Several years ago, one of the biggest events in labor history occurred when the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters decided it was time to withdraw from the AFL-CIO and form a new council. Others, like the United Food and Commercial Workers, UNITE HERE, United Farm Workers, and the Carpenters only followed. It then came as no surprise that The Laborers’ Union representing over 700,000 in the construction industry also followed suit and joined the same coalition as the others: Change to Win where the focus would be on organizing new workers.
At the core of the controversy was the strategy being pursued by the old-line federation. Whereas the old AFL-CIO establishment leadership maintained that more resources should be spent on political activities — attempting to influence public policy — the defectors were arguing something more fundamental, which is more effort and money needs to be channeled into organizing workers. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that would have viewed these defections as further evidence of the decline of American labor, they really bespoke a movement to revitalize the labor movement that has for too long been out of touch with working Americans.
Union membership has been in a state of steady decline. At its peak in the 1950s, as much as 35 percent of American wage workers were union members, and by the end of the Twentieth Century only 14 percent were. Among industrial workers, union membership fell from just under one half in 1955 to around 16 percent by the end of the century. The implications of this decline have been enormous. While union membership was declining, in part due to economic transformations from an industrial based manufacturing economy to a service based post-industrial economy, and also in large measure to right-to-work laws in many states particularly in the South that made union organizing more difficult, conservative members of Congress were launching an assault on social policy and other labor protections. The biggest stagnation in the minimum wage appeared to coincide with the sharpest decline in union membership during the 1980s and 1990s. Because workers were unorganized, the federal minimum wage had failed to keep pace with inflation, the social safety net had been eroded, and the gap between the top and bottom of the wage distribution had grown, and many localities sought to remedy this with passage of their own living wage ordinances. This trend, of course, was triggered in large measure by the outsourcing of municipal services, which had been done previously by unionized municipal workers — in other words another assault on organized labor.
Were all these events and labor’s decline a mere coincidence? Historically one of the greatest contributions of the American labor movement to the American political process is that they were able to organize their rank-and-file members and get them out to vote. That the composition of the U.S. Congress changed during this time was also no small coincidence. With the decline in union membership many of those who would have voted for the Democratic party simply didn’t, and in many cases disfranchised themselves. But it was also the case that when labor presented itself as a strong constituency in the political/policy process, that Congress was more inclined to pass legislation beneficial to working Americans.
All this clearly has implications for the direction of national economic policy today. Without a strong constituency to lobby for the types of policies that will further the interests of working Americans rather than the financial interests who profit off the backs of workers, we are only likely to see more policies that effectively enable irresponsible behavior — the very behavior that led to the financial collapse in 2007 for which we the taxpayers were forced to clean up with bailouts. And yet, the stakes could not be higher. When states assault unions through passage of right-to-work laws, they are assaulting all working Americans who comprise the middle class by effectively denying them voice. This assault is nothing less than an attempt to eliminate a key constituency that benefits all working Americans through its advocacy middle class public policy. Therefore, Labor needs to do both — organize more workers and then engage in the type of political activity that can have an impact: get their members out to vote for those who will truly advance the interests of working Americans. This is perhaps where the American labor movement may have lost its way, and we are all suffering because of it.
Oren Levin-Waldman is Professor of Public Policy and Public Administration at the Metropolitan College of New Yorkand author most recently of Wage Policy, Income Distribution, and Democratic Theory (Routledge 2011)