"The Six-Year Itch by David Moberg, in The Nation (Sept. 3-10, 2001), 33 Irving Pl., New York, N.Y. 10003
In 1995, the upstart John Sweeney seized the helm of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFLCIO) with talk of a new beginning for organized labor. But the labor movement is still in trouble. A decades-long decline in union membership was briefly stemmed in 1999 but resumed in 2000. Only about nine percent of private-sector workers--and 13.5 percent of the total work force--now carry union cards.
There have been other blows. Al Gore's loss in the presidential election cost labor a champion, as well as a number of prolabor measures pushed by the Clinton administration. And this past March, the 500,000-member carpenters union pulled out of the AFL-CIO.
Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, isn't inclined to blame Sweeney for all these woes. Since Sweeney deposed the lackluster Lane Kirkland, organized labor has become "noticeably more effective in giving workers a voice in American life." For example, union households cast 26 percent of the votes in the 2000 elections, up from 19 percent in 1992. The big problem, according to Moberg, is "a lack of consensus within the labor movement, especially on organizing." Organized labor is not well organized. The problems begin with the AFL-CIO itself, a relatively weak federation of 64 independent unions, many with their own powerful state and local organizations.
The big challenge for labor is signing up new recruits. In 2000 it enlisted only 400,000, down by a third from the year before. Kirkland always insisted that the federation had no role in organizing and that it was up to each union to enlist new members. …