The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, June 03, 2011

What’s next for labor…Extinction? A new, New Deal? Weakened unions have backs to the wall

By The Building Tradesman

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s May 20 speech led to a host of political commentary about the state of the labor movement in America. Here’s a sampling:

*Washington Post left-leaning columnist Harold Meyerson wrote on May 25 that “the frustration and anger that suffused AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s declaration last week that labor would distance itself from the Democratic Party was both clear and widely noted. Not so widely noted has been a shift in the organizing strategy of two of labor’s leading institutions – Trumka’s AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union – that reflects a belief that the American labor movement may be on the verge of extinction and must radically change its game.”

“It’s over,” one of labor’s leading strategists told me this month. Indeed, since last November ’s elections, half a dozen high-ranking labor leaders from a range of unions have told me they believe that private-sector unions may all but disappear within the next 10 years.”

*As reported in Business Week, “Leon Fink, a labor historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said unions are tired of being taken for granted and discouraged that their influence with moderate and conservative Democrats has been limited.

“Spending a lot of money electing conservative Democrats in marginal districts had no legislative payoff for unions,” Fink said. “They don’t seem to have the capacity to impose their will on the party.”

*Mike Elk, In These Times: “The labor movement has yet to dramatize the issue of the jobs crisis in a way that cannot be ignored.

“An event just up the street from the National Press Club that occurred shortly after Trumka’s speech did dramatize the jobs crisis. About 200 unionists, members of the Sheet Metal Workers, the Painters Union and Laborers’ International Union of North America, invaded a conference of bankers to protest a speech given by the Vice Chairwoman of Pulte Home construction.  Pulte received $$917 million in stimulus funds from the United States government, but failed to produce a single job as the funds were intended to be used.

“The invasion of this banker’s conference led to major stories on CNBC, the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post. It embarrassed the company immensely. The workers scared the assembled bankers in the room, who will (I hope) remember the faces of those workers when they debate layoffs. They won’t remember Trumka’s speech if they even heard of it in the first place.

“Now, I should note that Trumka took time in the middle of his rather dry speech to encourage people to attend the action after the meeting. But the protest would have had even more impact if someone as highly-regarded as Richard Trumka been there. Trumka has the moral authority and intellectual capacity that no previous AFL-CIO president has ever possessed.”

*Harry Kelber, “The Labor Educator”: Although the unemployment rate edged up to 9 percent in April 2011 and 13.9 million Americans are still officially listed as unemployed, the issue of job-creation has virtually ceased to occupy the attention of Congress, the Obama administration and the national media.

“As for the labor movement, unions have dropped their campaign for jobs, focusing their efforts on fighting the anti-labor laws that Republican governors and their controlled state legislatures have enacted.

“President Richard Trumka continues to make speeches that call on Congress and the White House to create millions of jobs, but the truth is that his demands are not taken seriously in Washington. Indeed, there is not a glimmer of interest on the Beltway to spend the hundreds of billions of dollars needed to create a massive jobs program.

“It is clear that as long as there is a reservoir of millions of unemployed workers available to employers, those who are now on jobs will suffer losses in wages and benefits. Unions are being pressured to make heavy concessions in order to save the jobs of their members.

“It comes down to this: Unless the labor movement comes to their aid, millions of workers will never be able to have a job again. Can we, in good conscience, abandon them?

“One course of action is to embark on a national campaign to organize the unemployed in the fight for jobs. Let’s revive the demand to make Wall Street and its banks pay the cost of a huge jobs program, like the New Deal was able to construct in the 1930s.”

*Robert Schroeder, MarketWatch: “At a time of upheaval in the labor market, what workers are looking for is an ‘independent labor movement that builds the power of working people,’ Trumka said.

“That word “independent” won’t sit well with Democrats or Obama: Unions contributed heavily to Democratic campaigns in the 2010 election cycle. Trumka said the AFL-CIO would support third-party candidates if those candidates support workers.

“Trumka said the labor group plans to spend the summer holding congressional leaders and state politicians accountable by asking: “Are they improving or degrading life for working families?” He singled out Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for particular scorn, saying labor would work to win recall elections in the state’s legislature and roll back the Republican’s agenda.

“Labor clearly doesn’t want to be taken for granted going into the 2012 elections. But that doesn’t mean Obama’s opponents can take heart, either. Trumka didn’t say labor would be supporting Republicans if Democrats don’t live up to workers’ expectations.