Harley Shaiken: U.S. labor's still a work in progress

By Harley Shaiken - Special To The Bee
12:00 am PDT Sunday, September 2, 2007


Labor Day weekend is a good time to reflect for a moment on the role of unions in American society.

What does this have to do with me, you might say? After all, union membership in the private sector has slid to 7 percent, down from a peak of 35 percent in the mid-1950s, and unions now account for a little over 12 percent of the overall work force.

Whether or not you're a union member, unions are more important than ever for working Americans in a hypercompetitive domestic economy and no-holds-barred global marketplace. A popular bumper sticker used to say, "Unions -- the folks who brought you the weekend," but unions are also "the folks who brought you the middle class." And, as union numbers slide, the middle class begins to skid.

When unions were strong, they forged a link between rising productivity and rising wages propelling millions of working Americans into the middle class. The purchasing power of these middle-class families bought cars and houses, sent kids to college, and this demand fueled the economy to new heights.

One major leader in the 1950s assured us "only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice." Was this Walter P. Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers, defending his turf? No, it was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the president of the United States, telling us that unions are a vital part of a democratic society.

What unions gained at the bargaining table benefited all working Americans then as well as now. When a union such as the UAW won paid health care or paid pensions for its members, it set a standard that non-union companies followed often to avoid unions.

In fact, some studies estimate that the total value of what non-union workers gained about equaled what union members received in their paychecks directly.

In politics, unions have been central to passing and protecting almost all of the landmark social legislation of the past 70 years, from Social Security to the Occupational Safety and Health Act. In some cases, such as the minimum wage, non-union workers are the primary beneficiaries.

While unions remain a powerful force politically, as their numbers weaken their overall influence wanes. The result contributes to a far more unequal society in which those at the top are flooded with riches while those at the bottom wind up in an economic dust bowl. Many in between become increasingly insecure.

"The benefits of economic growth during the current economic recovery, which began in late 2001, have failed to trickle down to many Californians," a recent report by the California Budget Project concluded. In fact, these benefits appeared to have flowed upward given the absence of strong unions in many sectors. Profits more than tripled in the state between 2000 and 2005, while wages inched up by 16 percent.

The personal pain of getting knocked out of the middle class was brought home in a widely reported moment in an AFL-CIO debate among Democratic presidential candidates in Chicago last month. Steve Skvara, a 34-year disabled veteran of now-bankrupt LTV Steel, posed a question to former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina on health care, choking up when he said, "I sit at the kitchen table across from the woman who devoted 36 years of her life to my family and I can't afford to pay for (her) health care."

Edwards passionately responded that "we ought to have universal health care in this country," a fight that will require an engaged labor movement to succeed.

Less reported was a visit Skvara paid to the CNBC program "Hardball with Chris Matthews" the following night. When asked about his own health insurance, he responded that "Medicare for me is excellent," although he was worried about attempts to privatize it.

A strong labor movement assured the passage of this historic legislation in the first place -- we sometimes forget how controversial the bill was -- and labor has been vigilant in protecting it ever since.

Finally, the spirit of the labor movement has been on a picket line in front of the Saigon Grill in Manhattan. By virtually every economic measure the bicycle deliverymen are at the bottom of the economic totem pole, the most downtrodden workers and the most vulnerable. They claim abuses such as salaries that are half the minimum wage to $20 fines for late deliveries in the sweltering heat of the summer or bone-chilling cold of the winter. For protesting those conditions, they have all been fired.

Instead of giving up, they are seeking to organize to assert their rights and to retain their dignity. All the restaurant's now-fired deliverymen -- 30 immigrants from China with and without documents joined by hundreds of workers from other eateries across the city -- have been walking a picket line.

In turning to a union they have company. The Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., tells us that 2 million immigrants have joined unions, accounting for 1 out of every 8 union members, up from 1.6 million in 1996. As a result, unions are redefining solidarity, and immigrants are revitalizing the labor movement.

This Labor Day weekend remains a time to enjoy the beach or the backyard. It is also worth a moment reflecting on the folks who brought us Labor Day in the first place as a way to celebrate the contributions of working men and women as the 19th century drew to a close. Unions are a far-from-perfect institution, but like democracy itself they are far better than the alternative. And, given the challenges of today, if we didn't have a labor movement, we'd have to invent one.