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SANDERS: The death rattle for America’s unions?
Longer ago than I care to remember, I discussed "the decline of the American labor movement" with an old friend, a high AFL-CIO official and veteran of many a bitter organizing campaign, at the labor group's palatial 16th Street Washington headquarters. (Transparency alert: My mom, a 17-year-old Romanian Jewish immigrant, was an "ILG" (International Ladies Garment Workers Union) shop steward in her shirtwaist sweatshop circa 1918, after losing seamstress friends in the 1911 Triangle Fire.)
In our rambling interchange, my pal hypothesized that the huge 1930 gains for organized labor resulted from three causes: government sponsorship (FDR's Wagner Act and the National Labor Relations Board), Socialists and Communists. He meant ideologically dedicated men and women willing to try to persuade blue-collar workingmen in an "employers' market" to band together to win wage hikes and better working conditions. (Ironically, President Obama just awarded the Medal of Freedom to Dolores Clara Fernandez Huerta, co-founder of a Mexican-American agricultural workers' union whose roots were in Socialists' failed efforts at organizing black Southern sharecroppers.) Their role was far from easy — or safe. For example, the Reuther brothers, who inherited their German-born father's social democratic and trade unionist philosophy, were beaten, almost killed, by Henry Ford's hired "goons" before the United Auto Workers won certification.
That AFL-CIO conversation was not far from the offices of the NLRB, in the news recently for trying to force Boeing to halt South Carolina plant expansion "to protect" Washington state unionized workers but likely pushing even more sub-assembly work overseas. Nor were the events that unfolded in Wisconsin last week so distant. Pseudo-analysis spun by mainstream media pundits elevating notoriously inaccurate "exit polling" to analytical status has come up with theories for the result, though little hard evidence.
The spinners grabbed onto the poll results suggesting some voters were backing GOP Gov. Scott Walker because they were resentful of a recall not based on indictable malfeasance. One common-sense observer pointed out most Walker supporters, tired of election after election in the state, voted, walked to their cars, and went home. So exit pollsters were left to talk to "activists." The pollsters claim even Walker supporters voiced pro-Obama sentiments for next November. Then why a "presidential-size" turnout? That prognostication well may be as wrong as the early exit polling predicting a close vote.
More important, Wisconsin's result must be seen in the context of the state's long history of radicalism. Has everyone forgotten the Prairie Populists, the Farmer Labor Party, the LaFollettes, or that the state was scene of the bitterest isolation-intervention debates before Pearl Harbor? Wisconsin was, after all, the first state to recognize government unions. Given the fading of authentic social science research these days, replaced by self-admitted advocacy journalism, we may never know what has led so many Wisconsin union members to abandon ship on the recall vote. Surely it has something to do with disgust over last year's "occupation" (and minor destruction) of the state capitol and the spectacle of runaway state senators refusing to adhere to democracy's chief fundamental duty, voting.
No, the import of these events is to dramatize a growing propensity of Americans to turn their back on trade unions. It is not an accident, as the Communists were wont to say, that the largest AFL-CIO unions are "public-sector" bureaucrats, often with better wages and perks than equivalent entrepreneurial jobs. Nor, for that matter, is it coincidental that local governing bodies from San Diego to Northern Virginia and Maryland are removing clauses requiring "union labor" in contract bidding.
After all, Democratic Party Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz predicted Wisconsin's recall vote would be a "dry run" for Mr. Obama's race this fall. As former President Bill Clinton and other capitalist-friendly Democrats chip away at the Obama strategy of class warfare by defending Mitt Romney's business career, Obama campaign manager David Axelrod is left only with Mr. Obama's "cool" approach to domestic and international issues, his bevy of Hollywood glitterati, and his (and their) hoped-for continued appeal to youthful voters (and viewers). Mr. Obama's "no-show" in Wisconsin spoke volumes about the growing rift with the government bureaucrat-dominated AFL-CIO.
It could well be that, in the long run of history, Wisconsin's principal outcome will be disintegration of government unions. Coupled with a growing number of state right-to-work laws guaranteeing secret union balloting, the defeat of federal "card check" to reinforce "closed shops," and the continued migration of jobs from the Rust Belt to those states, we could be hearing the death rattle from Middle America of "organized labor."
• Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and blogs at www.yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.
About the Author
Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at email@example.com and blogs at www.yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.
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