Does Labor Have a Future?

Article excerpt

FOR THE THIRD TIME during the past 30 years - after experiencing only two regime changes since its origins in the 1880s- the AFL-CIO in September 2009 installed a new leadership team in an effort to reverse decades of decline. On the eve of a similar shift in 1979, astute observers wondered whether "the last days of the American labor movement" were at hand. As A.H. Raskin, the highly regarded New York Times labor beat reporter, put it, "far from serving as the cutting edge of social change . . . trade unionism appears to be a largely spent force in the national life." Even one union president conceded that "the American labor movement is having less and less impact on society."

In 1955 the reunification of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations terminated a 20-year labor civil war. Many hailed the creation of a united movement as an opportunity for unions to recapture the spirit and vitality that had enabled them to organize more than 1 0 million workers between 1935 and 1948. Yet the reunion proved much like that of the North and South following the Civil War. Between 1955 and 1979 two distinct cultures operated within the AFL-CIO. The CIO unions, centered in the organization's Industrial Union Department, remained a distinct minority alongside a majority dominated by the traditional AFL trade unions, especially those clustered in the building and metal trades.

Although the CIO unions had purged their "Reds" years before the merger, Leftist influences were still strong in most of the industrial unions, whose leading officials had been Communists or close to the Communist Party. The most prominent of the former Leftist CIO leaders, Walter Reuther of the United Automobile Workers (UAW), chafed at existing in the shadow of AFL-CIO President George Meany, whom Reuther considered a smug, self-satisfied, intellectually shallow old style labor baron.

Reuther and his allies desired a labor movement committed to unionizing the unorganized, participating fully in the civil rights movement, and acting decisively to foster more progressive influences in the Democratic Party. Meany and his old guard allies preferred servicing existing union members to funding a hunt for new ones, keeping their distance from the civil rights movement (Meany 's clashes with A. Philip Randolph, the foremost African- American labor leader as head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, were legendary), and cooperating with the Democratic Party while holding lines open to the Republican Party. To Reuther's chagrin, it became common for labor economists to dismiss the Meanyled AFL-CIO as a "sleepy monopoly."

The social and cultural upheavals of the 1 9 60s, when the civil rights movement fractured, cities burned, campuses rioted, and an anti- Vietnam War campaign arose, brought Reuther's dissatisfaction with the AFL-CIO to a boil. Unable to tolerate his existence in a Meany controlled organization any longer, he marched the UAW out of the AFL-CIO in 1 968 and formed a strange alliance with the Teamsters' Union, already expelled from the AFLCIO because of its corrupt practices. Predictably, the marriage of the nation's two largest unions, the UAW and the Teamsters, created an extremely odd couple doomed to dissolution. As for the AFLCIO, if no longer a "sleepy monopoly," by the end of the 1 960s it lacked the ability to resist the forces about to deliver a series of setbacks to workers and their unions.

SHORTLY AFTERWARD Meany 's world - in which white male blue-collar workers personified union members and labor exercised its influence through the Democratic Party - collapsed. The fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s ended the movement's one arena of post-1 95Os success, the unionization of public employees. By 1975, as state and local governments faced budget deficits and their citizens rebelled against taxes, mayors and governors demanded that unions accept wage and benefit reductions. …