Organized Labor's influence not what it once was

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However, I believe the Congress and the general public should not be misled about the grass roots acceptance of union policies and especially union leadership. It just does not exist and has not for more than 50 years. The current AFL-CIO officers are fostering policies focused on using union membership numbers and especially their dues to gain more political clout, and, by the way, hopefully expand membership dues to solve their huge financial deficits in union managed pension and benefit programs. Most of these, originally developed in the late 1950s and 1960s are at least 50% underfunded and in great need of new capital inflows.

Several events during this past year need to be closely analyzed by anyone with responsibility for evaluating union strengths and influence. Probably the biggest defeat organized labor has recently suffered came on November 6. The exit polls in Michigan (the Mecca of unionism) indicated that while voters from union families had voted overwhelmingly for President Obama, the margin of defeat of the union movement for amending the Michigan State Constitution to give unions monopoly power indicated that union households had voted ‘no’ with a margin that exceeded their ‘yes’ vote for the Democrats.

Another significant defeat came earlier this year when organized labor with their united efforts to recall Governor Walker of Wisconsin failed. All the money, the bringing in of organizers from every major affiliate and actually taking control of the State House for weeks fell flat with Wisconsin voters. Not only that. Within a few weeks the number of teachers and even public service union members dropping their union membership reached the thousands.
Since then the focus on organization leadership has also alienated both employees and the general public with their strident anti-business messages and their tactics which have disrupted travelers at LAX on Friday, harassed shoppers at Walmart stores and caused 185,000 employees of Hostess Brands to lose their jobs.

For many years, actually since the end of WWII, leadership within and between union organizations has been focused on conflicting goals. Going back even to the 1930s, the craft unions (AFL) were opposed to using dues for political purposes. Since the merger of the two major union groups (AFL/CIO, 1955) the internal struggle over political power versus organization for better working conditions has continued, and, today splits both unions and their constituents.

It is most likely that the unions with the biggest pension deficits will continue to focus on organizing anyone with a job and a pay check, whether the employees of the firm are interested or not.

Why have unions failed to capture new workers or convince the public of their sincere best interest for the economy? Membership in the private sector is less than 10% and falling. Now, there appears to be major losses in even the newly formed lower income and public service areas.

Union leadership for the past 60 years has made no strategic or tactical changes. In fact, their messages to both those employed with satisfactory jobs and the public have been totally out of synch. The more they have been rejected the more strident their words and tactics have become. They just have not gotten the message. Their support among those of us who work for employers and our families has fallen and will continue to fall until and unless they come to grips with realities. Political leaders are advised to pay close attention to the public pulse.

James is executive director of the Center for Global Governance, Reporting and Regulation at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business in New York City with a long career in management consulting in the labor relations area. James is also program director of Pace University’s new Certified Compliance and Regulatory Professional certificate program. He is the author of the first texts in English on labor and industrial law and practice in key countries of Europe. He began his management consulting career with Hewitt Associates in Chicago and McKinsey & Co. in New York City.

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