Labor and other pains

Aug 27, 2003 at 12:00 am

There won’t be any Labor Day parade this year. Nobody much noticed, but the Michigan AFL-CIO canceled it this summer, saying the union would instead put all its energies into its “LaborFest” celebration two weeks later at Ford Field.

Whether that was the right decision, I don’t pretend to know. What I do know is that many Detroiters still have sharp memories of 1960, when John F. Kennedy visited the state fair and then took part in that parade, addressing a huge throng on a brilliantly sunny day in Cadillac Square with Walter Reuther at his side.

In fact, every Democratic presidential candidate from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson formally kicked off their campaigns with Detroit’s Labor Day parade. There was a time when the labor movement itself resembled that parade; it was fresh, brash and out in the open air, seeking to include as many workers as possible.

This year instead, two weeks after the holiday named in the labor movement’s honor, what remains of Detroit’s labor movement will assemble on artificial turf inside the gray domed walls of Ford Field ... unless they have to work Saturday.

Somehow, it seems better to celebrate labor in the late-summer sunshine. On that long-ago Labor Day 1960, Kennedy also went on to parades in Pontiac and Flint. In the end, labor played the key role in Kennedy’s narrow victory, both in Michigan and nationally. Unions represented nearly a third of all workers in 1960, far more in metropolitan Detroit, and their numbers were still growing.

Today, America’s labor unions have dwindled to the point where, as of two years ago, they could claim only one in seven members of the labor force. There’s no reason to think it’s gotten better since then. Back in 1960, there were 54 million workers, and 17 million of them belonged to unions. Forty years later, this nation counted more than 120 million workers — and barely 16 million were unionized.

Undoubtedly, the bureaucrats of today’s labor movement will say that is too simplistic. They argue that they are getting smarter, better and are learning to cope with the sophisticated challenges of the next century. Many unions do, indeed, have spiffy Web sites. Numbers, however, don’t lie. Once upon a time that some still remember, being a union activist was somewhat risky and revolutionary. Heads were cracked and people beaten up and sometimes even shot and killed.

Yet there was no question that those struggling to build the United Auto Workers union in the 1930s and 1940s were fighting for a better life for their members, a better life they knew would be won when the union won, which it ultimately did.

Faced with committed, determined, organized workers, the auto companies had little chance in days of the sit-down strike. Nobody talked about shipping jobs to China back then. For one thing, it wouldn’t have been practical. Nor did anyone but science-fiction writers see how far automation would go.

Jack London, however, did see something almost as ominous; in his 1906 novel The Iron Heel, he predicted that a few unions would make a deal with an oppressive government where their members would benefit, while the vast majority of the rest of the proles would be out of luck. Politically, that hasn’t happened. But the big powerful unions aren’t showing a lot of enthusiasm for organizing today’s part-time sweatshop workers, or the millions of illegals who do society’s worst jobs, or the harried “independent contractor” doing what amounts to piecework on his or her home computer.

Today’s unions haven’t a clue what they can do for these people, and don‘t much want to be bothered. Yet jobs like those — underpaid white-collar and off-the-charts blue-collar — are a large and growing part of the workforce’s future.

Fact is, a lot of traditional jobs are gone forever, to the machines or to Mexico, and the labor movement has no real idea what to do about that. Too often, labor still talks as though gearing up to face the battles of 1937. Even the more enlightened unions talk mostly in terms of protecting the workers they have now, not winning over vast numbers of the unorganized. Oh, they go after the odd parts plant here and there.

Talent at WXYT-AM radio voted last year to join AFTRA, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The auto contracts expire the day after LaborFest, and the UAW will work hard to get the best deal for its members, which these days mostly means seeing they lose as few medical benefits as possible.

Labor may win more minor victories, but what it really needs is a new Walter Reuther to articulate a brave new vision for a new era. What that will look like and how it will work isn’t clear — though it is clear as a diamond drill that labor needs one. Building a labor movement for today looks harder in most ways than building one in 1930.

Yet if labor is to have a future, it has to figure out how to successfully organize and win benefits for new workers in a world in which the vast majority of workers no longer have to show up in the same building every day, and in which corporations are no longer limited by international borders. And if the labor movement doesn’t have a future, we might as well resign ourselves to a high-tech society filled with low-wage, and no-benefit, jobs. Matter of fact, we are working hard on building that now.


Glimmer of hope: The latest Newsweek poll shows, for the first time, that a plurality of voters doesn’t want to see President Bush re-selected next year. Naturally, that’s not the same as testing him against another flawed candidate. Yet it does indicate that the semi-conqueror of Iraq hasn’t yet made the sale.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]