Notebook: The Sickness Of The Unions

Notebook: The Sickness Of The Unions

After years of effort and expense, the Fund for the Republic’s Trade Union Project is coming to an end. One of the rare products of this concentration of talent, resources, and contemplation is a 75-page booklet by Solomon Barkin, “The Decline of the Labor Movement and What Can Be Done About It.” Mr. Barkin has been Research Director of the Textile Workers Union of America for twenty-five years and is not one to rush angrily into headlong criticism of unions. He maintains the demeanor of an analytical scholar; at the most extreme, he becomes a gently chiding, somewhat disappointed but loyal member of the family. His pamphlet is important as the symptomatic expression of the state of mind of a highly regarded union staff intellectual; and that is how it should be read. It has not been welcomed with unanimous acclaim in the labor movement; some unions have praised it; others demur; most ignore it. It is not an “official” work but it echoes the sentiments of many alert labor leaders and staff intellectuals.

The author concludes by prescribing solutions for a multitude of big problems. And yet, as it is sketched here, “the decline of the labor movement” will surely seem overwhelmingly and unmanageable to the reader. It appears compounded of so many simultaneous, interlocking, and deeply implanted social, economic, and historical factors that no single generation of mortals could work its way out: union membership has fallen; jobs disappear in unionized mass production; employers resist fiercely any advance of unionism; Taft-Hartley and “Right-to-Work” stand in the way; social discontent is dulled and the spur to unionization blunted; labor’s “public image” is “sullied”; some unions are insensitive to the need to organize; members are apathetic; some workers will not heed the union call; women are slow to join; white-collar and professional employees grow in numbers but remain suspicious of unions; some unions are “tardy” in lifting racial bars and Negroes are disillusioned; low-wage workers remain to be organized; organizing staffs are inadequate; there is jurisdictional squabbling where there should be unity and centralization. This is only part of a long list of troubles that Mr. Barkin sees and he recommends a “drastic overhaul of spirit and structure” in eight pages. There is a certain scope to it all; the remedy for the illnesses is to cure them. Yet, in this sweep something vital is missing.

Suppose in analyzing the character of a man we wrote: he has been out of work for months and people say he is an embezzler; he misses church; his taste in ties is atrocious; enemies say he tortures dogs and children; he smokes, avoids great literature, watches TV incessantly, and irritates the neighbors; his political opinions are primitive; his economic philosophy is uninformed; he drives without a license and passes through red lights and is said to have murdered a friend; one arm is shorter than the other. In all this, some qualities might be more significant than others. And people say? But are they right or wrong? just or unjust? That would be the crux of everything. This comes to mind in pondering Barkin’s long list.

When the author sets out to discuss labor’s crisis we need help in determining which facts are actually central to that crisis and which are chronic, long-term, nagging difficulties. Otherwise, everything is cluttered together with everything else.

Download the full article as a PDF