When The Red Queen boasts in Through the Looking-Glass that in her country, "it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place," she could have been talking about today's labor movement. To turn their long slide into a winning streak, unions need to add millions of new members each year. The terrain seems only to get more treacherous, with a White House in thrall to business assaulting labor at every turn, a worldwide economic slowdown, increasing layoffs and plant closings, growing economic inequality.
But hold the sympathy cards. As various reports in this special Labor Day issue attest, unions have been organizing more boldly and effectively in recent years, making inroads into new constituencies, like immigrants, and opening up the once-scorned service sector. Election 2000 aside, more adept political organizing has boosted the union-household share of the electorate from 19 percent in 1992 to 26 percent in 2000. Unions have forged promising new alliances with students, religious communities, anti-WTO activists and environmentalists. There have been tactical stumbles--and most unions have yet to shake old bureaucratic habits--but the stepped-up investment in organizing by the AFL-CIO and its aggressive affiliates has begun to show the way forward.
The challenge now is for all unions to wield their resources and power more strategically, to engage their members as organizers and campaigners, and to articulate a social vision that will inspire hard daily slogging but also elevate eyes to long-range goals beyond paycheck issues, important as those are. Such a vision can impart unity and strength to the progressive movement. Teamsters can't be expected to hug a sea turtle daily, but their embrace of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was destructive, as was the United Auto Workers' endorsement of the weaker fuel-efficiency standards in the Bush Administration's energy plan. …