You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Can Labor Come Back?

Why the answer may be yes.

The recent Teamsters strike, The Los Angeles Times declared, "has served as a reminder of how much the union's influence has waned." The outcome, The New York Times wrote, showed how the union's "power has shrunk." There is some truth in these statements, but they reveal more about the national press's attitude toward labor than about the Teamsters union. During the twenty-four-day strike, the longest in Teamster history and the first since 1979, the union achieved almost 100 percent support from its rank and file, in spite of violent dissension in its upper ranks. In the provisional settlement the union made concessions on the use of rail to replace trucks, but it won wage and benefit increases and halted the replacement of full-time union workers with part-time non-union help. The deal was not a spectacular union victory, but the strike itself was a sign that the labor movement, which has slumbered for the past fifteen years, is slowly beginning to awake.

There are other signs of stirring. Although union membership steadily declined from 22 million in 1975 to 16.4 million in 1992, it actually grew last year, to 16.6 million—the first gain in fourteen years.Unions are winning strikes they would have lost a decade ago; late last year both the American Airlines flight attendants and the United Mine Workers (UMW) concluded successful actions. Workers are more receptive to joining unions. "We're walking into situations where workers are begging us to organize," says Richard Bensinger, the director of the AFL-CIO's Organizing Institute, which trains union organizers. "There is a new anger when we go into the field." And a new, militant leadership has emerged atop many of the major unions.

Last fall, after the AFL-CIO's lobbying failed to block the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), there were also pronouncements that labor had lost its clout in Washington. But while the AFL-CIO couldn't buck Clinton on a treaty that may have little impact on its members—American firms were already moving to Mexico without NAFTA's encouragement—labor has gotten Clinton to cooperate on appointments and legislation that matter more.

What accounts for labor's new stirring? Workers across the spectrum have grown restive. Frustrated by two decades of falling wages, they're angered by runaway shops and corporate downsizing at companies like Zenith and Sears. Truckers' and dock workers' real wages, for instance, declined by 20 percent from 1977 to 1992. Unions, for their part, are discovering that they can organize workers they formerly ignored or gave up on. Once, union leaders assumed it was much more difficult to recruit nurses or waitresses than machinists or assembly-line workers, because service-sector workers were either professionals who disdained unions or part-time minimum wage workers who didn't stay in one job long enough to be organized. Today, union leaders have discovered it is quite possible to organize such workers, because the owners of hotels, hospitals or grocery stores can't respond to organizing drives by threatening to move their businesses elsewhere.

Unions are having their greatest success among white-collar, service and government workers. At the same time that blue-collar manufacturing unions have lost members, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) have each continued to grow. SEIU has gained 400,000 members since 1980. Since 1988 the UFCW has increased the number of unionized workers in retail grocery stores from 67 percent to 72 percent and in meat packing from 50 percent to 65 percent. The UFCW, which added 100,000 workers during the entire 1980s, added the same amount in 1993 alone. Also in 1993 AFSCME upped its membership by 22,000; it is now on the verge of displacing the Teamsters as the nation's largest union. Though some dismiss public workers as a valid group, there are now more people employed in government than in private manufacturing.

Unions themselves have developed new organizing strategies. Consider the success of Justice for Janitors, an SEIU organizing project. Two decades ago buildings began contracting out their janitorial work to nonunion businesses with work forces made up of minorities and recent immigrants, many of whom had been hired on a part-time basis. By the start of the '80s the old janitorial unions were decimated—for instance, none of Washington, D.C.'s and only 30 percent of Los Angeles's janitors were organized.

Justice for Janitors, founded in 1987, has reversed that trend. The union introduced a strategy, borrowed from the industrial unions of the '30s, of seeking area-wide contracts with building owners regardless of which janitorial service they hired to do their cleaning. Instead of seeking supervised elections through the National Labor Relations Board, which employers can thwart through court appeals, Justice for Janitors forced the building owners to negotiate directly with the unions. And they used '60s-style sit-downs and demonstrations to embarrass building owners, many of whom were prominent in local politics. "What we are doing is sort of back to the future," says Justice for Janitors co-founder Steve Lerner. Today, 40 percent of d.c.'s janitors and 90 percent of L.A.'s janitors are organized—thanks to Justice for Janitors.

Some of labor's revival has to do with new leaders who have emerged in the last fifteen years. In contrast to the generation that reigned after World War ii, these leaders are more focused on organizing new members rather than simply meeting the needs of the old. In 1982 Richard Trumka was elected president of the UMW against a slate that threatened to take the union back to the dark days of W.A. "Tony" Boyle, when dues were squandered and dissidents were murdered. Trumka, a coal miner with a law degree, has since been twice re-elected. Last year he led a successful seven-month strike against the large companies of the Bituminous Coal Operators Association. The strategy that Trumka followed may set a trend for future labor actions: it combined old-style militancy with a willingness to set up a joint labor-management program in the coal fields. The miners call it a "get along" program.

Then there are the Teamsters. Two years ago, in a government-supervised vote, former ups driver Ron Carey took over the 1.4 million-member union, which was controlled by organized crime. During the strike the press made much of Carey's personal real estate holdings—a common way in which better-paid blue-collar workers invest their earnings and inheritance—but failed to uncover any evidence of corruption. Indeed, Carey appears to have struggled valiantly to reform the Teamsters, which are still plagued by fierce factionalism and by the remnants of the old regime. It was remarkable that he was able to lead a nationwide strike—the largest in the United States since 1986—in the face of vocal rebellion.

Other unions have also undergone dramatic changes. In 1991 delegates from the Transportation Communications International Union (TCU), which organizes railroad and airline workers, threw out their longtime leaders, whom they charged with paying more attention to their own needs than to their members' needs. The union's new president, Bob Scardelletti, shuns the Washington luncheon circuit for meetings with the union's rank and file. This year the UFCW ousted its president, William Wynn, who faced charges of union fund misuse, and elected Doug Dority, a former grocery clerk, who headed the union's highly successful organizing drives during the '80s.

Unions also have found unexpected support from a group of liberal and left-wing intellectuals—many of them associated with the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), an eight-year-old Washington think tank.These economists and sociologists represent a dissenting current within the broader left. Since the '60s, most left-wing academics have gravitated toward more fashionable concerns with racial and sexual inequality or Third World underdevelopment. Those who have professed an interest in labor generally have seen the movement as an instrument of revolution, weakened by a cadre of industrial quislings.

The dissenters concern themselves with the actual function of unions and with the evolving relations between business and labor. Some of them, such as Barry Bluestone of the University of Massachusetts or Brian Turner of Washington's Institute for Work and Technology, are children of union officials; others, such as the University of California's Harley Shaiken, are veterans of the assembly line. They include Richard Freeman of Harvard (co-author of the landmark What Do Unions Do?), Bennett Harrison of Carnegie-Mellon, Paula Voos, the chair of the University of Wisconsin's department of industrial relations, and several Clinton administration officials, among them Labor Department Chief Economist Lawrence Katz, Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Council of Economic Advisers Chair Laura Tyson.

These intellectuals generally recognize that unions can't content themselves simply with getting the best deal for their members; unions also have to worry about helping companies compete effectively.Freeman, Bluestone, Turner and others argue that new forms of labor/management cooperation can protect worker rights and raise firms' productivity, as has already happened in Japan and Western Europe and is happening now at Corning Glass, General Motors's Saturn division and U.S. West's Home and Personal Services division. Within the labor movement they promote a subtle interplay between militance and cooperation. And their vision of America bears far more resemblance to progressive era industrial democracy than to Marxian socialism.

This strategy of fostering higher productivity through labor/management cooperation is still opposed by some union leaders, including the Teamsters' Carey and Moe Biller of the Postal Workers. But in the last decade leaders of several major unions, including the United Auto Workers, United Steel Workers and the Communications Workers of America, have embraced it and the intellectuals who have espoused it.

Labor is also getting a boost from the Clinton administration. Clinton, the former governor of a right-to-work state, has never expressed the same kind of affection for the labor movement that he has for the civil rights or women's movements, but he knows that labor is an important part of his political coalition. Clinton has made pro-labor appointments to government agencies, and his administration has consulted closely with unions on relevant legislation (welfare reform, national service, health care)."Our experience has been the absolute opposite of [what it was with] Reagan and Bush," says AFSCME President Gerald McEntee. "With these people, we have input and influence."

Ideally, labor officials would have wanted one of their own as secretary of labor, but they realize that Reich makes up for in clout with the president what he lacks in union loyalty. And labor's new leaders like Reich. Says Trumka, "I didn't have doubts about Reich. I was on the board of EPI with him, so I knew him pretty well." Union leaders have also been pleasantly surprised by Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena.

Below the Cabinet level, Clinton's top picks include Stanford Law Professor William Gould, who is the new chairman of the NLRB, and Fred Feinstein, ex-counsel to the House Labor and Education Committee, who is the NLRB's chief counsel. Both strongly favor reforming labor law to make it harder for employers to intimidate union organizers. Clinton and Pena tapped Ernie Dubester, the AFL-CIO's rail lobbyist, and Magdalena Jacobsen, the labor relations aide to former San Francisco mayor Art Agnos, to fill the seats on the National Mediation Board, which mediates labor disputes in the railroad and airline industries. The rail unions, who went five years without a contract under Reagan and Bush appointees, were ecstatic about Clinton's choices.

On the legislative front, Clinton has endorsed a bill that would end the use of replacement workers during strikes and another that would strengthen worker health and safety rules. Reich and Commerce Secretary Ron Brown have appointed a Commission for the Future of Worker-Management Relations charged with proposing changes in labor law. Reich stacked the commission with pro-labor academics, including Freeman, Gould, Voos, former labor secretaries Ray Marshall and John Dunlop (the commission's chair), ex-UAW president Douglas Fraser and ex-Xerox president Paul Allaire. Some labor officials worry that the commission is so friendly with the unions that it won't be able to formulate a reform bill that business can accept.

Clinton and Reich have sent several other pro-labor signals as well: removing Reagan's ban on hiring the air- traffic controllers fired during the 1981 PATCO strike; rescinding Bush administration strictures on construction unions; limiting government enforcement of the court decision allowing union workers to demand back money spent for union political activity; intervening personally and forcefully to settle the American Airlines flight attendants' strike; and playing a quiet role in helping conclude the mine workers' strike.

The rise of new leadership and a new intelligentsia, a sympathetic administration, growing anger in the workplaceall these suggest that labor may be on the verge of the kind of breakthrough that took place in the '30s, when union membership doubled in four years. Yet some of the same factors that contributed to labor's subsequent decline still exist.

One major problem is business hostility to unions. Labor's seventeen-year decline in membership was caused primarily by a concerted business offensive that began in the early '70s and still has not abated. Threatened by competition from abroad and by overcapacity in many industries, corporate managers have aggressively fought unionization and have even attempted to decertify existing unions.They have used the threat of moving jobs overseas to intimidate workers who want to form unions; they have hired anti-union consultants to contest representation elections; and they have sometimes refused to sign contracts with unions—even when they have lost union elections.

Many of their tactics violate existing labor law. In 1957 the NLRB ordered the reinstatement of 922 workers fired illegally for organizing a union; in 1980 more than 10,000 workers were reinstated. Yet the penalties for breaking the law are minimal. If the board finds a company guilty, the company has to reinstate the worker and pay his or her back wages—minus whatever the worker has earned from another job.

Since 1977 the AFL-CIO has tried to get Congress to raise the price companies pay for intimidating organizers and ignoring election results, but Republican senators have opposed reform, and labor has fallen short of the sixty votes needed to end a filibuster. With only fifty-six Democratic senators, labor still doesn't have the votes and probably won't get them even when the Dunlop Commission presents its reform recommendations next year. And until the unions are able to get Congress to reform the labor laws, companies will frustrate union organizing.

A second problem for the movement is a national leadership vacuum that holds back its growth. Like his predecessor, George Meany, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland conceives of the federation as a kind of city-state—a labor Vatican rather than the center of a social movement. While Kirkland deserves credit for bringing the UAW, the UMW and the Teamsters back into the federation, he has devoted his attention primarily to establishing the AFL-CIO as a player in Washington politics, while leaving the task of organizing the unorganized to the federation's affiliates. Incredibly, the federation continues to spend more money on foreign policy ventures than on organizing.

Some unions, including Justice for Janitors and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers, have successfully augmented organizing drives with a confrontational and participatory style of public politics, but Kirkland and the federation are wedded to a conventional model of lobbying and electioneering. "They don't have a clue about what is involved in a grass-roots campaign," says a former AFL-CIO official. "They think mailing out 2 million pre-printed postcards is a grass-roots campaign. The only thing that happens with postcards is that they get weighed."

Last year's anti-NAFTA effort was a case in point. Kirkland had planned to attack NAFTA through quiet lobbying, but he was pressured by local presidents and angry shop stewards to join the public campaign against it. Still, labor's real defeat came well before the vote in Congress, when the colorless Kirkland and the federation's secretary-treasurer, Thomas Donahue, lost the leadership of the anti-NAFTA battle to Ross Perot. "The problem with the NAFTA debate was that all of a sudden they had this visibility, but they didn't know what to do with it," says labor historian Michael Kazin.

Under Kirkland the AFL-CIO also has kept its distance from new experiments in labor relations and collective bargaining. "I describe the platform of the AFL-CIO in high performance workplace issues as having its head stuck in the sand and its hand over its crotch hoping for the best," says a union official who pushed for such cooperation.

Some union leaders argue that what the federation does is far less important than what the individual unions do—that it's not the federation's job to push organizing. That's partly true. Yet Kirkland's approach has filtered down through the movement itself. Many unions and their locals still put far more emphasis on conventional political lobbying and campaigning than on organizing new members.One labor organizer tells of speaking at a recent meeting of 150 local union leaders in Chicago. When he asked how many of them had worked on a Democratic party campaign, almost every hand went up. When he asked how many of them had participated in an organizing drive, not one hand went up.

What would be the consequences of labor's revival? I would suggest that many of the social and economic ills Americans now blame on technology, television and drug trafficking—from the decline in living standards to the loss of community—are traceable to labor's decline and could be partly remedied by its rejuvenation.

Beginning in the mid-1930s unions raised workers' wages well above what they otherwise would have been; the result has been a fairer distribution of the nation's wealth and greater purchasing power for the country's goods. Nonunionized workers also benefited, as employers raised their wages and gave them benefits to discourage them from joining unions. Conversely, when unions declined in the 1970s, so did the real wages of union and nonunion workers alike.

At the same time, in many towns and cities, thriving union halls replaced churches and pubs as the center of social and political life, holding together neighborhoods that would have been divided bitterly along racial and ethnic lines. The labor movement had an especially profound effect on black Americans, contributing a generation of black leaders—including A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Coleman Young and Charles Hayes—who pursued the ideal of racial integration rather than separation.As the labor movement has receded, this broader sense of community has disappeared in favor of polarizing visions based on racial or ethnic animosity. The left itself has become an apostle of division and divisiveness.

The success of unions also forged some balance between business and labor in the market and in politics. The postwar American pluralism celebrated by political scientists David Truman, Robert Dahl and V.O. Key had its defects, but it was far more representative than the system that preceded and succeeded it. When labor faltered, a disproportionate amount of power was placed in the hands not only of business but of special interest groups—from naral to the nra. The shift in power didn't enhance direct democracy; it led to greater manipulation by unaccountable elites.

Of course, there is another side to this story. Freeman and other labor economists acknowledge that the high wages and elaborate work rules won by labor unions contributed to the failure of American firms to keep pace with their competitors in the '70s. Labor's revival could similarly cripple American firms and leave workers worse off in the long run. And while the leadership of the United Auto Workers, the Communications Workers of America and other major unions have learned over the last two decades that it is not in their interest to reach agreements that will make it harder for companies to compete, other unions still adhere to a 1930s, us-vs.-them model of industrial unionism. The intransigence of these unions is reinforced by the hostility that many employers display toward any union, whatever its objectives.

The question for the '90s will be whether labor and business can meet each other halfway—exchanging, in effect, union recognition of business's need to compete with business's recognition of unions' right to represent workers. If labor and business do come together, we'll all benefit, whether we belong to a union or not.

John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.