After half a decade with John Sweeney at the helm of the AFL-CIO,
whose executive council held its winter meeting here in mid-February,
there's a sense in the top ranks of the union movement of both accomplishment
and inadequacy, progress and stagnation, potential power and continued
vulnerability. There is a widespread feeling that the "revolution"
of 1995--when Sweeney's slate won the first contested battle for
leadership of the labor movement in a century--has mainly pointed
in the right direction, but that reform must be dramatically intensified
and infused throughout the ranks of union members if the labor movement
is going to survive, let alone flourish.
The good news is that organized labor as a social institution,
and its "working families agenda" for American society, has broad
and growing support from the public. A new Peter D. Hart Research
Associates poll for the AFL-CIO, for example, found that 41 percent
of the public views unions positively, and only 24 percent holds
negative views--compared to a 35 percent to 34 percent margin of
positive-versus-negative views in 1993. The greatest improvement
in views about unions was among blacks and young people aged 18
to 29. And now 42 percent of nonunion, nonmanagerial workers say
they would vote for a union, a jump of more than one-third since
Last fall's election also demonstrated unions' ability to effectively
members' households to go to the polls and vote for candidates that
unions supported, mostly Democrats. In elections, as well as organizing
and legislative fights, unions are realizing the power of mobilizing
their members to educate and motivate co-workers and community allies.
The bad news is that despite extraordinary efforts by unions, George
W. Bush is president, and Congress and the White House are both
controlled by Republicans for the first time since 1954. The outcome
may have been different if the votes had been fairly counted, but,
in the end, labor bet the farm on the Democrats and is now landless.
Union leaders worry that labor will be under siege, facing dozens
of defensive battles in Congress against efforts to cripple union
political operations, reverse crucial workplace safety regulations,
and nibble away at workers rights and union power through investigations,
legislation and executive orders.
Labor's problems are not just political, however. If a recession
or even a mild slowdown develops, many workers will lose their jobs,
and union analysts project that unions will disproportionately and
permanently lose more members in a downturn than they will gain
during a recovery. Also, after several years of gains in organizing
that had stopped unions' decline in their share of the work force,
membership numbers dropped again last year. Even the unions that
had been leaders in organizing before 1995 still have a long way
to go in transforming themselves, and a majority of unions have,
at best, just started to develop an organizing strategy.
Despite these grim prospects, organized labor is better prepared
to resist attacks and continue to press for at least some of its
agenda than it was in the Reagan era, when Democrats still controlled
the House. Politically, union strategists plan to continue to press
for prescription drug coverage under Medicare, a strong patients
bill of rights, a higher minimum wage, campaign finance and election
procedure reform, and immigrant rights, including a broad amnesty
for current immigrants without proper papers. For starters, labor
will be fighting the Bush tax cuts as "bad economic policy and morally
wrong," as the AFL-CIO's official resolution states. But the battle
will be as much to keep Democrats from joining in the tax cut frenzy
as in combating Republicans.