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Greenhouse on Labor’s Decline

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The outstanding New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse took the New York Times buyout and is leaving the paper. The chances the Times will replace him with a full-time labor reporter I’d guess are slightly north of 0 so it’s real loss. Greenhouse sat down with Lydia DePillis for a conversation about his career and what has happened to American unions. His discussion of organized labor’s decline is worth noting here.

Q: You started at a pretty interesting time for the labor movement — as it was really headed into decline. Where did unions go wrong? Were there avoidable mistakes?

A: For two decades, maybe three decades, unions fell asleep at the wheel in terms of organizing. Under the late George Meany, and under Lane Kirkland, they were working very hard to represent the workers, but they didn’t work hard to grow and add members. During the 1980s, businesses became much more aggressive in demanding concessions from unions in collective bargaining. That was spurred in part by President Reagan firing the air traffic controllers in 1981 for their illegal strike. And also there was the horrific recession of 1982, and that combined with the real pressures of globalization, in the steel industry, tire industry, oil industry. American companies thought they needed to get much more serious about pulling down costs, fighting foreign competition, and they saw that the way to do that was to get much much tougher in fighting labor unions.

Q: When did unions figure out that something was wrong?

A: In my view, one of the reasons why John Sweeney was elected [as head of the AFL-CIO] in 1995 was that the leaders of other unions realized that labor was doing far too little organizing, that labor was too defensive. He was trying to show more energy to grow and fight back. So in 1995, he had what looked like a very promising plan to reverse labor’s decline. And he got the AFL-CIO to spend far more money on organizing; he worked very hard to ally with immigrants, with young workers, with faith leaders.

If you had a management consultant come up with the 10 things labor needed to do to turn around, I think Sweeney did eight or nine of those things. And even so, labor was really not able to reverse its slide. The main reason for that was continued very strong and sophisticated resistance to unionization drives. And a second factor is that unions were asleep at the wheel in the 1970s and ’80s about spreading their message and making people realize that union members weren’t just a bunch of well-paid workers trying to maintain their privileges and great benefits, didn’t do enough to explain to the public at large the advantages, especially to lower-wage workers.

So when in the late 1990s unions were really trying to rally people, I think a lot of the workforce knew very little about unions, didn’t care about unions, what they heard about unions was always negative, like unions were involved in a strike, closing down rail, there was a fight with teachers unions demanding more wages. Unions allowed themselves to be seen in the negative. If unions were going to turn around, they needed to show more that they were a positive force, that they deliver for workers and society.

In 1995, when John Sweeney led this new voice of labor movement, they saw real promise in turning around and expanding the labor movement. And I think the big difference now with Richard Trumka is they realize, labor’s gotten much weaker, and we really need to ally themselves with other powerful groups in society, with environmental groups, and immigrant groups and progressive community groups. And they realized that labor has been knocked down so many pegs that to really achieve a higher minimum wage or better safety standards, you can’t get that through Congress, it can’t elect the friendly lawmakers it needs unless it works with African American groups, environmental groups, and so on.

Unions still hope to grow by organizing workers, but they’re not having much success. And many rational union leaders could say, ‘I could invest a million dollars to organize 5,000 workers,’ and rationally conclude that ‘the chances of winning are small because if I invest that much, they’ll send consultants and lawyers and besides a lot of workers may not be that interested.’ So I think a lot of unions are saying it’s not worth throwing a lot of money behind organizing right now. But I think unions are worried that their membership is declining, and the have less dues money coming in, so that means they can do less in organizing, less in politics, and so they’re in a sorry cycle downward and they’re trying very hard to figure out how to reverse that.

So the SEIU has been looking for ways to mobilize low-wage workers. And UFCW has been trying very hard to mobilize OUR Walmart workers. There are a lot of unhappy fast-food workers who feel they’re underpaid, and SEIU saw there was a large pool of unhappiness among the nation’s 4 million fast food workers. So it’s spent several million dollars to get this movement rolling, and I think it’s really caught fire now. I think a lot of fast-food workers are eager to get involved and to protest and to push McDonalds, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, to pay them more.

Whether they can achieve $15, fast-food workers paid just below $9, that’s a very big leap. And you would expect the companies and their franchises to fight it very very hard.

Secondly, the SEIU hopes to figure out a way to unionize these workers. And I do not doubt that if an election were held tomorrow, a majority of the 15 workers or the 22 workers at this restaurant or that restaurant would back a union. But it would be very, very, very hard to get a contract. The SEIU would have to spend millions of dollars on lawyers seeking to negotiate a contract, and it’s going to be very hard to get the companies to agree. So the union’s trying to figure out a way to pressure the parent companies to pressure their franchisees into agreeing to unionization somehow. And if the SEIU pulls that off, it would be a huge coup, but that’s a big “if.” And it’s conceivable that a unionized franchisee might close down, just like Walmart closed down its first unionized store in Canada.

Few points to note here. First, I think we really overstate the fault of organized labor in its own decline. Greenhouse is generally correct here–the unions of the 70s and 80s did a poor job of organizing and bringing low-wage workers into the movement, but the real issues are outside internal union politics. The increasingly aggressive tactics of corporations beginning with the Powell Memo and coinciding with the rise of modern conservatism are a potent duo of problems for organized labor. For all the talk about needing to organize workers, there are real questions about whether this is actually a good investment for unions because the fight to get a contract is so weighted toward the employer.

Second, Greenhouse is absolutely right about the necessity of organized labor to ally with other progressive organizations to get its agenda across. The problem of course is when the agenda of the AFL-CIO is not the agenda of individual unions, as we have seen over Keystone, with the Laborers openly bullying other unions. Trumka might see the necessity of working with the Sierra Club. LIUNA president Terry O’Sullivan does not. Since the American labor movement is actually really decentralized, there’s not much Trumka can do.

Third, there are those in the labor movement who will criticize SEIU for anything it does. The fear and even hatred of Big Purple is very strong for some. I don’t want to get into this in much detail here, but SEIU does operate differently than a lot of unions and that leads to a great deal of tension internally in the labor movement. But however one falls on these issues, the union is answering the call to organize more workers. Does this pay off for it in the long run? Hard to say. But criticizing it for organizing workers, as some do because SEIU, is not useful. Moreover, SEIU and UFCW especially deserve credit for working with laborers who may never be union members. But the Walmart workers and the fast food workers have really turned up the heat on the minimum wage and hard lives of American labor in very useful ways.

Does any of this turn around the American labor movement? Hard to believe it will in the current climate, not with a nation happy to tear down the rest of the nation’s unionized workers, a Republican Party working closely with corporate America to destroy unions, and a Democratic Party that primarily sees the movement as useful for GOTV and fundraising efforts but which too rarely pays that back in concrete ways.

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