Published on Thursday, July 28,2005 by Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star (Virginia)
Organized Labor Has to Rejuvenate Because There's Still a Need
by Rick Mercier
"ENJOY WEEKENDS? Give thanks to the Bible," declared a headline in The Free Lance-Star last week.
This explanation was news to me. Heathen that I am, I always thought we had the labor movement to thank for the weekend--as well as for other things such as the minimum wage, workplace safety protections, and prohibition of child labor.
I'm not alone on this. The consensus among labor historians is that bosses and politicians made concessions to workers after having something like the fear of God put in them--but that happened because men and women marched in streets and sat down on factory floors, not because the powerful cracked open the Good Book and realized the error of their ways.
Still, The Free Lance-Star's faith-based dissing of the labor movement pretty much captures the spirit of our times (in more ways than one). Unions are routinely dismissed as anachronisms, which is no surprise given that organized labor can lay claim to only 8 percent of all private-sector workers these days.
It's this dismal state of affairs that led the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union to bolt the AFL-CIO earlier this week.
The dissident unions are part of the Change to Win Coalition, which argues that the AFL-CIO has spent too much time and money on politics on behalf of the Democratic Party and not enough on building up union membership.
That's a losing strategy, the coalition says.
John Wilhelm, an official in UNITE HERE, one of the unions in the coalition, said in a recent forum published in The Nation magazine: "It is not our preference to leave the AFL-CIO at all. But the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."
Some union leaders, however, argue that the coalition is creating a rift in the labor movement that will benefit the enemies of working men and women.
"I think the only one who wins from this is George Bush and his minions who are trying to weaken labor unions," Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told the London Independent.
McEntee's concern is not unreasonable, but Change to Win's SEIU is one union that has seen membership gains in recent years. Maybe the coalition can duplicate that success under the guidance of SEIU President Andy Stern. It's worth a try.
It's also important to note that the Democrats haven't exactly fought tooth and nail for workers in recent times. Why, one might ask, should the labor movement remain so close to the party?
It makes sense to build up a power base independent of the Democratic Party, formulate an agenda that benefits the people who make up that base, then pressure the Dems (and the moderate Republicans still out there) to fall into line. Historically, this is how meaningful change has occurred in our country.
No one should doubt that unions still have a crucial role to play in a just society. Workers who belong to unions get better pay and are more likely to receive benefits and pensions. Women and minorities in particular profit from union membership.
Many Americans might not know these facts, but employers do. And America's biggest employer, Wal-Mart, has acted on this knowledge with an anti-union zeal that's unrivaled among today's fat cats.
It's easy to understand why Wal-Mart is hostile to unions. Under the current balance of power between the company and its employees--uh, I mean "associates"--the average hourly wage is $9.68. That's substantially lower than the average hourly wage for all retail workers, which is $12.28. (In case you're wondering, the average hourly wage for all nonsupervisory workers in our labor force is $15.90.)
In addition, only about half of Wal-Mart's employees can afford to buy into the company's health-insurance plan. As a result, Wal-Mart employees are turning in droves to government-funded health programs to ensure that their children can see a doctor when they're sick.
Wal-Mart stands in marked contrast to Costco, which has a partly unionized work force (the Teamsters represent about 15,000 workers at Costco stores in California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia). Costco pays an average of $16 an hour, and 82 percent of its employees are covered by company health insurance.
If the Change to Win Coalition wants to prove itself, it must zero in on Wal-Mart the way the labor movement took aim at Ford and General Motors in an earlier era.
There's still a war to be won out there in the American workplace, and that big, yellow smiley face should be a rejuvenated labor movement's first target.
Rick Mercier is a a writer and news editor for The Free Lance-Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.