Labor Needs a New Salesman
By Alex Biles, University of Michigan
This past Labor Day, President Obama utilized the occasion to address a fervent crowd of supporters on the topic of job creation. With gloomy unemployment numbers, he outlined a preview of the jobs speech he will deliver to Congress this Thursday. And though the crowd of thousands of union supporters gathered in Detroit to hear the President speak was energized, it was nevertheless a shell of what the labor movement has become.
In recent months, much has been made about the decline of organized labor in the United States. Receiving the most coverage was the case of Wisconsin, where the move to strip public-sector employees of most collective bargaining abilities was viewed by observers as a considerable setback. Not surprisingly, this measure was met with vehement resistance from many.
Surely, labor’s political opposition has had a substantial impact on its decline. There’s no denying the influence of the actions taken up by Ronald Reagan’s administration and many of its successors. In the second half of the 20th century, the president who risked political aspirations by taking on Big Labor was a unicorn—until Reagan, that is.
Even with half of labor unions rallying behind him, Reagan sent shockwaves by firing 11,345 striking air traffic controllers, destroying their union. Other observers cite Reagan’s appointees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which oversees union representation elections and labor-management bargaining, as being anti-union.
A former union member himself, Reagan’s decision to take on Big Labor came as dramatic shifts in the economic landscape eroded much of its staying power. The market liberalization that achieved a foothold in the 1970s systematically exposed many American firms and their employees to global competition.
Breaking down trade barriers was part of a package deal with mass privatization and deregulation of traditionally unionized industries ranging from brewing to utilities. Although union busting was not the chief rationale in adopting many of these policies, organized labor was burdened.
The waning power of organized labor is also a casualty of technological advance. The Internet has gradually phased out the necessity of many brick-and-mortar firms, taking their employees along on a ride into irrelevance. The U.S. Postal Service and telephone companies come to mind. Along the same lines, automation has provided us with ATMs and self-checkout machines that have eliminated the need for workers.
Overall, the neoliberal doctrine that has characterized the prevailing approach to economic policy in recent decades has bred winners and losers. The liberalization of global markets has provided ordinary Americans with unprecedented access to cutting-edge technology and lowered the cost of many goods and services. It has also encouraged investment in Americans firms from abroad, creating millions of high-end service sector jobs here at home that didn’t exist a mere 20 years ago.
Nonetheless, the plight of organized labor is well-documented. In 2010, the percentage of unionized employees in the U.S. reached an all-time low in the post-war period, accompanied by dwindling public support.
It’s a harsh reality for organized labor, but to many Americans, unions represent bailouts, blight, corruption and tax-hounding, while failing to shake the impression that they are obsolete institutions. In some sense, the latter appears to suggest that labor’s undoing is ironically cut from the fabric of its own cloth. With the establishment of child labor legislation, a minimum wage, the eight-hour workday and employee pensions, it seems as if organized labor has successfully won the battle in most crucial arenas of employee protection.
Most Americans don’t want to see these hard-fought victories for labor rolled back, but they also can’t stand for a stagnant institution that appears to only be leeching off the taxpayer’s teat, reveling in the shadow of its former glory. Big Labor continues to be tainted by the legacy of Jimmy Hoffa, coupled with regular reports of corrupt union leaders from across the country.
While media sensationalism does not represent the institution at-large, it certainly dampens its perception in the public eye. And although the political influence of American labor unions continues to be extremely significant—it played a major role in the publicly-funded bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler—the cozy relationship that organized labor shares with Washington politicians has glossed over a certain someone: the American worker.
No, we’re not talking strictly about Joe Schmo, the overweight Rust Belt mailman who loves his Cleveland Browns almost as much as his bratwurst. That guy’s profile is a dying breed, or at least the mailman part. And in my opinion, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.
But in the 1950s and 1960s, the perception of organized labor was much more favorable. No shit. It appealed to much of the population because 35 percent of the American workforce was unionized. Yet, with numbers suggesting a turn south of 10 percent soon, non-unionized workers in the lower and middle-class should be a major focus of labor unions.
The very mention of McDonalds or Nike quickly evokes thoughts of golden arches, tubs of dirty, but very colorful balls, swooshes and “Just Do It.” Does the mention of the AFL-CIO or SEIU suggest bright colors or fancy slogans in any way whatsoever? Does it suggest that anybody besides an especially astute 10 year old in Paint designed their logos? Do the names even register at all?
To those who know me, this column may come off as somewhat of a surprise. While I personally believe the net effects of labor unions on contemporary society to be negative (that’s another column), I respect many of organized labor’s achievements and firmly believe that most of the protections for workers they have won should be preserved.
I’m also an agitator and I get aggravated when I see inaction. Tons of digital ink has been spilled lamenting the decline of organized labor, but where are the inspired calls for labor’s facelift?
Where is the move to bring organized labor into the 21st century? In what appears to be another testament to unions’ backwards thinking, where are the public relations teams working on a restoration of American confidence in their beloved labor unions? Oil companies pollute and with a cleverly devised PR campaign, can salvage their appearance and return to making profits within months.
Unless I am missing something, there’s plenty of room to compete on the turf. If Big Labor spent a fraction of the millions of dollars that they do on lobbying and Democratic campaign ads, they could utilize the power of mass communication to combat growing unpopularity and persuade the growing numbers of non-unionized low and middle-class American workers whose side they are allegedly on.
More importantly, if organized labor plans to survive the coming decades, they will need power in numbers to compensate for dwindling unionization rates. That will include adjusting to a new age where laborism isn’t as relevant as it once was. That doesn’t mean that with a click of a remote or a mouse, unions can’t make it seem so.