Love for Labor Lost? Little to Celebrate This Year for Unions

Demonstrators march in a Labor Day parade, Monday, Sept. 3, 2012, in Charlotte, N.C. Demonstrators are protesting before the start of the Democratic National Convention. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Love for Labor Lost? Little to Celebrate This Year for Unions

On a day set aside to honor the sacrifices and accomplishments of organized labor in the US, this Labor Day, according to many observers, may well be noted as the one in modern history where labor unions looked around and found the fewest reasons to cheer.

"It's not a bright picture for labor this Labor Day," Harley Shaiken, a professor of labor studies at the University of California, Berkeley, said to the Detroit News. "Unions are facing not only unprecedented employer opposition, but also the opposition of leading political figures."

"This is a very difficult Labor Day for union leaders. All they can really do is talk about labor history -- what there was rather than what there is or what there will be," echoed Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University, speaking to Reuters.

As labor fights the most virulent rightwing anti-labor campaign in decades in the form of so-called "right-to-work laws" in states across the country, led by an army of intransigent and disciplined Republican governors and state legislatures, it also comes to grips with the stark reality that the Democrats have done little to defend their interests when the battles come to the fore.

The Democratic National Convention begins on Tuesday in one of the country's most anti-union states, North Carolina, and though many union leaders voiced disappointment with the decision to hold the DNC in Charlotte, there was little they could do but suffer the humiliation.

As the Atlantic reports:

The Democrats' choice of Charlotte was intended to help mobilize support for President Obama, who narrowly won North Carolina, long a Republican stronghold, in the 2008 presidential race. But the decision immediately raised hackles in the labor movement. Not only does North Carolina have right-to-work laws -- which ban collective-bargaining agreements that require workers to join unions -- it also has the lowest union membership rate in the nation. Just 2.9 percent of North Carolina workers were in unions in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Union disappointment with the locale has led to a smaller labor presence in Charlotte than at past conventions. While unions are typically among the top donors to the quadrennial nominating gatherings, they're spending less this year, and some groups went so far as to host a "shadow convention" in Philadelphia, called "Workers Stand for America," in mid-August. (DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz spoke at the rally.) Meanwhile, the central premise of holding the convention in the Tar Heel state seems more tenuous with each poll that shows North Carolina leaning Republican in November.

But labor can't abandon the Democrats entirely. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is holding an event in Charlotte on Tuesday, and the SEIU, another major group, will also attend. As labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "American unionists are flocking to Charlotte. They are trapped this Labor Day by a geopolitical logic that keeps them dependent on the Democrats even as President Obama and other party leaders hold the unions at an uneasy arm's length." The Republican Party remains implacably opposed to organized labor. At the Republican National Convention in Tampa, the party approved a platform with a plank that calls for a national right-to-work law.

And Reutersadds:

Obama's track record on labor issues has disappointed some unions and left a palpable enthusiasm gap among rank-and-file members.

The administration's "Race to the Top" education reforms, for instance, designed to boost student performance, are reviled by many unionized teachers because of the emphasis they place on standardized tests and charter schools.

"The Democrats have sold us out, and there's a real questioning of the role the Democrats can play going forward," said Betty Maloney, a retired school counselor from Newark, New Jersey, who protested an appearance by Vice President Joe Biden at a recent teachers' union conference in Detroit.

As a result, organized labor's focus on the election reflects more an opposition to what Romney and the Republicans might do than an endorsement of Obama's track record.

"To me, Mitt Romney represents the wholesale capitulation to the interests of big businesses that don't want any unions in this country," said Roberta Lynch, deputy director of Council 31 for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Chicago.

But, gathering all the bad news together for labor, UC Berkeley's Shaiken says that the unions have a collective brightspot. Because of the assault they are under and due to the political realities of the dominant parties, she points out that "labor is showing some real fight" and "innovation" as it navigates new ways to engage in politics.

In Chicago, for example, a re-organized and re-energized teacher's union has filed notice that its member will strike on September 10th if there is not a good-faith effort by the city leadership, including Democratic Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, to negotiate their contracts.

Whether the fight results in any upcoming victories for organized labor in the US, however, is anyone's guess.

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