On this Labor Day, things are looking blue for Big Labor. Private-sector union membership continues to plummet - just 7 percent of the private work force is unionized, down from 15 percent just 25 years ago. And the union-cherished “card check” legislation, which would restrict the use of secret ballots in union elections - and therefore make it easier for the unions to swell their ranks - has had a rocky road in Congress and looks unlikely to become law anytime soon.
But Big Labor is not going gently into that good night. In fact, the shrinking membership rolls are making Big Labor organizations and their bosses more dependent than ever on their liberal allies in government, more desperate than ever for support from liberal politicians who hold the reins of power and can transfer taxpayer dollars to their pockets.
To that end, labor is gearing up for the political fight of its life. The twin labor powerhouses, the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), are pooling their resources and coordinating efforts to help elect as many pro-union candidates (read: liberals) as possible. As the Wall Street Journal reports, the terrible twosome claim to have a combined $88 million to deploy in support of favored candidates in 26 states, including congressional, gubernatorial and state legislature races in scorched-earth battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The labor cash infusion is already making a difference in local races: Unions have thus far mobilized $14 million in a so-far-successful effort to counteract the advantage of Meg Whitman’s considerable coffers in her race against Jerry Brown for the California statehouse. As Harold Meyerson writes in the Los Angeles Times, “Much of labor’s strategy to sway swing voters is modeled on the national AFL-CIO’s Working America project, which targets white, blue-collar workers with economically populist messages. The larger piece of the program, though - dictated by California’s demographics - targets African American and, most especially, Latino voters, who will vote Democratic provided they are motivated to vote at all.”
Liberal congressional leaders naturally are wildly grateful for the coming union support, which they desperately need as they face stiff headwinds going into November and an electorate riled up by unpopular left-wing power grabs like Obamacare. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, recently cheered the union effort, saying, “I think labor’s main message will be that things have clearly begun to improve and the biggest mistake now would be to return to the failed [George W.] Bush economic policies.”
If that will be labor’s message, it’s going to need all that cash: To say that “things have clearly begun to improve” is to willfully ignore the dismal economic climate that continues to see millions of Americans unemployed or underemployed and an official unemployment rate of more than 9 percent.
Labor’s problem is, even if it is successful in November, there is no guarantee that it will get all it wants. As Richard Ebeling of the American Institute for Economic Research notes, “In 2008, unions spent $74.5 million in campaign contributions, with $68.3 million going to the Democratic Party.” Andrew Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), once bragged, “We spent a fortune to elect Barack Obama - $60.7 million, to be exact, and we’re proud of it.” Yet, in spite of this largesse and with their Democratic allies in firm control of both branches of Congress and the White House, labor initiatives such as card check have stalled or failed altogether.
Labor unions are a relic, a unique product of 19th-century demographics and an early-20th-century industrial economy. In the 21st century, workers live longer, are more mobile, change jobs often and serve an increasingly service- and information-driven economy, factors ill-suited to the old labor ways. In the face of such hostile socioeconomic forces, Big Labor bosses see the continued power of liberals in Washington, and especially the prospect of the mass unionization of health care workers under Obamacare - as their last, best hope.
And they are right.
Terrence Scanlon is president of the Capital Research Center in Washington.