How Labor Can Be Big Again

How Labor Can Be Big Again

Labor needs “to become once again a social movement,” argues one political scientist.

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“Organizing Power: The Prospects for an American
Labor Movement” by Margaret Levi, in
on Politics
(Mar. 2003), American
Political Science Assn., 1527 New Hampshire Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C.

Can organized labor recover its political mojo?
“Big Labor” was once feared and courted by politicians because
it represented more than 33 percent of the nation’s wage and salary
workers. Today organized labor is often regarded as just another
special-interest group, representing, Levi notes, “only 13.5 percent
of all wage and salary workers” and “only nine percent of
private-sector wage and salary workers.” (Unions had their highest
absolute number of members, 20.2 million, in 1978; by 2001, that number had
declined to 16.3 million.) Nonetheless, she is hopeful about the future of
unions and believes that they are vital to democracy.

Labor needs “to become once again a social
movement,” argues Levi, a political scientist at the University of
Washington. “In order for organized labor to play its critical role
as a countervailing power within the Amer­ican political system, there
must be intensified organizing, internal democratization, increased
electoral and lobbying clout, and social-movement unions willing to
mobilize with others and, if necessary, on the streets.”

A study last year, commissioned by the AFL-CIO, found
that there has been a surge of support for union representation since 1984,
when no more than 35 percent of nonunionized workers wanted a union. Now,
50 percent do. To boost their rolls, Levi contends, unions must do more
than try to improve members’ paychecks, benefits, and working
conditions. They must also encourage members to get involved in
“larger issues of democratization (within the union and within the
larger polity), social justice, and economic equality. . . . Members pay
dues and strike but are also expected to mobilize on behalf of causes
beyond their own.” Such “social-movement” unions, Levi
maintains, “tend to be democratic and participatory.”

Since their election in 1995, AFL-CIO president John
Sweeney and his “New Voices” colleagues have been shaking up
the labor union bureaucracy, says Levi. “Redefining its program
through action,” the AFL-CIO has gotten involved in campaigns against
sweatshops and for “global justice” and a “living
wage.” About 80 cities and counties around the country have enacted
“living wage” ordinances, obliging contractors to pay wages
that are usually above the federal minimum.

Levi believes that the “fresh vitality” she detects in American unions has come none too soon. Unions “offer
collective influence to those who lack individual clout in important
political and economic domains,” and, for that reason, they’re
“essential to a vigorous American democracy.” If unions
“mobilize as a social movement,” she says, they’ll be
better able to get that message across.

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