Workers in the U.S. are facing high unemployment, layoffs, plant closures, globalization and disintegration of their communities.
But they're not looking to unions for help.
It's a telling indictment on the sorry state of unionism, said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
Photo by J.D. Cavrich
Treatment operator Joe Fornwalt takes readings for the daily report sheet at the Westerly Sewage Treatment Plant.
Unions can't deal with those problems, because they never have, settling instead almost exclusively for collective bargaining as their main worker-protection role, Chaison said.
American workers, who have learned to see unions as part of the problem rather than the solution, are turning instead to themselves or the federal government for help, leaving unions "thrashing around," groping for "relevancy," he said.
Unions need to reinvent themselves, he said.
They need a political strategy to enlarge their appeal beyond collective bargaining, and they need to broaden their mission to represent all workers, especially those who've lost their jobs and immigrant workers - not just their own members, Chaison said.
They need to get out of the corner they seem to have worked themselves into, he believes.
Unions won the battle and lost the war, Chaison said.
Most people see unions as myopic for having negotiated agreements that were favorable in the short term, without taking into account long-term survival of their companies and the long-term interests of workers, Chaison said.
They were effective in certain industries and at certain times, he said.
But now they need to learn to deal with the global marketplace and plant closings, to prove to employers not only that they're tolerable, but that they're actually a "value added" for companies, he said.
Young people wanted
They need an infusion of young, creative people with energy and imagination, Chaison said.
They need to reconfigure themselves as the equivalent of the civil rights movement, he said.
It's uncertain whether they can or whether the interests and collective bargain patterns are too entrenched, he said.
They're trying, at least, said Bob Kutz, president of the Blair-Bedford Central Labor Council, who conceded that Chaison had "some good thoughts."
Self-reinvention is now a constant theme with the national AFL-CIO, Kutz said.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has been recruiting at some of the better colleges, hiring younger, brighter people and "slowly but surely" ratcheting the average age of staffers from the mid-50s to the mid-30s, he said.
Those younger recruits have been educating state and regional labor councils and federations, he said.
One problem, however, is the economy.
"It has a negative effect on everybody and everything," he said.
Kutz is hopeful President Barack Obama and Congress will come out with an economic plan "to make this economy get back to working."
Another problem is what kids learn - or don't.
Labor solidarity and the history of "where we've been" isn't taught in schools, Kutz said.
"I only wish more and more people would realize what could be done if we did band together," Kutz said.
'Path of least resistance'
Unionism's problems took root - ironically - during its heyday, the three decades after the start of World War II, the experts said.
Unions lost their way, their sense of mission, said Peter Rachleff, professor of history, Macalester College, St. Paul, Minn., whose tone was one of disappointment.
They were getting big pay increases, cost-of-living escalators, pension plans and favorable work rules through collective bargaining, said Jerald Podair, professor of history at Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisc.
They had "attained a place at society's political table," Rachleff said.
Congress was calling them to testify, national reporters were interviewing them.
They seem to have arrived.
But the flaw was in the machine: The members had given way to lawyers, lobbyists and to business agents.
They were saying, "I pay my dues, and they have specialists to take care of it," Rachleff said.
They weren't becoming the progressive force they could have been, he said.
With only a few exceptions, they weren't asking the big political questions, Rachleff said.
They weren't opposing military intervention, and weren't advocating for more spending on education, infrastructure and health care, he said.
They weren't advocating for more for racial fairness and justice, he said.
They weren't anticipating events like plant closings and asking about alternative uses before it was too late, Rachleff said.
"They went along," he said. "They took the path of least resistance."
Some historians think the unions could have changed history if they'd hung in and insisted more forcefully on a share of company power, which might have enabled them to stem the decline of the auto and steel industries in the 1970s and 1980s, Podair said.
But he's loathe to blame them.
"I think that realistically they did all that they could," he said.
GM and Ford had fought the unions' power play bitterly and weren't about to give in, he said.
'Lulled to sleep'
The rise of service industries as manufacturing went overseas was also unkind to unions.
Unions don't fare well in service industries because of issues at the top and bottom.
The lowest paid among service workers are too easily replaceable for unionization to take hold, Podair said, recalling a strike of toll collectors on the New Jersey Turnpike, easily broken because the Turnpike Authority hired students, the unemployed and others and put them to work after brief training.
"One is as good as the other," he said.
Unionizing isn't effective unless the workers have unique skills or experience and are not easily replaceable, he said.
At higher-pay levels, at least in the private service sector, workers tend to think of themselves as professionals and may not be comfortable with a designation as a unionist, Podair said.
They associate unions with blue-collar industrial work and think of themselves as independent contractors.
Yet another problem was the tie of unions - especially in the public sector - to the Democratic Party, because they had virtually no support among Republicans, Podair said.
After the union heyday ended in the mid-1970s - when the larger economic context changed, with deregulation in 1978, privatization, free trade, the move of capital outside the U.S., global competition - unions' influence diminished, and they became vulnerable to conservative attack, Rachleff said.
"They [had been] lulled to sleep," Rachleff said.
In a way, they had been bought off.
Then the economy went bust in 2008, that attack intensified, Rachleff said. That led to the current difficulties.
Recently in Wisconsin, the political battle was "vicious," because there was no check against the ascendant Republicans imposing "Draconian" budget measures, including the end of payroll dues deductions against a union group, Podair said.
Unions are "stagnant," Kutz conceded.
And some problems may be self-inflicted, he agreed.
But unions are not alien to freedom, as there are unions everywhere - although some places and some industries more union-friendly than others in some areas, he said.
And some of the alienation from membership was inevitable, with everybody "lawyered up," he said.
Still, "I couldn't agree more that we need to get back to the grass roots and loyalty that used to be there," Kutz said.
The regional council tries to maintain solidarity and a connection to the community with a summer dance, a food drive and an annual dinner to honor excellence in management, he said.
To recover their old vibrancy, unions need to rebuild their internal life, reconnect with the community and become genuine international organizations, building relationships overseas, Rachleff said.
Unions have been demonized unfairly, and politicians who once curried favor with them earn macho points by bashing them, Chaison said.
But the onus is on them to show they can change with the times, he said.
"As of Labor Day 2011, the state of American labor is ... tenuous." Podair said.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.