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March 7, 2011

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 valued outlet.

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.

Greenhouse 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 not.

Union 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 consulted.

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 old-fashioned organizing."

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.

Antonio 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.

On 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.

 Whether it 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.

Before New 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 movement."

You may 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 workplace."

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. EIA's blog, Intercepts, covered these topics from March 1-7:

Middle Class Warfare. What the Ohio Education Association can teach us about collective bargaining.

*  CONNNNNN! 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 double-counting begin!

3) Quote of the Week. "The 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 Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)

   

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