In talking about the labor movement, there are reasons to be encouraging and critical.
I grew up in a union household. My grandfather was an immigrant who joined and trained in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), famous for its “Look for the union label” song. I keep his union card handy in my desk.
The contributions of unions to American life, to the creation of a huge middle class, are beyond debate. Whatever you think of unions today, the labor movement helped make America.
Any critical comments will be taken as ammunition by those who oppose unions reflexively as an un-American scourge on our economy and way of life. Some of these people would not only eliminate the labor movement from present day America, but would be pleased to go back in a time machine and wipe it from history. There is little doubt that if this could somehow be accomplished, America might look like Czarist Russia or some other unbalanced and benighted society.
Those are the caveats. Here is the current situation.
Organized labor is disappearing from American life. Union membership as a percentage of the work force was 35% in the 1950s; it now hovers around 11% and is still dropping. The relentless push for right to work laws goes on, but even without that, the numbers may not rise, and may continue to decline.
It doesn’t matter how it got like this. There are plenty of rear view mirror analyses, including things like admitted abuses and overreaching, along with a shortsighted sense that the party would never end. For a lot of workers, union and otherwise, the party is over.
This, however, is not the end of the story. A heroic effort to re-imagine and re-vision unions and the labor movement can take place. This is going to take brutal self-examination and, as is implied, imagination and vision. Unions can evaluate who they are and who they can be in the context of 2013 and beyond—including being a centerpiece for progressive change. But with that, unions must also figure out who they can’t be and shouldn’t be. This is where having eyes wide open comes in. It is also where courage comes in and defensiveness must go out.
The idea that agents of progress look the same in every age is patently untrue. It is one of the traps of progressive movements, thinking that who and what worked a century ago or a few decades ago will work forever. It won’t. But there is something that will. Creating that something doesn’t begin by blaming the enemies, though enemies there be. It begins by admitting that there is a problem making unions fit in with current America, and an opportunity to create a labor movement that does.
There are Labor Day cakes in the local supermarket, decorated with American flags. The stores probably didn’t mean that Labor Day is the patriotic, all-American equivalent of Independence Day. Last night the local country club exploded Labor Day fireworks. That probably isn’t a political or economic statement. So maybe, as organized labor gets to work trying to figure out what exactly a 2013 movement looks like, it might start with the simple task of putting the “labor” back in Labor Day.