, the labor movement has lost 797,000 members, and the percentage of unionized workers has dropped 2 percentage points. Worse, the Carpenters' Union, one of the largest and most successful construction unions, quit the afl-cio, charging that Sweeney was squandering its resources. The Service Employees International Union (seiu), the Federation's largest union, is threatening to leave, and unite here, the union of needle trades and hotel workers, might follow the seiu out the door...

"But, in Kirkland's last full eight years as president, from 1986 to 1994, operating under similar political and economic handicaps, the labor movement lost only 235,000 members. Kirkland also brought the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers back into the afl-cio."

The truth is that the labor movement has fallen victim to globalization, deindustrialization and twenty-five years of anti-union Republican policies. While Sweeney's leadership has moved the federation politically to the left, the union movement's decline has continued apace.

A fierce debate is now raging between those like Sweeney who focus on politics and others such as Andy Stern who advocate moving more resources to organizing. It seems an organizing effort makes more sense because the political clout of the unions is relatively meaningless if they don't represent more of the workforce. Hopefully, at some point, they will be able to organize retail mega-giants like Walmart.

The nation needs a counterbalance to corporate power. And the Democratic Party could certainly benefit from a bread and butter labor movement that assists it connect with Middle America once again.

Solidarity forever!
-- Posted at 8:31 AM | Link to this post | Email this post