Labor Needs to Step Up Its Game for the 21st Century

By Bill Johnston

Labor Day marks the end of summer for most of us. The kids go back to school and I mark another year of retirement after 30 years as a union representative. Personally the holiday has taken on a veil of gloom as each passing year organized labor becomes less influential and unions less effective.

Something fundamental has been out of kilter with American unions for years. I was hired on the staff of the Bellingham, Wash., Retail Clerks Union (later to become the United Food and Commercial Workers) in 1973. I was full of enthusiasm and dedicated to “the cause” yet within six months I could see there was an ambiguity to everything we did. Always hesitation – everything was vague – nothing was planned and internal communications were virtually non-existent! I found myself roaming the Western Washington University library stacks looking for analysis or studies on organizations in an attempt to understand what was going on around me.

In 1972, labor had split between candidates George McGovern and Richard Nixon. McGovern’s opposition to the war in Vietnam turned many national union officials against him, including George Meany, who was president of the AFL-CIO. That election gave us a preview of how war and race as wedge issues would become the mainstay of Republican Party campaign tactics. By 1980 social issues were scrupulously used by the Reagan campaign to push the working class into voting against its own economic interests.

The strategy works and continues to plague unions contributing to their growing weakness. Yet unions have failed to develop their own political philosophy or education structure separate from the Democrats. Organized labor represents a class of Americans — workers — and the Democratic Party refuses to recognize class as an issue. Organized labor blames politics for its predicament but the truth is as Shakespeare wrote: “The fault dear friends lie not in the stars but in ourselves.”

The failure of Labor to develop a political education program separate from the Democrats highlights another liability — the failure to communicate with its members or the public. Unions represent 15 million workers in the US but basically have no national media. What there is of a “union media” consists of little more than back slapping internal propaganda pieces offering few ideas, little discussion and certainly no criticism of leadership. Organized labor’s reaction to internal critics is to shoot the messenger: a disastrous mind-set not only discouraging ideas but contributing to another organizational shortcoming — an on-going turnover of staff creating local organizations with very little institutional memory and weak community relationships. I learned over 30 years working at times for four major unions that the labor bureaucrats don’t want to hear from critics and it is the quickest way for a union staffer to end his or her career!

Institutional memory would also be stronger if labor’s leadership would maintain and keep established communications with their retired staff and members. Even this seemingly easy task does not get done. Years of valuable experienced staff retires and goes fishing or off to play golf.

The AFL-CIO and its affiliates claim organizing new members is the heart and soul of the movement. I certainly agree with the philosophy. But union organizers almost without exception are new employees with no hands-on experience and are sent out against seasoned anti-union attorneys who generally hand them their heads in short order! Few organizers stay organizers long — being a labor bureaucrat is so much easier.

Saul Alinsky, the great CIO union organizer, wrote, “Successful organizing only happens when workers use their imaginations against a system that has none.”

Labor has not used its imagination since the 1950s. Since then, unions have failed to turn organized labor’s impressive role in developing healthcare and pension benefits for union workers into national economic policies for all Americans. Now they struggle to hang on to what they have. Workers need to be educated to the fact that, in the long run, “how go the unions — goes the entire working class.”

On Labor Day 2010, despite success in the 2008 election, Labor’s continuing reliance on politics to solve its problems seems not to be working any better than it has in past elections. Further and sadly labor’s leadership continues to ignore its greatest source of power — its own membership!

Bill Johnston has worked for unions in both the private and public sectors. He has been a local union president, an International Union Trustee and served on the health and welfare and pension boards of several unions. He retired in 2003 and lives in Tacoma, Wash.

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2010

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