Policy Today magazine cover
September 8, 2005

America's unions are confronting a world that has changed dramatically since their early days. How will organized labor respond to a market that is irreversibly global?

"If you come to a fork in the road, take it." Yogi Berra's sage advice may be the best on offer as the AFL-CIO's two largest unions split from the federation following its golden anniversary celebration in late July.  Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, had urged the AFL-CIO to spend more on unionizing workers, complaining that the federation is doing too little to reverse labor's decline.

With the departure of both the SEIU and the Teamsters, the AFL-CIO saw its national membership reduced by nearly 33 percent.  Although the federation's recent shakeup is serious, it is not without historical precedent.  If the last major split in the movement is any indication of the future, the rift could last a while.  When the Congress of Industrial Organizations split from the American Federation of Labor, nearly 15 years passed before the movement's disparate parts came to an accord.  With the emergence of the competing Change to Win Coalition, comprised of the 4,000,000-strong SEIU, Teamsters and UFCW unions, the future of the organized labor movement is less clear.

The split in the federation has been attributed to many things, including competing egos, philosophies, methodologies and ambitions.  On the surface, the breakaway unions assert that the AFL-CIO has its priorities wrong, overvaluing political influence and neglecting the need to unionize new members.  AFL-CIO President John Sweeney disagrees.  "The unions that split off couldn't get their way through the democratic process, so they took their marbles and left," says Sweeney.

Most union organizers agree that there is a problem, but diverge widely on its causes.  Union membership has been declining steadily since the 1960s, and the number of unionized workers in the United States    The argument for increased, intensified political action remains loud within the rival camp.  "Only through sustained and increased political activism can we create a pro-worker, pro-union atmosphere," says Sweeney. has nearly halved since 1980.

20th century answers to 21st century problems?

Globalization has changed the face of business.  So too has it changed the position of the average American worker within society.  Although today's workers are no longer forced to contend with unsafe working conditions and 14-hour days, a new set of challenges has arrived on
the heels of technological advances and open markets.

Many American workers who once enjoyed a level of job security due to unionization are now vulnerable to foreign countries with cheaper labor markets, longer work weeks and different skill sets. The flow of capital from developed to undeveloped economies has become a fundamental tenant of free-market capitalism.  Yet the technology that brings greater risk to some workers brings greater mobility to others, along with an entirely new set of issues for organized labor.  One of the primary challenges facing unions today may be reconnecting with their own members.

No longer joined at the hip

"The only union meeting I can remember in which we had enough people for a quorum was when we had a retroactive pay raise coming," says Daniel  Tating, a California high school teacher.  "People only came because they wanted something they believed the union could facilitate."

If labor unions are to experience a resurgence, they will have to reconnect with workers who no longer see them as relevant, value-added organizations.  At the origins of the labor movement, it was easier to see exactly how collective action by workers could result in better wages, working conditions and other standards.  Today, with many members feeling alienated and the economic playing field altered by globalization, the union movement is attempting to provide reasons for workers to join.

Incentives for membership

This is a vastly different economy today compared to 50 years ago," says Stern.  "People are moving constantly from job to job and the relationships between workers and employers are different."  Stern raises an important point.  If workers don't feel that unionization is applicable to their job dynamic, what incentive do they have to join?

"We need to broaden the role of unions so they are more relevant to contemporary society," argues Stern.  "There are a lot of issues that are important to people that unions haven't traditionally dealt with that I think we need to."  Stern points to education, personal assistance and other programs as opportunities for organized labor to reverse its falling membership.

Some local union chapters have put their faith in shop stewards, grassroots organizers that function as middle management and are intimately involved in all aspects of employees' relationship with the union.  These organizers provide incentive to join and remain active in the union by fostering social and professional cohesion that is often lacking in today's compartmentalized workplace.

Whether the pressures organized labor faces today come from within its ranks or from the rapidly evolving economic climate, the unions continue to strive for common goals.  "Workers in this country need good, family-supporting jobs, affordable health care, a secure retirement and a voice on the job," says Sweeney.  Although the conflicting parties within the organized labor movement may agree on these goals, the fundamental issue has become how to reach them.

And that, in Andy Stern's words, "means appreciating that the 1930's model of union organization, in which unions operated in a confrontational mode, may not always be applicable today. We've carried that confrontational model into the service sector, where it's not particularly helpful. We need to be more modern, flexible and creative. We need to be relevant to both employers and workers.  Some employers come and go, some are big and small, and we can't continue to try to fit our round peg into a square hole."