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Why labor movement will rise again

Washington Times, 9/7/11

This Labor Day, the task was not so much how to assess labor's status as to address this question: What on earth happened?

In 2009, the labor movement was full of hope after dismal years of losing members and political clout. Its allies - whom it helped elect - were in power all over Washington. The country was focused once again on domestic and economic issues after nearly a decade of emphasizing external security threats. Corporations and Wall Street had declined in public esteem after a series of scandals and the near collapse of the financial sector, and polls showed popular opinion swinging toward the average person.

Labor's biggest priority, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would help unions organize, seemed to have a good chance of passage. As a senator, Barack Obama co-sponsored the bill. As a presidential candidate, he promised to sign it into law if elected. In a more symbolic but no less important move, the Democratic nominee pledged to march with labor when needed.

Yet today, unions seem to be fighting to survive. EFCA has fallen so far off the legislative agenda that I'd wager that many members of Congress don't remember what the letters stand for. Labor has battled the administration and many congressional Democrats over issues such as free trade and job creation. Membership figures remain flat. In a sense, labor finds itself in political no man's land - taken for granted by Democrats and reviled by Republicans.

It's no surprise that many pundits and media types - who tend to ignore unions until they become experts around Labor Day - are writing labor's epitaph. Don't bet on it.

Here are a few reasons why labor may surprise many folks in the next year or two:

Energy: The intense assault, including on public-employee unions, has energized labor, which recognizes that its very viability is at stake. Ask Verizon whether it regards today's unions as patsies. Not only has labor responded forcefully, it also has been challenging its own assumptions and past practices rather than hunkering down. This willingness to adapt to changed circumstances, which hasn't always been the case within the labor movement, may yield results going forward.

Political strategy: For years, labor's political clout was waning, including in 2004 when it failed to oust a president waging an unpopular war and leading a jobless economic recovery. Four years later, labor's extraordinary efforts helped Mr. Obama win the presidential election. But labor's apparent political breakthrough was, I have long argued, a mirage. Unions missed the chance to drive home their message, values and issues to what would have been a receptive electorate. Instead, they served - once again - as logistical troops for one political party: a short-term win masking the squandering of a golden opportunity. Now, labor finally is re-examining not just its political tactics but also its political strategy.

Communications: Few factors have harmed the labor movement more in recent decades than its inability to communicate effectively. Contrast that with the corporate ability to get out a message quickly and broadly. Labor is, if belatedly, wrestling with this problem - merely recognizing it is a step forward. The effort has the potential in particular to turn around the campaign against public employees, which targets many folks - police, firefighters, public nurses, emergency medical technicians, teachers - who are held in high regard by the public.

Leadership: In Rich Trumka and Liz Shuler, the AFL-CIO has innovative leadership willing to try new approaches. The aggressive leadership extends to Jim Hoffa at the Teamsters, Bob King at the United Auto Workers, Rose Ann DeMoro at National Nurses United and beyond. For too long, labor has repeated campaigns almost by rote. Now, even in a challenging environment in which the poor economy has limited labor's options, Mr. Trumka and Ms. Shuler have undertaken intriguing programs to enlist young workers and to appeal to nontraditional sectors in this evolving economy, among other initiatives.

Philip M. Dine, author of "State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence," is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.

 

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