Labor Day ’07 finds America’s union movement in a paradoxical situation with respect to its political influence. First, the bad news. Union representation has been declining significantly, as E. J. Dionne points out in his Labor Day column at WaPo.
Labor’s political gains have occurred in the face of a steady decline in its private-sector role. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 24 percent of the American work force was unionized in 1973 and unionization rates were roughly equal in the public and private sectors. The latest figures, for 2006, show a decline in unionization to 12 percent of the workforce and a radical shift in labor’s composition: Now only 7 percent of private-sector workers belong to unions, compared with 36 percent in the public sector.
But numbers can be deceptive, as Dionne concludes:
The shift in labor’s base and the overall drop in membership may be central to both the growing political sophistication and influence of the unions. The public-sector unions, with an obvious interest in the outcome of elections, have developed highly effective political operations. This is true of the teachers and nurses, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the police and firefighters, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
…Thus the paradox on Labor Day 2007: At a moment of organizational weakness, labor’s political influence and ideological appeal may be as strong as at any time since the New Deal. Every Democrat running for president seems to know this.
In terms of issues, health care reform now tops Labor’s agenda. In his Labor Day message, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, launched a campaign for universal, comprehensive health care. Sweeney points out that one fourth of voters in ’06 were union members, and says:
it’s painful this Labor Day to look around and see America isn’t working the way it should… One of the greatest economic burdens working families face today is the insane, out-of-control cost of health care. One in four Americans say their family has had a problem paying for medical care during the past year. The cost of health care — rising far faster than workers’ wages or inflation — is a major factor in housing problems and bankruptcies. In fact, every 30 seconds in the United States someone files for bankruptcy in the aftermath of a serious health problem.
Meanwhile, insurance and drug companies are making stunning profits, health insurance CEOs averaged $8.7 million in 2006 compensation and pharmaceutical company CEOs pulled down an average of $4.4 million.
The rest of us aren’t faring so well. The annual premium cost for a family health plan has close to doubled since 2000, from $6,351 to an astonishing $11,480…As costs grow higher, fewer employers are providing health coverage for employees–and fewer workers are able to afford their share of the costs or to buy policies on their own. The outrageous price tags on insurance policies are driving increases in the number of people without coverage. The federal government just let us know that another 2.2 million people — including 600,000 more children — lost health insurance last year, meaning 47 million of us now cannot afford to get sick.
In the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth, that is just not acceptable. In America, no one should go without health care.
See also the AFL-CIO’s guide to where each of the presidential candidates of both parties stand on six key “working family issues”: the Employee Free Choice Act; Good Jobs; Health Care; Trade and Manufacturing; Retirement Security; and Education.
Union endorsements of presidential candidates are somewhat spread out thus far. Dodd has been endorsed by the Firefighters union. Clinton has the nod from the Machinists and the United Transportation Union. Edwards, who may get the lion’s share of endorsements in the months ahead, has been endorsed by the Carpenters Union. Change to Win Chair Anna Burger, quoted in Dionne’s column, says the labor movement sees a field of Democratic candidates who believe that “unions are the solution, not the problem
In an interview with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales on Democracy Now, Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union and author of “A Country That Works: Getting America Back On Track,” also expressed his concern about Democratic leaders’ need for unity on health care reform:
…the employer-based healthcare system served us well, but it’s a relic of the industrial era. We need a new universal 21st century healthcare system, because in the end, our employers just can’t compete in a global economy when they are putting the price of healthcare on the cost of their products and their competitors aren’t. It’s just not good economics. And at the same time, we have the greatest healthcare system in the world, and now 46 million people don’t have access to it.
…I’m so encouraged that we may see a change in Washington, but yet I’m so concerned that Democrats don’t understand. Most people get up every day, and they don’t think about whether they are in a red state or a blue state. They think about how they’re going to get their kids to work, how they’re going to be able to take care of their aging mother, and how are they going to pay their healthcare bills. Half of the bankruptcies in the United States are due to unpaid healthcare bills. CAP and SEIU just released a report about how middle-income people can’t afford one medical emergency. How can Democrats say we don’t need a new universal healthcare system? I mean, it is so basic and so important to America’s competitiveness. If the Democrats want to be the leaders in the House and the leaders in the Senate, which I hope they soon will be, then they need to lead, as well.
Stern, who lead a group of unions into a new labor coalition, Change to Win in 2005, says “We are at a crucial moment, a moment that makes us ask what kind of country we want to be.” He advocates “new models of organizing” and had this to say about the importance of a stronger union movement in his HuffPo post for Labor Day:
This Labor Day, a greater percentage of the economy is going to profits than to wages, and a majority of parents believe their children will be worse off economically. Tens of millions of people in the U.S. are working harder than ever before, but they’re still falling behind….The answer to that question must include more workers uniting in unions — the labor movement. Unions have always been the best anti-poverty, best pro-health care, best pro-family program around. Unions have done more to help working people experience economic success than any other program.
But the war in Iraq remains a potent obstacle to winning social reforms in all of these areas. Both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win web pages have little to say about the Iraq quagmire, an ignored ‘elephant in the room.’ Yet it makes no sense to avoid the issue, when Iraq-related expenditures now consume 10 percent of the federal budget, according to Robert Sunshine, assistant director for budget analysis of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.
As the traditional end of Summer, Labor Day marks the moment when greater numbers of Americans begin to pay more attention to the upcomming primary races. In the months ahead, American voters will increasingly turn their attention to the positions of candidates on the key issues noted by Sweeney and Stern. But voters also understand that progress on the social and economic agendas of both labor and the Democratic Party is being held hostage to the Iraq War. Ending it should be the central priority of both unions and the Democrats.