Labor Day 2012: Unions Still in Trouble

By Bill Johnston

Immediately following the failure of Organized Labor and the Democratic Party to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker the finger pointing started. Whose fault was it?

Tom Barrett was not the candidate to run ... he was bland and wishy-washy ... he had already lost to Walker once before ... etc. The tactics were bad. Voters didn’t think recall is the way you deal with policy disagreements. The whole recall effort started as revenge over labor issues but were hardly discussed during the recall election ... and so on and on!

Huge amounts of money, energy and resources were expended but in less than four months there will be another election! Have the unions and the Democrats now damaged their ability to save Wisconsin from an extreme right-wing future?

There are lessons to be learned from the Wisconsin failure to be sure. Unfortunately I don’t think either Organized Labor or the Democrats learned a thing. Labor failed in Wisconsin as another Labor Day is witness to American Unions continuing an on going decline in membership, influence and power.

If in the past Labor has been a “day late and a dollar short,” it is now “Fifty years late and a million dollars short!” The leadership of organized labor has to ask itself - “Why did 30% of union members in Wisconsin vote for an out-and-out anti-union and anti-worker candidate?” Apparently the obvious answer, at least to me, has not occurred to those in the headquarters of the national unions in Washington, D.C.

Most importantly organized labor has a “failure to communicate” with its own members. I spent 30 years in several staff positions at various local, state and International levels of five different unions. It was within the first six months of becoming an organizer that I became aware of this communications breakdown and I saw it only get worse over the next 29 years!

Organized Labor has no public media presence. Its internal publications are mostly “back-slapping” newsletters where the good old boys tell each other what a great job they are doing. If labor does show up in the media it is usually negative – a strike! One exception locally is a community station in Everett, Wash. (KSER 90.7 FM) that has run labor programing for nearly 20 years. Originally started by a staff member of the county labor council, the programing has been by and large ignored by the State Labor Council, even though it is basically the only pro-union programing directed to the general public in the State of Washington.

I live in a strong Democratic voting city and one still supporting a large unionized workforce, both public and private. The local media (what’s left of it) reflects a nasty anti-union bias and position. Yet there is no organized effort by labor or the local Democratic Party (that relies heavily on union political contributions) to counter these attacks. Attacks usually coming three or four times a week in the form of editorials or factually dishonest articles. The silence of labor is grim.

The education system has been surrendered entirely to business and the capitalist system. Americans are totally ignorant of labor’s history. Organized Labor – the creators of the American Middle Class — are gone from the pages of history in the schools. Our State Labor Council used to have a position called “Education Director.” Apparently in-active for some time as I have not heard of any education efforts by labor for years. If there are any local or state “labor education” efforts under way it is a well-kept secret.

What we saw in Wisconsin is the result of a labor movement that has lost its way. For the past 50 years labor and its allies have forgotten who they are and who they serve. There is no plan and no goal. They don’t teach who they are to their members or to the public. If you don’t know where you came from how will you know where you are going?

A pattern has been established over the years — organized labor stumbles along day to day and suddenly gets hit head on with a Wisconsin. They are not prepared and have no plan. Each time they have to “re-invent the wheel” and almost without exception it is too late!

Labor Day 2012 – Organized Labor is in big trouble. Its membership, power and influence continues to plummet! For a half century they have failed to tend the fences and repair the foundation of their organizations.

Instead they have spent their time under the disillusion they could “have a place at the table” if they just went along to get along with power. They have rejected a class analysis of our economy for identity group politics. Labor got a place at the table alright. While the adults are in the dining room eating off the good china organized labor is in the kitchen at the card tables – eating off paper plates with the children.

Bill Johnston is a retired staff organizer of the United Food and Commercial Workers. He is a member of the National Writers Union (Pacific Northwest Chapter). Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2012

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2012 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652