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Labor unions – down but not out

Guest Blogger

It was a long painful decline. From the glory days of big strikes and big strides in workers’ rights, mixed with blood and national acrimony, the labor movement has fallen on hard times – broken by scandal and a vigorous corporate backlash. In “There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America.” released this month by Doubleday, Philip Dray recounts the ups and downs of the movement from the protests of women textile workers in the early 19th century to its travails today. Dray has also written “At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America,” which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. Here, he offers a look at where the movement has been and where it might go from here.

By Philip Dray

As the recent actions of workers in some Chinese factories suggest, wage-earners anywhere can learn to use their collective might to seek improved conditions or simply to demand the right to bargain with employers. This reassuring principle was seen in the development of U.S. labor history; one hopes it will continue to inspire workers worldwide.

Organized labor in America has of course declined as a meaningful economic and social force over the past half-century. Corporate downsizing and retrenchment, globalization that sends both blue- and white-collar jobs overseas, the introduction of new technology, corporate and government anti-unionism, economies unfavorable to growing union membership – all have taken their toll. The current recession alone has cost America nearly a million union jobs.

There has also been the self-inflicted damage – labor's assault on its own activist base during the Cold War, big unions losing touch with the needs of unorganized workers and even their own rank and file, high-profile corruption cases, and an alliance with the Democratic Party that has frequently proved disappointing.

The result has been a now familiar assault on wages, benefits, and on the very notion of labor unionism as viable or necessary.

But labor unions have engaged millions of people in a cause that has helped create the nation we live in today. Reasonable hours of work, safety on the job, health and vacation benefits, sick pay, pensions and retirement plans, as well as federal legislation to safeguard the incomes and well-being of low- and middle class families – all are features of American life we take for granted.

Yet none were simply handed over; they were won through a long history of conflict between the forces of labor and capital.

While organized labor today faces staggering challenges, the good news is that workers' advocates are no longer asleep at the wheel. Unions such as the United Auto Workers, the Teamsters, the Service Employees International, and UNITE HERE are focused on maintaining and nurturing membership, while they and other organizations strive to educate workers and the public about the often damaging effects of globalization on wage-earners everywhere.

Instances of cross-border organizing and idea-sharing between U.S. activists and foreign groups have become more common; NGO watchdogs shame well-known brand names for their links to sweatshops, and consumers and workers’ advocates use the Internet to rally support and manage effective product boycotts.

The crafting of international trade policy by groups such as the International Monetary Fund has come under increasing pressure to recognize the need for enforceable workers’ rights.

There’s still a very long way to go – capital has a huge leap on wage-earners in managing a global presence – but U.S. labor history itself offers reason for hope. The principle that has recently animated Chinese workers – that every group of workers possesses collective might – was seen in the textile mills of New England in the 1840s; in the mines and steel mills of Pennsylvania after the Civil War; in the California “factory fields” worked by members of the United Farm Workers; and since the 1970s in the garment factories of northern Mexico and the electronics-assembly plants of Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

It’s also worth noting that organized labor in America has managed to reinvent itself before to meet new conditions – as when the young female loom operators of Massachusetts responded to their employers’ “oppressing hand of avarice” with organized demands for the 10-hour day; when the nation’s rail workers in the 1870s and 1890s showed themselves capable of coast-to-coast organizing to match that of the far-flung Baltimore & Ohio and other powerful railroads; or when the colorful Industrial Workers of the World stunned corporate America by organizing the diverse immigrant workers at Lawrence, Massachusetts in the Bread and Roses strike of 1912.

Obtaining a decent shake for workers around the world is an enormously complex problem, made difficult by geography and by differences of language, custom, as well as local and regional politics.

Especially in instances where foreign workers are held in debt-bondage or made to live in shoddy “company towns,” the issues at stake are not merely about labor equity, but involve human rights, democracy and civil society, free speech, the rights of women, and environmental health.

The future “labor movement,” if it can even be called that, will likely bear only a slight resemblance to the historic U.S. labor struggle we all recollect from our high school social studies books. But as labor becomes global, American unions and their allies must display the same determination and ingenuity as their predecessors.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  September 14, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: labor movement; decline of labor unions; revival of labor unions;  
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