The American labor movement - vibrant or dying? Downward: Collective bargaining has outlived its usefulness, with nowhere to go.


Despite the success of last month's Teamsters strike against United Parcel Service, labor's future does not look bright. Unions fought for an eight-hour day and an end to child labor - good things. Today, unions fight for greater dependency on the state and greater government control of the economy. These are not only unpopular, they hobble economic growth and job creation.

Union membership has been declining since its peak during the Eisenhower administration. "Epitaph for American Labor: How Union Leaders Lost Touch With America" by Max Green (AEI Press. 207 pages. $24.95) and "The New Unionism in the New Society" by Leo Troy (George Mason University Press. 228 pages) show the underlying reasons especially clearly.

As union membership ebbs, employees of federal, state and local governments make up an increasing proportion of it. And, according to Troy, the ideology of the public sector unions has been taking over the labor movement. American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers distrusted state intervention in the economy. He did not believe welfare was a right. Neither is true of the men and women Troy calls the New Unionists.

Green agrees that this ideological shift has hurt labor's appeal, but he adds that the workings of the market do even more damage to the labor movement. There is a sense in which even private sector unionists were wrong from the beginning, says Green. When the Progressives busted the trusts at the turn of the century, they were acting against capitalists and trade unionists, both of whom preferred simplicity (monopoly) over complexity (competition). Gompers liked to bargain with the fewest number of firms possible. Union organizing, too, succeeded best where jobs were concentrated in a few large companies.

When businesses were forced by antitrust laws to compete in a free market, labor tried to temper the effects of competition. It typically lost the struggle, for paradoxically labor tends to kill what it loves: monopolies.

Losing combination

Take the auto industry. The growth of the United Auto Workers in Detroit meant the Big Three automakers faced high costs, leaving them open, over time, to nonunion competition. We still have the Big Three, but we also have Japanese firms building cars here.

Likewise with UPS. The Teamsters unionized UPS, the holder of a whopping 80 percent of the package-shipping market. The strike drew attention to this large employer's dominance. As one UPS customer was quoted as saying, customers need to "start using other carriers so [they] can build up the ability to discount and compete with UPS."

Belief in free markets is strong today. It turns people against anyone - whether a union or a company - perceived to be obstructing access to the best goods and services at the lowest price.

So before the strike, UPS was the Big One. But it may not be any longer. If UPS is cut down to size, the key for labor will be to organize those who work for UPS' rivals. What message will it use to draw new members? The New Unionism wants to increase your taxes (where government workers' salaries come from) and decrease your self-reliance. Not a winning combination after the collapse of state socialism.

To encounter a New Unionist, read "Which Side Are You On? Trying to Be for Labor When It's Flat on Its Back" by Thomas Geoghegan (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 287 pages.). It is a charming book that plays upon the incongruities inherent in Geoghegan, a white collar yuppie lawyer, toiling for the workers' cause.

This Irish-American storyteller is nostalgic for a time he never knew: the Depression era of dramatic sit-down strikes. Nowadays, Geoghegan sighs, "labor shambles around like Frankenstein." Unions have receded from the headlines. The leaders are undemocratic. Many of the members get hefty salaries that push them up into the middle class and away from militancy. And the bourgeoisification doesn't stop there: The shop stewards all attend night school. They all want to become lawyers like he is.

For all his William Kennedyesque verve, Geoghegan is deeply at odds with himself philosophically. The United Mineworkers' John Lewis may have been an autocrat, he writes, but at least Lewis recognized that "we should never, ever, embrace the state." Yet Geoghegan goes on to describe his own stint as an official in the Carter administration, attempting to plan the energy sector of the economy with a scheme he still believes would have worked.

Geoghegan wants to empower labor's rank and file but he also pines for the kind of paternalistic welfare state they have in Sweden. The thing is, the man can write. He makes his reader sympathize with union dissidents who challenged the old guard.

One dissident he supported was Ron Carey, just on the point of running against James Hoffa for the Teamsters presidency when "Which Side Are You On?" was published. Carey's victory over Hoffa was tossed out by the feds, which may be a setback, but then again to judge by Geoghegan, Carey represents a big improvement in the ethics department. (There used to be murders over Teamster leadership votes.)

Still chasing chimeras

In the politics department, however, things are going the wrong way for labor. Carey and Geoghegan, private sector labor men, need to discard the public union mindset. They have not. They still chase statist chimeras like "industrial policy." They still believe we should socialize the health-care system.

At one point in the Geoghegan book he wistfully asks somebody, Do you think there will be a depression? Unions grew when people were in dire straits. The economy is strong right now. It is hard to see another labor heyday ahead.

Not that there never could be another Great Depression. But unless labor makes peace with the idea of limited government, and with the entrepreneurial individualism of our age, it won't even be around should a crisis hit.

Lauren A. Weiner is an editor in the office of Senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona). She has worked as a reporter, writer and editor for the Washington Times, the Institute for Contemporary Studies and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Her articles and reviews have been published in the Wall Street Journal, the New Criterion and Insight magazine among others.

Pub Date: 8/31/97

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad