U.S. leftists grasp for a new Progressive Era

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In another era, climate would seem ripe for unions

An American teleported from the 1950s to now might think this would be a golden moment for labor unions. After all, the wages of most Americans remained stagnant through the most recent expansion, a modern first even though productivity rose 11 percent. The country shed more than 400,000 jobs in the first half of 2008 after weak job creation for seven years. Many who have jobs worry about their positions being sent overseas.

Pensions are in decline, replaced, if at all, with riskier 401(k)s. Health-care benefits are more rare and more expensive. Income inequality has reached its widest gap since the 1920s as economic mobility has declined. This, our time traveler might imagine, would have Americans streaming to join unions.

That was then, when about a third of the work force was unionized, most of it in the private sector. Today, with only 7.5 percent of the private-sector work-force members of organized labor, unions can seem to many a distant anachronism.

Not quite. The Puget Sound region is witnessing two large labor actions, with thousands of Machinists at Boeing having voted to strike and Bellevue School District teachers starting the school year by walking picket lines.

Yet both actions are one window into the state of organized labor today. America's 15.7 million union workers are heavily clustered in the public sector and in the skilled work force of a few large companies that dominate (or once did) their industries.

The result is a disconnect between labor and many American families that would have been unusual even a generation ago. (Private-sector workers made up 20 percent of the unionized work force as recently as the early 1980s). I am the grandson and son of union members, and I've carried a union card myself.

Most Americans aren't that way, even in the one-time militant labor bastion of Seattle. For them, unions are either a negative influence or not an issue at all.

This is borne out by the many comments Seattle Times readers posted on our Web site when Machinists rejected Boeing's "last and best offer" this past Wednesday.

"What a bunch of overpaid arrogant dummies," wrote one. "If the unions want to see what pushing too hard to get more concessions from their company will lead to, just look at the UAW and the Big Three. Get over yourselves — you're lucky to have such good jobs!"

Another reader commented that "they should all be fired. Voting to strike in this economic climate isn't very bright. They should be happy to have jobs at all."

But unions aren't irrelevant. Many are trying new tactics and succeeding. Organized labor remains a potent political force in many states. The question is whether it can adapt and grow in a changed economy, or remain largely a sideshow.

Unions have always faced an imbalance of power. While management has a variety of tools to get its way, labor has few. It can direct its pension investments to pressure corporate boards or carry out public-relations campaigns against companies.

But in the end it is left with the strike, a blunt, increasingly risky weapon.

The golden age of organized labor, from the New Deal through the late 1970s, was laid with public policy that protected organizing, gave unions a fair shot at action through the National Labor Relations Board and, until passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, the closed shop.

Equally critical, unions thrived at major U.S. manufacturers that faced little overseas competition.

What happened next straddles the comic-book interpretations of partisans on both sides. Beginning with the Reagan administration, public policy did increasingly favor business, including the ability to replace striking workers.

Deregulation, mergers and growing global competition decimated many union-dominated industries. And the economy changed, with the rise of technology industries that proved resistant to the organizing that built strong unions in factories.

Unions did sometimes overreach, and were sometimes guilty of featherbedding, where, say, workers were paid to sleep on the job.

Corruption sullied some unions (just as it did some corporations). Unions made self-destructive choices. But organized labor played a major role in improving the lot of all workers, the eight-hour workday being only one example.

The troubles of the American auto industry are often blamed on organized labor. But in the 1960s and 1970s, the United Auto Workers (UAW) and Big Three management were co-dependents in industry decline.

After the late 1980s, the UAW often brought innovative ideas to the table and barely stood in the way of radical downsizing by management. The UAW hardly made the decision to spend years building dull automobiles.

Boeing faces a classic old-school strike, from skilled employees who can't be easily replaced to burn barrels and rallying masses of workers.

Behind the big stated issues are anxieties facing most Americans: Less of their rising productivity is going into their pocketbooks, and jobs are more insecure than at anytime in eight decades.

A new school is emerging in work actions, such as the movement to organize employees at downtown Seattle hotels. Informational pickets walked outside The Edgewater recently, part of efforts by UNITE HERE, which claims to represent about 440,000 workers nationwide.

The union is a product of a merger between unions representing industrial and textile employees, and hotel and restaurant employees. It's part of a new breed trying to organize the service industries that have become dominant in recent decades.

The most politically powerful and fastest growing of the new breed is the 1.8-million-member Service Employees International Union. Among its innovations has been an aggressive outreach to Hispanic workers. Faced with several scandals at its locals, the union just appointed a high-level board to focus on ethics.

The Service Employees joined the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in breaking away from the AFL-CIO in 2006, claiming the labor federation has lost its effectiveness.

In general, labor is doubling down on new organizing techniques, including pushing a bill in Congress, the Employee Free Choice Act, which could make it easier for workers to join unions. It's savvier about using the media, such as the Wake-Up Wal-Mart campaign, and casts itself as a defender of the lower middle class.

America needs a vibrant union movement. It's part of the pluralism of the marketplace that keeps everybody honest. While policy changes would help unions revive, labor still struggles against structural changes in the economy.

Ideas and innovation power much of the wealth creation in advanced nations. The hope for labor may rest there, too, or things must get much worse to send employees streaming to unions for help.

- Jon Talton is a journalist and author living in Seattle.


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