We’ve all heard enough about how labor’s power in America has declined so much in the past couple of decades. Gone are the days when 36% of Americans were under collective bargaining agreements. Right to Work laws continue to stifle organizing in states across the country. Recent Republican presidents and congresses have fought reforms favoring labor and have allowed increased union-busting tactics. Neoliberal economics, which treats labor as a “commodity” rather than human beings, has become common sense to so many politicians that it rules the world order. Hell, even the fastest growing counterculture political movement right now, the Ron Paul campaign (which it can be argued is more of a cult than anything), is libertarian. We see Democrats talk about the middle class, the poor, and in the case of John Edwards, reviving the labor movement. But, even with this rhetoric, we still know the truth: the 1950s, the heydays of American unions, are in the rear-view mirror, and we aren’t turning around (and when you think about a lot of other stuff from the 50s, its best to just keep driving…)
Imagine the surprise of beleaguered supporters of labor (and the happy fat cats who fight them) when they caught this headline in the Washington Post: “Labor’s New Recruits: 2 Million Added to the Ranks of Organized Labor in Last Four Years”
While close to 13% of Americans are union members today, it is important to realize that this decline is not primarily due to the unpopularity of unions. Despite the opposition, a large majority of Americans still say they would join a union if at all possible. Lost in the media in the wake of strikes by declining industrial unions such as the United Auto Workers and unions tied to popular media like the Writer’s Guild, has been the good news for members and allies of unions: organized labor is back, and popular to boot.
While many states have laws that prevent much union growth, that hasn’t kept the AFL-CIO from making inroads in communities across the country. With a fairly new program called Working America, started in 2003, the largest congress of labor unions in the country is back in a big way. Now not relegated to union shops and nascent workplace campaigns, the AFL-CIO took its cause to promote policies favoring the common majority (such as heath care reforms leading to universal coverage, maintenance of social security, quality job growth, and rights at work) door-to-door. So far, they’ve marshaled the support of 2 million non-union members to support these causes through letter writing and other forms of activism, and that’s without having had a strong national membership drive yet. This phenomenon has swung elections in Kentucky and Virginia this year to labor-friendly candidates and could be planting the seeds for growth in labor activism for years to come.
Ok, I’m sure a lot of you are wondering: “but what does this do for workplace democracy or eventual worker control of the workplace and appropriate worker rights? What about actual union shop growth as opposed to people just saying they agree with the AFL-CIO (who has definitely had some real problems following through and being effective in the no-so-distant past)?”
It’s hard to say at this point. One thing we know for sure is that in Kentucky, it was union members and these allies in Working America who swung the election away from a governor who was promising to pass a right-to-work law. Kentucky’s Democratic governor has a mandate and a responsibility to pass labor-friendly reforms, and will have his electorate, the people who control his job status, to answer to if he doesn’t follow through. Now that union organizers have their foot in the doors of 2 million new sets of ears, you can be sure they’ll be spreading the news of the virtues of organizing. Organizations like YDS have committed to working in coalitions with allies such as these. This might be a great opportunity to follow through with a labor revival and a movement towards a more sustainable society built on economic justice, equal rights, and a respect for each human being as more than the neoliberal “commodity”.
Andrew Holt Williams is a graduate of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC, where he was involved with the Green Party of North Carolina, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and a number of other community groups. He currently works in Burlington, NC, plans on starting grad school next year, and writes when he feels like it.