- - Tuesday, December 4, 2012


One might reasonably have expected that if labor were to be in the headlines these days, it would be for its political efforts. After all, the labor movement’s work on behalf of President Obama, Senate Democrats and others rivaled its biggest campaign push ever — and proved successful as labor-endorsed candidates gained resounding victories in last month’s election. Unions were especially important in key industrial battleground states such as Ohio.

Well, labor indeed has been talked about and written about in recent weeks, but not for its showing in the political realm. Rather, commentators have focused on what unions have done on other fronts — such as Thanksgiving, holiday shopping, travel and snacks.

This seasonal coverage may seem a bit odd, but in fact it’s a sign of labor’s growing prominence after years of being largely ignored by the public and the media.

Newspapers and cable news shows have devoted much ink and airtime to the role the union at Hostess Brands played in the company’s demise, often railing against the union for allegedly hurting the bottom line over the years by insisting on contractual terms that reduced management’s flexibility while raising expenses. Critics also blasted the union for recently doing the company in by not agreeing to terms it said it needed to survive.

Much of this criticism is misleading and overblown. In fact, the company was done in by a combination of the trend toward healthier foods and its own poor management. Hostess has had seven CEOs in 10 years, it’s gone through a series of business plans, it was previously in bankruptcy court and came out earlier than its own financial adviser recommended, it has given its executives generous bonuses over this period, and the union contends that money workers gave back was not invested in the company as intended.

Meanwhile, union efforts to reinvigorate labor’s campaign against Wal-Mart also generated lots of publicity, targeting the country’s biggest private employer on the day after Thanksgiving, which is the year’s biggest shopping day and one that kicks off the holiday season’s buying season.

Labor’s long and thus far unsuccessful efforts to organize Wal-Mart and the company’s strong resistance to those efforts only added to the media attention.

And we had labor’s protest over contractual terms for airport employees in Los Angeles on the day before Thanksgiving, one of the year’s busiest travel days. Labor evidently calculated that the added attention justified the risk of antagonizing the public.

As CNBC’s Larry Kudlow put it during Thanksgiving week, “Big labor threatening our holiday cheer this week, with strikes, protests, other mayhem planned against airports, malls, ports, Wal-Mart, Hostess Twinkies. What is up here? Is this some kind of left-wing, European-style general strike attempt?”

Reflecting the media interest in all this, that was a question I was asked to answer that week alone on Fox, CNBC, Fox again and BBC.

While labor could have done better communicating its overall goals, its ability to engage on so many fronts suggests a re-energized labor movement with the intention and the resources to defend its members. The holiday timing shouldn’t obscure the serious issues at stake here, with the common theme being to protect the hard-fought gains workers have made over the years and to keep millions of people in the middle class.

Meanwhile, the relative inattention to labor’s election role suggests that even as labor’s membership has fallen in recent decades, it remains a formidable player in the political arena — enough so that successes are not treated as huge news but instead are taken as developments to be expected.

Philip Dine, author of a newly updated edition of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence” that covers labor’s current battles, is a Washington-based speaker and commentator on labor issues.

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