1) The Eternal Union Resurgence.
You have to feel sorry for Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times.
He is the last of what was once a
thriving breed: the labor beat reporter for a daily newspaper. The decline
of unions inevitably led to the decline of union coverage, but Greenhouse
soldiers on, routinely providing insights into the world of organized labor.
The sudden spike in interest in unions
brought on by events in Wisconsin has many union officials highly enthused,
and they relay their hopes for the future to Greenhouse. Even in the age of
the Internet, the labor reporter for the newspaper of record is still a
So we get last Saturday's "Organized
Labor Hopes Attacks by Some States Help Nurture Comeback," in which
Greenhouse tells us:
Organized labor has been on a long
decline, but the recent attacks against it in Wisconsin and elsewhere have
had a surprising result - they have energized the nation's unions. Instead
of just playing defense to protect benefits and bargaining rights, labor
leaders are plotting some offense, with several saying Mr. Walker may have
unwittingly nurtured a comeback by unions.
includes the views of those who scoff at the idea, but he finishes up with a
quote from AFSCME president Gerald McEntee, who
said, "This might be the beginning of a real resurgence for labor."
Or it might
officers are hewing to the line that if you predict something often enough,
eventually it will happen. It is certainly possible that current events may
lead to a revival of the fortunes of organized labor, but history must be
I thought it
would be instructive to examine previous predictions of union resurgence.
Since a Steven Greenhouse article prompted the exercise, I limited myself to
researching the archive of Greenhouse articles from the New York Times.
As we begin our journey back in time,
our first stop is
July 30, 2005, just after the Change to Win federation broke off from
the AFL-CIO. Greenhouse began with the lede, "Even as he was leading the
revolt this week that has divided the labor movement into warring camps,
Andrew L. Stern was wasting no time in trying to demonstrate that unions are
capable of a resurgence."
He added, "For all their ferocious
infighting, labor's chieftains agree on one thing: labor can rebound in the
new economy because there still are plenty of opportunities for
There are a lot of things to be said
about the new economy, but its "opportunities for old-fashioned organizing"
haven't panned out.
We move along to
April 9, 2001, where Greenhouse described the labor movement in Los
Angeles, writing a sentence that hasn't stood the test of time:
A Villaraigosa victory would not
only signify that the city had gone far to shed its antiunion past but also
show labor's growing might. Labor's resurgence owes a great deal to the more
than 1.3 million Hispanics who have moved to the city since 1990, many of
them using unions as a ladder out of poverty.
Villaraigosa lost that election, but would become mayor of Los Angeles in
2005 - a position he still holds. His past stint as a labor organizer has
only lent additional weight to his
pointed criticisms of teachers' unions.
January 9, 2001, the sign of a labor resurgence was the first
unionization vote by dot-com workers. "Labor organizers say they expect some
success in the high-technology industry for a little-understood reason,"
Greenhouse wrote. "Many jobs in the new economy are unglamorous grunt work:
answering phones, responding to customer complaints, filling orders and
stuffing warehouse shelves."
Most of the
dot-coms couldn't save themselves, much less the labor movement, so we
continue on to
March 22, 1999, when a wave of corruption investigations was supposed to
lead to a resurgence of union power in New York City:
Having been on the defensive for
months over corruption, unions are now planning a series of aggressive
actions, like mounting a drive to organize 50,000 home health-care workers
and demonstrating at Fifth Avenue department stores that use nonunion
janitors. And to increase labor's political clout, several unions have
formed a new coalition with black and Hispanic politicians that aims to
remake the state's Democratic Party and reshape government priorities.
worked in New York City is arguable, but as we roll back to
December 6, 1998, we find the national labor revival heralded by the
election of Junior Hoffa to the presidency of the Teamsters union. "But Mr.
Hoffa's supporters say they hope that he is the man who will lead the
resurgence of labor and attract hundreds of thousands more workers to the
Teamsters banner," Greenhouse wrote.
York and Los Angeles became the saviors of the union movement, Las Vegas
held the mantle. On
April 27, 1998, Greenhouse wrote:
Las Vegas has become a model for
the labor movement and not just because of rank-and-file involvement. The
hotel employees' local spends 42 percent of its budget on recruiting new
workers, far more than the 3 percent average at the nation's 30,000 other
union locals. The hotel local has 21 full-time organizers, while most union
locals have none. ''It's certainly the fastest growing private-sector local
in terms of numbers,'' said Richard Bensinger, the AFL-CIO's director of
organizing. "They embody the path to a resurgence of growth in the labor
recall that the reason Change to Win was formed was because a number of
unions were unhappy with the lack of emphasis on organizing by then-AFL-CIO
president John Sweeney. But if we go back to
May 12, 1996, we find Sweeney as the federation's new hope.
"In the six
months since John J. Sweeney helped throw out the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s tired old
leadership and became its president, the movement has sprung back to life,
most obviously in politics but in old-fashioned organizing and
image-sharpening, too," Greenhouse wrote.
We make our final stop at
April 19, 1992 - one of the first articles Greenhouse wrote about labor
unions. He shows himself to be remarkably prescient about the future, while
the AFL-CIO wallows in self-delusion:
Some people are wondering whether the
marginalization of labor portends a return to America's roots. In this view,
the boom of labor for the four decades after 1935 may prove to be a brief
parenthesis in the history of the land of hard-scrabble entrepreneurs.
In this view, the future holds only more trouble for unions.
Many of the trends that have hurt unions - the surge of foreign competition,
the mushrooming of services, and the rise of small, agile firms like those
in Silicon Valley - are expected to continue. In addition, managements have
become far more sophisticated in providing benefit packages so that workers
conclude they can get what they need without unions. But many union
officials are confident that labor will come back.
"We will see a more mature workforce that holds steady long
term jobs," said Rudy Oswald, chief economist for the AFL-CIO. "These people
will be looking more and more toward unions to achieve what they need at the
Almost 29 years later, we've reached the
stage where a resurgence in union membership can be accomplished by only one
thing: a resurgence in the size of government. That's the one successful
formula for union growth during decades of overall decline. The false
prophets of the past erred only in the source of their salvation.
2) Last Week's Intercepts.
Intercepts, covered these topics from March 1-7:
Middle Class Warfare. What the Ohio Education Association can teach us
about collective bargaining.
He tasks me.
No News Is Bad News. Numbers game.
Empty Threat. Who's afraid of NEA Republicans?
NEA and AFT California Community College Affiliates to Merge. Let the
Quote of the Week.
talks have also touched on the possibility of removing or changing a
provision that would require workers to vote every year on whether their
union would remain active or be decertified, the sources said. The last
provision especially is anathema to Democrats and unions, who say it could
kill many labor groups."
- Reporters Patrick Marley and Jason Stein, describing negotiations between
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the AWOL Democratic state senators. (March 4