“For decades, the labor movement’s efforts to halt its long slide have been – to speak plainly – an utter failure” writes Steven Greenhouse in The American Prospect (6/13). “The U.S. has gone from having 35 percent of its workforce unionized in the 1950s to 20 percent in the 1980s to just 10 percent today. But now, finally, comes a burst of unexpected hope” in the wake of union organizing across the country.
But this has created a challenge for established labor unions as so much of then union activity is coming from independent unions formed outside the traditional labor organizations. The challenge is similar to the 1930’s when the drive to organize the workers in mass production industries was scorned by the AFL, representing skilled trades workers. They looked down upon workers in steel mills and auto plants and shunned the idea of organizing thousands of factory workers into one union rather than organizing separate unions by their particular crafts. It was union leaders like United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis, Amalgamated Clothing Workers President Sidney Hillman and others who saw the future in the new wave of organization and formed the CIO that welcomed the new unions into its ranks.
Greenhouse writes that although the AFL-CIO’s President Liz Shuler, who is slated to be elected to a full-four year term, wants the nation’s unions to do considerably more to help today’s surge of unionization grow, “many unions in the federation feel little urge or compulsion to help.” In particular, although the biggest unions in the federation are saying all the right things, they “haven’t yet stepped up to provide the money, lawyers, and other resources that are required to turn the current burst of unionization into a far larger, more lasting wave.”
Today’s labor leaders and their unions have a crucial decision to make, he declares. “Will they remain mere spectators to these efforts, thereby increasing the chances that this very promising moment will peter out? Or will they heed the example of John L. Lewis, and join in solidarity with the most pro-union generation this nation has seen in 80 years? Will they put up the money and resources required to turn this into a watershed moment for labor?
“If not now, when?”