WisBusiness: Labor Struggling on Its Day

By Brian E. Clark

The labor movement in the United States may not be buried, but it is certainly in deep weeds. And ugly and public divisions this summer in the AFL-CIO and a struggling strike against Northwest Airlines haven’t helped any, according to some Wisconsin analysts.

"Labor has gotten hammered in recent years, and it would be hard to do much worse than they are doing now," the Center on Wisconsin Strategy’s Joel Rogers said in an interview this week. "In the private sector, unions are down to representing just 8 percent of workers. That’s a pretty trivial level of density.

"And a lot of the manufacturing jobs that have moved offshore were union, so the trends have not been good for labor," he says, noting that the total percentage of American workers who are union members sank to 12.5 percent last year, down from 20.1 percent in 1983.

In Wisconsin, historically a manufacturing state, unions have a greater representation. They posted a 16 percent share in 2004, down from 23.8 percent in 1983.
Rogers, also a UW-Madison Law School professor, heads a campus think tank with strong labor ties. COWS calls itself a research and policy center dedicated to improving economic performance and living standards in the state of Wisconsin and nationally by promoting living wages and environmental sustainability.

James Buchen, vice president for government relations for at the big business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, agrees that labor is struggling in the private sector, though he said it is doing better with government employees.

"In some ways, unions have created their own problems and they hardly need us to beat up on them," says Buchen, whose organization represents 25 percent of the state’s private companies.  "But they do seem to have some traction among service workers.”

For many people, Buchen says unions have become irrelevant. "Part of it is the changing nature of work," he says. "Industrial work is becoming increasingly more skilled. People are no longer just a cog in the system, and they are often well paid and have good benefits."
But Buchen says his organization wants to work with organized labor. "I think the enlightened unions are looking at ways to work with management to organize the workforce in productive ways," he says.

"There is value in that and I think we all want to keep our economy strong," he says. "The old confrontational approach is out of date. We don’t need work rules that lock people into narrow little jobs anymore."

Buchen says he believes the AFL-CIO fight this summer reflected what he called too great an emphasis on public policy efforts at the expense of bread and butter issues and organizing. "Some would argue that unions have little to show for their political
efforts," he says "I think there was a lot of frustration among some segments of labor, and it boiled over this summer."

Rogers has watched union membership fall for more than two decades.  But he says the decline accelerated after 1995, when Newt Gingrich became speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and squelched any efforts to make it easier for workers to organize.

Gingrich, architect of the Republican’s "Contract with America," was no friend to labor, Rogers declares. Since then, shrinking union membership has opened labor to criticism that it has become impotent, he says. Unions tried to flex their muscle
and elect Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. Both efforts failed.

"Bush has been making things steadily worse," Rogers says. "Labor spent a lot of money and effort trying to get Democrats elected. In many cases, it didn’t work. And they didn’t have much energy left for state races."

Rogers says he isn’t sure what the fallout will be from the internecine battle that erupted in July, when two unions representing 3.2 million service employees and the Teamsters split from the AFL-CIO to form a group that they hope will more aggressively organize U.S. workers.

The breakup marred the Chicago convention planned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the reunification of the American Federation of Labor with the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The defections by members of the new Change to Win Coalition highlighted the deepening rift between restive unions and leadership of the 10 million-member AFL-CIO.

"It is the biggest labor split since the 1930s, but it’s hard to get a read on the social consequences," Rogers says.

"Whether it turns out to be a good thing depends on the details, but if it becomes a long-term spitting match between leaders of the different factions, that would be terrible for labor.

"It could be a ruinous and disruptive thing," he concludes. "Certainly, people opposed to labor will certainly try to use this against them and exploit this rift."

The AFL-CIO breakup is raising questions about the union movement’s political and business prowess. On the other hand, if the Change to Win coalition can build up labor’s ranks, it could have a positive effect on unions. That’s exactly what Robert Kraig, state political director for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), hopes will happen. Kraig, whose union left the AFL-CIO, said the breakup was over "fundamental disagreements about organizing.

"But that doesn’t mean we don’t continue to share basic interests and want to prevent the decline of union representation in the private sector.

"We want to work with other unions, and we will spend heroic levels of energy on organizing — even though we know there are tremendous forces lined up against us," Kraig says. 

"I just hope that the effects of the split this summer will be far less dramatic than some are predicting," he says. "And as Labor Day 2005 approaches, I’d like to focus on the opportunities that lay ahead of us. …Some naysayers will tell you that labor is no longer relevant. But we’ve come back before. And for U.S. workers to have access to the American dream, they need unions."

Another question mark on the labor scene popped up last month when about 4,400 mechanics, cleaners and custodians who belong to an independent mechanics union struck Minneapolis-based Northwest Airlines rather than accept 25 percent pay cuts and layoffs that would have trimmed their workforce by half.

The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) has almost no support from other unions representing other airline employees, and Northwest publicly replaced the strikers in the weeks leading up to the labor action.

Many of the mechanics who quit the larger International Association of Machinists won’t get their jobs back if Northwest can keep enough of the flying public on its planes.

If AMFA’s strike fails, Rogers says it could reverberate through the highly competitive, loss-plagued airline industry — where workers will continue to face painful wage and benefit cuts.

"It could be a watershed," Rogers says. "Northwest has deep pockets, but I don’t know what it would mean for
other industries that are production oriented. But it will be an eye-opener. And I don’t know if other sectors could have their workers replaced so easily. I don’t think could happen at, say, GM."

Rogers says airline workers are represented by more than a dozen different unions, not all of which cooperate with each other. "It’s hard to argue with the thinking that there should be fewer unions in that sector," he says.

"I’m not sure about public support for the strikers, but I also don’t think people feel that good about the airlines or big business in general because of debacles at Enron and Global Crossings and even United Airlines terminating its pension plans."

Kraig called the Northwest Airlines’ strike a "tragic" situation.  "We feel for those employees who are out," he says. "But it’s a fairly unique case in which a group of workers who formed independent union — at odds with other labor groups — has gone out without support.

"It’s pretty sad, and you can bet Northwest — which is a global power — is going to do all it can against those 5,000 workers who are striking."

But the labor scene isn’t entirely bleak, Rogers concludes.

Though unions have taken a beating, he says polls he has seen show they are gaining support.

"The demand for unions greatly exceeds their availability," he says. "Some 45 percent of the workers in the private sector say they would like to have a voice in the workplace versus the 8 percent who have actually it.

"But they don’t want to lose their job in order to organize," he says. "Joining a union should not require an heroic struggle."

He says an effort he helped start called "Working America,” which advocates for health care, overtime benefits, Social Security and other rights for non-union workers, now has 1 million members.

"That’s one bright spot," he says. "There are a lot of laws that govern the workplace that don’t require a collective bargaining agreement. They just need advocates.

"It’s a new form of a organized labor," he says. "Unions once called it a sell-out, but not anymore. It’s open source unionism and it is catching on."