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Reviving organized labor


ANDREW STERN has taken the Service Employees International Union out of the AFL-CIO, along with the Teamsters and United Food and Commercial Workers.

Given federation President John Sweeney's failure to deliver on his 1995 promise to reinvigorate the labor movement and declining union membership, few can blame the rebels. But all the debate about organizing tactics and political strategy misses what really ails the labor movement.

In the 1950s, unions made sense. Most American workers were employed as agricultural laborers, in routine factory jobs and in similar repetitive tasks. The narrow slice that ran the country got to the prestige colleges by being well born.

Through the 1960s, unions, with help from robust growth and Great Society programs, redressed many imbalances imposed by social class. To facilitate those efforts, unions helped elect friendly politicians.

Today, unions haven't delivered the goods. Workers have watched hidebound organizations stubbornly resist change even as their members lose jobs and pensions in steel, airlines and other industries. Consider how, as General Motors sustains massive losses and lays off thousands, the United Autoworkers remains unconvinced it should accept the same health benefits as GM's managers. When union leaders become blind to facts, why should ordinary workers entrust their future to them?

Many blame globalization, but there is much more to it.

Americans have decided they would rather have Toyota's reliability than what Chevrolet can offer if it pays for the UAW's gold-plated health benefits. They would rather have Wal-Mart's everyday low prices than higher prices at Giant. And Toyota, Nissan and others make more of their cars in the United States and Wal-Mart sells the same Cheer and Cheerios as Safeway. Do you see Chinese retailers stalking Wal-Mart?

For the last 20 years, unions have tried to organize foreign-owned auto plants and Wal-Mart, and failed. Quite simply, American consumers and workers have voted unions out.

American society and work have changed. Rising living standards, the GI Bill, student loans, affirmative action and the inheritance tax have wiped out a good deal of class advantage in American society.

Today, nearly two-thirds of all high school graduates receive some postsecondary education, and ever more Americans are engaged in specialized, technical work, which compels employers to respect their skills and pay them well. Unions' brandishing anti-boss, social-justice rhetoric just doesn't cut it with sophisticated people who see work as a joint venture with their employer, not as merely renting their time in a sweat shop.

Mr. Stern has not told us what new message he will offer Middle America. When unions represented 35 percent of private sector workers, they offered a message with wide appeal - even to people who did not belong to unions but recognized their social benefits and were willing to pay a bit more for products that offered workers a better life. Mr. Stern must throw off the ideology of the 1930s, bring labor back into American mainstream thinking and offer a new message of cooperation, not confrontation, that resonates.

Moreover, with the certainty that the old Yankees beat the Washington Senators, unions admonish their members to vote for Democrats and support affirmative action, gay rights, abortion, strict environmental regulations and just about everything else that warms the heart of Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.

We can each think what we like about those issues, but a good number of union workers and workers who unions would like to organize do not agree with that agenda. It does not make sense to devote union dues to reflexively supporting liberal Democrats when many prospective members don't agree with them.

Mr. Stern, no fool, has learned to cozy up to Republicans. He knows how many more flies you can catch with honey. Perhaps he can take that to the next level and ensure that organized labor has friends in the White House all the time.

Mr. Stern understands that after losing so many games, organized labor needs more than a new quarterback. It needs a new playbook too.

Can he write it?

Peter Morici is a business professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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