Ezra Klein has a short, but provocative Newsweek post “Do We Still Need Unions? Yes: Why they’re Worth Fighting For,” which opens up a long-overdue dialogue. I like Klein’s opening grabber, which presents the danger and opportunity:
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s effort two weeks ago to end collective bargaining for public employees in his state was the worst thing to happen to the union movement in recent memory–until it unexpectedly became the best thing to happen to the union movement in recent memory. Give the man some credit: in seven days, Walker did what unions have been trying and failing to do for decades. He united the famously fractious movement, reknit its emotional connection with allies ranging from students to national Democratic leaders, and brought the decline of organized labor to the forefront of the national agenda. The question is: will it matter?
Klein goes on to limn some of the specific benefits of unions — higher wages, safety, addressing workplace grievances and the weekend. He could have added the 40-hour work week, overtime, workman’s comp, holidays, health insurance and pensions, to name a few others we take for granted — none of which would be a reality today for millions of workers without the leadership of organized labor. I’m sometimes amazed how many presumably intelligent people I meet who diss unions in a knee-jerk way seem unaware of this important history — apparently it’s not well-taught in public schools, nor even colleges nowadays.
Klein also notes the important socio-political benefits of unions in the U.S. — checking corporate economic domination, lobbying for working people instead of corporate profits, fighting for a broad range of legislative reforms that benefit even unorganized workers and serving as the largest source of support for progressive candidates. Any further weakening of unions would be disastrous for America in this regard.
As part of the Change to Win movement a few years ago, there was an ongoing discussion about the kinds of reforms needed to modernize trade unions and broaden their membership options, as critical to increasing labor’s numbers and strength. I was looking forward to this dialogue eventually bearing some fruit. But it seems instead to have withered on the vine. Hopefully the Wisconsin protests will encourage invigorating this discussion in a more pro-active direction.
There’s a chance Klein is right that Walker may have inadvertently done a good thing for unions, by rallying them and their supporters and awakening progressives to the reality that organized labor’s survival is at stake. The law of unintended consequences occasionally works for the good.
But the trade union movement’s weak public relations outreach is puzzling. In this age of streaming video, where is Labor’s television station, or even nation-wide radio programs? Where are the academy-award nominated documentaries about labor’s pivotal contributions to American society? How about some public service ads educating people about union contributions to social and economic progress in America?
It’s no longer enough have labor leaders do guest spots on news programs and talk shows. a much more aggressively pro-active p.r. and educational effort is needed. That commitment, coupled with an effort to modernize union recruitment and membership could help insure that union-busting politicians like Walker don’t get the chance to do their worst.