Since the 1970’s, Labor Day’s arrival has triggered stories on declining union membership and the steep challenges faced by the United States labor movement. Labor Day 2007 will likely provide more of the same, particularly given the loss of union jobs due to layoffs in the nation’s auto industry. Yet a closer look shows that organized labor’s future is brighter than it has been in years. Labor leadership has not been this strong since the 1940’s, and the rank and file are far more active than in recent decades. The Republican Party understands this dynamic, and especially fears the role that immigrant workers are playing in rebuilding the labor movement. By curtailing immigrants’ rights, the Bush Administration believes it can prevent the expansion of union power.
The past forty years have not been kind to the United States labor movement, for both internal and external reasons. While progressive activists tend to focus on the former, the truth is that globalization, technological change, and the utter incompetence of corporate leaders—particularly in the auto industry—are far more responsible for the nation’s declining union membership.
But rather than debate the past, let’s examine where the labor movement stands today. There are three reasons for optimism.
First, organized labor has the best leadership it has had since the “greatest generation” that came of age in the 1930’s and 1940’s. UNITEHERE, SEIU, and the Laborers Union are among the large international unions whose leadership sees organizing and political activism as a priority.
In California, the California Teachers Association (CTA) is far more effective today than in prior decades, and the California Nurses Association combines progressive politics with incredible success at the bargaining table.
All of these unions have their critics, as is customary with large organizations. And international unions will always have weak locals whose leadership and or membership fails to implement a progressive agenda.
But organized labor’s current leadership has advanced dramatically since the dark decades of the Meany and Kirkland eras. And the creation of the Change to Win labor federation has clearly pushed the AFL-CIO in a more progressive and activist direction.
The second reason for optimism is the more politicized and activist-oriented union rank and file. Evidence for this is visible not only in campaigns like UNITEHERE’s Hotel Workers Rising, but in the massive union turnout to the immigrant rights marches of 2006.
A politicized union membership is also seen in the incredible Latino voter outreach efforts conducted by labor-backed groups across the country. In state after state, it is primarily union members who are spending their weekends and the days leading up to the election knocking on doors to get infrequent Latino voters to the polls.
Again, there are many unions whose members are not active around issue campaigns or elections. But not since the 1940’s has there been such a high level of rank and file activism as there is today.
The third and most critical reason for labor movement optimism is the broader political context.
I wrote on December 22, 2006 that the United States was on the brink of a new progressive era. Since that time, poll after poll has shown broad national support for the domestic agenda—universal health care, making work pay, and public investment in transit, housing, and other infrastructure needs— strongly backed by organized labor.
Some may forget that labor did not strongly back Bill Clinton in 1992, and the Clinton-Gore ticket did not feel it “owed” labor after taking office. But in 2009, labor will confront its most hospitable political environment since 1964.
Under the worst-case scenario of a Hillary Clinton presidency and Democratic control of the House and Senate, labor is positioned to hold Democrats accountable on key issues. At a minimum, this means a strongly pro-labor National Labor Relations Board, which itself contrasts with the Bill Clinton years (Clinton forced pro-labor NLRB leader William Gould IV off the Board).
Under the best-case scenario of a President Obama or Edwards, we would have a leader who did not simply talk about backing labor, but would be out on the picket line supporting workers right.
In 2009, labor could conceivably win card check recognition for union membership, and some form of expanded and/or universal health care. And labor will win the passage of a comprehensive immigration bill that ensures that its current and future members are free from fears of deportation and on the route to citizenship.
Will these reforms substantially increase private sector union membership? That is not clear. But labor’s efforts will improve the lives of millions of working people who are not in unions, which has long been part of union’s broader agenda.
The Bush Administration is aware of this likely scenario, which is why the Republican Party is waging an all-out war to drive undocumented immigrants out of their jobs, out of their unions, and out of the country prior to January 2009. But they started this war too late, and are looking at major electoral disasters in 2008 in the former red states of Arizona, Colorado, and possibly New Mexico, Texas and Florida.
A labor movement that was on the wrong side of history in the 1960’s by backing the Vietnam War and opposing affirmative action is now in the vanguard of the progressive movements for immigrant rights, universal health care, and a broader social safety net.
That’s why we should all be optimistic about organized labor’s future this Labor Day.
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