Don Power is a federal mediator who was invited to speak to Michigan building trades delegates on Aug. 24.
The year 1980, said Power – the year Ronald Reagan was elected president – was a watershed year for the U.S. labor movement. In the decades before 1980, he said the founders of the American labor movement and those who came after them “did one hell of a job to give us what we had and the opportunities that we had.”
But by 1980, American unions and union members had become “fat and were rich from success.” There were warnings he said, from “some people who said beware, who said don’t let it slip away from you.”
But much did slip away.
“We entered the global marketplace, for better or worse,” Power said. “First our jobs went to the low-paying southern United States, then south of the border, and now they’re in China.
“We were challenged on the home front by those from other countries who said they can produce goods at lower prices and higher quality than we could. For a period of time we lost our faith and we lost our focus.”
In 2004, he told delegates, America has regained its focus – “but we have many handicaps. We still have the best workforce in the world – but they’re unemployed, and there are fewer union members. Union membership among United States construction workers in 1980 was 30.9 percent. In 2003 it was 16 percent. Politically, that means your strength is impaired You have fewer people. Lawmakers don’t want to listen to you. Labor laws aren’t being enforced.”
For example, Power suggested that “there wasn’t one peep out of anybody, including the labor movement” over the lack of union representation at the newly created Department of Homeland Security because no one wanted to appear “unpatriotic.”
The department employs more than 100,000.
Labor and management have to re-think their roles and their strategies, he said. Strikes and lockouts are on the decline, and he said “the reality in a global market is that these tools are not very effective any more. We have to seek new ways and new tools to become strong again.”
Power suggested five strategies to improve unions in the U.S.:
*Reinvigorate the appreciation of labor history. “Members do not appreciate those who came before them who shed their blood and their tears” for the labor movement,” he said. “They do not appreciate their heritage.” Power pointed out that there are very few high schools that teach labor history in the Michigan or the U.S. “They do not even teach labor history any more at the Michigan State University School of Labor and Industrial Relations,” he said.
*Finding common ground with employers. “The employer, whether some of us realize it or not, needs you. Desperately. At every avenue and at every turn my suggestion is that you sit with them and find common ground where it is honest.”
*Too often, he said organized labor “shoots itself in the posterior. As a mediator my anger increases every day when I would see unions working at cross purposes with one another. I remind all of us that there is only one union movement and it has many faces; many views. But a harm to one is a harm to all.”
*On politics: “You need to be strategic. I think recently, you have been,” he said. “You also need to determine who your friends really are.”
*Refocus the economic direction of unions. “You need to seek new markets. The old days aren’t coming back. We won’t be building manufacturing plants in an environment where manufacturing employment in every state in the United States is plummeting at a startlingly dangerous rate.”
*Overcome the mistrust of members toward union leaders, employers and politicians. “They have unique needs,” he said. “They are unique people. Sometimes they anger us. Sometimes they irritate us. I know they irritate me as a mediator. But they still are our future and the question is how do we serve them and bring them back in as a cohesive force for your strength and your benefit.”
Power said in addition to working in the environment of the global economy and an unfriendly political system, organized labor in the U.S. is now at a tipping point for losing an effective collective bargaining system.
“The American trade union movement is at that point,” he said. “Don’t let it happen here.”