Labor’s End?

Remember cigar-smoking union leaders, those portly white guys who sat around the pool at AFL-CIO conventions in Miami Beach?

We called them the “old guard” and blamed them for allowing what looked at the time to be a very foreboding decline in union density, power and influence.

When I started in the Labor Movement in the 1980s, the struggle to replace that generation with smart, progressive and militant leadership was well underway.

Now many national unions and locals around the country are led and staffed by a new breed, schooled in strategic thinking and coalition-building, and committed to organizing members for action and recruiting workers into the ranks.

The result:

The plunge in the number and percentage of union members continues without a blip.

The latest stats show 14.7 million union members in America; that’s 11.9 percent of the “wage and salary” workforce, a drop of almost a half a percent in one year and more than eight percent since 1983, when the rate was already tumbling.

I’m not accusing my friends and colleagues of incompetence, lack of commitment or anything of the kind.  In fact, many have been – and are – involved in heroic struggles to reinvigorate and rebuild the movement.

But the labor relations framework in the U.S. – effectively manipulated by a sophisticated union avoidance industry – makes union growth almost impossible.

For true believers – you know who you are – a fleeting moment of euphoria ended two years ago when labor law reform was buried by a senate filibuster and a white house with other priorities (the president, by the way, made one oblique reference to unions in his speech to congress this week: the UAW’s support for his free trade pact with South Korea).

Another daunting challenge facing the labor movement is the growing gap between the number of public sector union members (7.6 million) and those union members working in the business economy (7.1 million).

How do we convince nonunion working class taxpayers to support government employees being scape-goated for their “budget-busting” pension payouts?

Finally, a couple of interesting numbers on union distribution by states:

Of the big ones, California has the most members (2.4 million), New York has the highest percentage (26 percent).  But two “outlier states” also share the spotlight:

Heavily democratic Hawaii (23.5 percent) is no surprise.

But, ironically, the republican state of Alaska finishes second in union density (24.8 percent).  It’s where big oil pays union wages, enabling our giant state’s ethic of  “up by your bootstraps” individualism.

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Having grown up in a union household in Chicago I used to support the labor movement but really, its a lost cause. Every month for 20 years in my area factory after factory packed up and moved. I used to fight it as greedy capitalists moving to take advantage of someone else somewhere else. But I grew up. The factories that remained, that fought through downturns of the 1970s and offshoring of the 1980s and 1990s all while rewarding their employees with generous wages and benefits, where thanked with further labor actions and shut downs. I dont blame them for leaving. I would to. Labor has nothing to do with the workers anymore. Its a big business same as everything else, in fact much of our current ills from municipal pension bombs to astronomical health care cost can be directly laid at the feet of unions. It was they who encouraged the move to group policies in the 1970s at the big plants that became the current broken model. it was they extorted Illinois, California and New York with shut downs if they didnt get their pension plans initiated 30 years ago. The sooner this country goes right to work, the sooner we can have a recovery.