The American labor movement - vibrant or dying? Upward: Facing new challenges, unions will lead the way.


A review in last Sunday's Perspective section in The Sun incorrectly identified the reviewer, David Kusnet, as a staff member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He was on its staff from 1974 through 1984.

The Sun regrets the error.

For a union movement whose membership strength has dropped from 35 to 16 percent of the workforce over the past 40 years, the Teamsters' victory at UPS suggests that labor is calling a halt to its decline.

With new leadership at the AFL-CIO and a commitment by major unions to devote more resources to organizing new members, it seems that labor will not go gently into the good night most media and academic pundits had forecast.

In fact, the best sign of labor's revival is that, just after the Teamsters stopped their strike at UPS and stepped up their organizing campaign at non-union Federal Express, Fed Ex said it's giving its employees a bonus.

That's the kind of dynamic the American economy hasn't seen since labor's heyday during the quarter-century after World War II: unions lifting up wages for all workers, union members and unrepresented workers as well. And that's why the current issue of Business Week calls the UPS strike "a wake-up call for business."

So, if labor is coming back, is that good for America?

Yes, says a growing group of liberal intellectuals.

In a new collection of essays, "Audacious Democracy: Labor, Intellectuals, and the Social Reconstruction of America" (Houghton Mifflin, 272 pages, $12), edited by Steven Fraser and Joshua B. Freeman, the feminist Betty Friedan writes that the same "historic Geiger counter" that once alerted her to the revival of the women's movement is now signaling the re-awakening of the labor movement.

Friedan's reasons are familiar to anyone who's taken a look at the business pages or his or her own pay stubs. Six years into an economic recovery, stock prices, corporate profits and executive salaries are all going through the roof. But working people's wages are still stuck in the mud. And, as the UPS strike dramatized, a decade of downsizing at major corporations has forced many working people to piece together a livelihood from several part-time jobs.

Reviving alliances

Indeed, the feminist Friedan finds an unnoticed irony: Much of the narrowing of the wage gap between women and men results not from substantial increases in women's earnings but from staggering declines in what men, particularly blue-collar men, are making. Thus, she urges women and men to join together in "a movement for social justice ... to transcend the special interests ... of identity politics."

Friedan's essay and the anthology in which it appears are signs that many leftish intellectuals want to revive the alliance with labor that flourished in the 1930's but fractured in the 1960's. That was the theme of a teach-in last year at Columbia University, organized by the historian Steven Fraser. His anthology consists of edited versions of talks at this event. For all the tendentiousness of some essays - some celebrating the "identity politics" Friedan wisely wants to "transcend" - they signal an important trend. Not only among the academic Left but among mainstream liberals as well, there is a new consensus that unions are essential institutions in the new economy.

Just as radicals proclaimed in the 1930s and mainstream Americans believed well into the 1970s, liberals again understand that working people need an organized voice in the Information Age, just as they needed collective power in the Industrial Age.

A prime example of this new appreciation of an old truth is Robert B. Reich, the former labor secretary and one-time neo-liberal guru of the glories of the global economy. Submerged in his memoir of his disillusionment with the Clinton administration is Reich's acknowledgement of his own intellectual evolution.

On page 280 of "Locked in the Cabinet" (Knopf, 388 pages, $25), Reich writes: "I came to Washington thinking the answer was simply to provide people in the bottom half with access to the education and skills they need to qualify for better jobs. But it's more than that. Without power, they can't get ... safe workplaces, maintain a livable minimum wage, or prevent sweatshops from re-emerging."

But labor's renewed claim on America's attention rests on more than the welcome new enthusiasms of leftish academics, liberal policy experts or even prophetic social thinkers such as Friedan.

For all the nation's renewed prosperity, there's a pervasive sense that something just isn't right about how working people are being treated. Beyond mass layoffs and stagnant wages, there's concern that corporations are putting their employees through the wringer for no reason, now that the American economy is prospering again. It's a feeling that's fed by Orwellian corporate rhetoric from "right-sizing" to "re-engineering" to the cult of "flexibility" at all costs.

DTC This near-universal disillusion with corporate cruelty is illustrated the popularity of the works of the cartoonist Scott Adams, whose Information Age working stiff, Dilbert, pecks away at his computer keyboard in a cramped cubicle, while his bosses jabber corporate gibberish. And other culture heroes as well, such as TV stars Roseanne and Drew Carey, give voice to the sense that today's working women and men are roadkill on the information highway.

Costly alternatives

Meanwhile, the shrewdest conservatives and corporate types understand that working Americans have real discontents, and it's dangerous to let workers go unrepresented. In "The Excuse Factory" (Free Press, 367 pages, $25), Walter Olson writes that "business will miss unions," because, without union representation, disgruntled workers resort to costly lawsuits alleging discrimination of all kinds. And in "Changing Focus" by Alecia Swasy (Times Business, 276 pages, $25), a psychologist at Kodak, which suffered severe downsizings a decade ago, is quoted warning that workers who can't express their anger through a union may turn to destructive behavior instead.

So it's good news that liberal academics are rediscovering the labor movement. But it's even more important that working Americans are beginning to raise their voices in ways that transcend ideology or identity politics. As working Americans organize and mobilize, history's Geiger counter will go off the charts.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for President Clinton from 1992 through 1994 and is the author of "Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties." He is a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and on staff at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He is also a consultant to labor groups.

Pub Date: 8/31/97

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