Seven Reasons Why the Labor Movement Has Stalled

A self-described “McGovern Democrat” whom I shall call “Fay” told me that, alas, she could no longer support organized labor because, in her own, stunning words, “unions have become too powerful.” A UCLA honors grad and longtime political activist, Fay is probably the most “left-wing” person I’ve ever personally known.

She dropped this bombshell on me despite the undeniable fact that (1) labor is clearly outmanned and outgunned, (2) private sector membership is less than 7-percent, (3) the middle-class, which was “invented” by organized labor, is shrinking faster than the glaciers, and (4) without institutional resistance, businesses will run wild on us. My initial thought? If we lose the support of smart people like Fay, we’re sunk.

There’s no denying the labor movement has stalled. While there still seems to be strong and genuine “pro-worker” sentiment throughout the country, there’s precious little codified social/political activism to go along with it. In a recent edition of CounterPunch, Jeffrey St. Clair provocatively questions the very existence of a “leftist movement.”

St. Clair notes, “There is, of course, a Left ideology, a Left of the mind, a Left of theory and critique. But is there a Left movement?” It’s a fair question. Clearly, anything resembling a Left movement has, historically, included an active and energetic show of support for organized labor. And just as clearly, that show of support is disturbingly absent.

Listed in no particular order are seven factors that have contributed to the decline of the American labor movement.

1. Federal and state laws co-opted much of what organized labor used to provide. People think unions are anachronistic because the government now handles the welfare of working people. Although it’s true that many job-related rules have been enacted into law, if the government were indeed looking after the welfare of working people, the rich wouldn’t be getting richer and the middle-class wouldn’t continue to erode.

2. Democrats have abandoned organized labor. Unions continue to donate money, but Democrats continue to disappoint them. When labor complains, Democrats tell them to shut up and be patient. When labor threatens to seek help elsewhere, Democrats laugh in their faces and say, “Who are you going to ask? The Republicans?”

3. Manufacturing jobs have been sent abroad. Because big-time manufacturing was once the gold-standard of organized labor, when those jobs left (not to avoid paying union wages, but to avoid paying American wages), the heart and soul of industrial unionism left with them.

4. The propaganda is working. Astonishingly, labor’s enemies have been able to convince people that unions are corrupt and sinister. It gives us no pleasure to admit this, but had it been revealed that the IRS was unfairly focusing on labor unions (instead of conservative groups), the public likely would not only have accepted it, they would’ve rejoiced in it.

5. American individuality is resistant to collectivism. We Americans are a remarkably self-sufficient and independent-minded people. That trait is both our strength and weakness. The 19th and early 20th century U.S. labor movement—the social/economic phenomenon that defined us a nation—was largely led by European immigrants whose cultures embraced collectivism and proletarian rights. Those days are over. An every-man-for-himself philosophy now permeates the workplace.

6. Union leaders are lazy and unimaginative. Too many of these union honchos seem to care more about covering their butts and finishing out their careers than going head-to-head with management and reinvigorating the membership. Instead of the firebrands of old, they’ve become bureaucrats and glorified clerks.

7. People don’t want to be identified as “working class”. It’s hard to launch a political movement led by working people when there’s only a few self-avowed members of the working class willing to step up to the plate. Understandably, given what occurred in post-Reagan America, maintaining one’s pride as a working man or woman is difficult.

Instead, today’s working class Americans see themselves as budding entrepreneurs and future millionaires, temporarily forced to earn a living by other means. It’s just a matter of time before they hit it big. Not exactly the folks you’ll see marching in Labor Day solidarity parades.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.