In the spring of 1995, when Lane Kirkland’s old order was toppling and John Sweeney’s young(er) Turks were poised to revitalize the American labor movement, one of the movement’s leading operatives gave me his take on what was behind the revolt. “We didn’t join the labor movement when it represented 20 percent of the work force,” he said—and by “we,” he meant a generation of more militant organizers, children of the sixties, who were then in their forties—“only to see it drift down to 5 percent on our watch.”
The Sweeney regime turned the AFL-CIO into a more effective electoral machine than it had ever been and it repositioned the labor movement to be part—in some ways, the center—of a grand liberal coalition alongside feminists, environmentalists, and the whole lefty crew. What it didn’t do was arrest the relative decline in union membership. A decade later, a second revolt broke out, led by Sweeney’s own union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The Change to Win leaders pledged to reverse labor’s decline by placing more emphasis on organizing and less on politics. Three years later, however, the new federation, too, has still not figured out how to stop the sickening slide. Labor isn’t at 5 percent yet, though in the private sector, the share of union membership has reached a pathetic 7.5 percent.
Some unions have managed to grow, however, in recent years, by practicing what might be called “Let’s Make A Deal” unionism. With employers able to obstruct worksite organizing campaigns at every turn, unions instead pour huge resources into campaigns to elect governors or mayors who then create agencies that regulate, say, home care workers or port truck drivers, enabling the unions to bargain contracts for those workers with those agencies. Or unions wage corporate campaigns, bringing financial pressure on some major employers in hopes of obtaining a right to organize their workers without employer opposition. These are not campaigns that necessarily involve rank-and-file workers in a meaningful way, but they are clearly the only way unions can grow until the National Labor Relations Act is amended along the lines laid out in the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA)—a labor-backed bill that would enable workers to organize without fear of being fired or harassed and compel recalcitrant employers to agree to a first contract with the union their workers have chosen.
A few years back, during the Change to Win revolt, officials of the rebellious unions disparaged the AFL-CIO for pinning all its hopes on EFCA. Now, there’s near-unanimity that if EFCA doesn’t pass—that is, if the November election fails to produce a Democratic president and close to 60 Democratic senators, which are the indisputable prerequisites for passing EFCA—that 5 percent figure may be just around the corner for the private sector.
In this year’s election, labor stands at Armageddo...
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