Rolling the Union On

Rolling the Union On

Twice since John Sweeney became president of the AFL-CIO, the federation has held national conventions, and on each occasion Sweeney’s keynote address has been preceded by the same distinctive introduction. In 1997 in Pittsburgh, and again in 1999 in Los Angeles, workers from successful organizing drives have paraded past the podium while their stories, and their numbers, are shouted to the assembled delegates. Only then, with all the workers arrayed in the front of the hall, does Sweeney step forward to speak.

One can only imagine the mix of majesty and bombast with which John L. Lewis would have capped so theatrical an occasion. With Sweeney—possibly the single flattest speaker the Bronx has ever produced—the moment almost instantly deflates. As soon as he begins speaking, the very idea that this charismatically-challenged figure is in some way responsible for the tumultuous procession—let alone the rebirth, however provisional, of American labor—seems absurd on its face.

It is, however, true. More than any labor leader since Lewis, John Sweeney has changed the direction of America’s unions, altered what it is they do and say, whom they recruit, whom they hire, whom they embrace as allies, and whom they elect as their leaders. To be sure, the transformation of American labor, as Sweeney and those around him take pains to point out, is very much a work in progress; it has been fully registered at fewer than half-a-dozen of the federation’s sixty-eight unions, and partly registered at maybe half-a-dozen more. The percentage of the workforce that is unionized has finally stopped its forty-five-year slide this year—at an anemic 13.9 percent—but it hasn’t moved upward yet. Unemployment may stand at a thirty-year low, but the percentage of private sector workers in unions is so low—just under 10 percent—that wages are behaving as if unemployment were at 8 percent, not 4 percent. This October, as the NASDAQ hit record highs every other day, the average wage of the American worker increased by exactly one cent. Labor’s penetration of the new, high tech economy remains infinitesimal.

And yet, by any number of measures, American labor is coming back. Last year, the movement organized 450,000 new workers; this year’s figure will top 500,000—signaling a net gain of between 100,000 and 200,000 new members when the losses from deindustrialization are factored in. In the electoral arena, labor beat back the GOP’s assault last year by defeating ballot measures, most notably California’s Proposition 226, which would have curtailed unions’ capacity to wage political campaigns. In the battle over the emerging rules of the global economy, the AFL-CIO is the linchpin of a transnational alliance of unions, environmental groups, and human rights activists that has finally begun to challenge the supremacy of the “Washington consensus” for free trade. In the battle for the political allegiance of America...