There aren’t a whole lot of journalists who cover the “union beat;” writer Philip Dine is one of the rare few. He has reported on unions and organized labor for 25 years, covering events ranging from local labor-management issues to the largest strike by black workers in Mississippi’s history, the key role of aerospace workers in our civilian and military aviation industries, the rise of public-sector unionism, labor’s national political efforts, the little-known role of American labor in assisting the fledgling democratic unions in Eastern Europe before the Wall fell, and more. He just released a new edition of his eye-opening book, “State of the Unions,” which offers an incisive look at not just the evolution of the Labor Movement itself over the last few decades, but also at the widespread misconceptions that have surfaced about organized Labor, and what we can do to change the way the public perceives unions.
This blogger got the unique chance to pick Dine’s brain about the Labor Movement, the current public perception of unions and what that might look like in the future.
Labor's Edge: Unions are the first and only line of defense the middle class has to combat corporate greed and excess. But years of union-bashing from corporations and the far Right have resulted in unions often — and wrongfully — getting a bad rap. What can we do to demonstrate to the public that unions are absolutely necessary to rebuild and sustain the middle class?
Philip Dine: The single most important thing labor can do to turn things around is to show the public why labor matters – not just to its members but to the country as a whole. In California, the labor movement – which benefits from skilled leadership and talented communications people – has done a laudable job of this. That’s one of the reasons unions here are doing well compared to other parts of the country. But, speaking of the labor movement as a whole, the biggest obstacle facing unions many people regard labor as a vestige that once was necessary but has outlived its usefulness. And until people are convinced that labor is relevant in today’s society, they won’t pay much attention to union positions or actions on any specific issue, be it legislation, contracts, organizing, collective bargaining or anything else. If the messenger isn’t seen as important or credible, the message will too often be ignored. There is no more urgent task for labor than to craft, and communicate, a message that resonates with the public.
As a whole, labor hasn’t always made a compelling case that a robust labor movement is indispensable to a growing middle class – yet the evidence is overwhelming. Historically, it’s no coincidence that whenever the United States has had a vibrant labor movement, the middle class has been strong. For example, the period of labor’s zenith – from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s – saw the largest expansion of the middle class in U.S. history; that same middle class has been threatened in recent years as the labor movement was weakened. Common sense also can be applied here: Why would it be the case that at the very time corporate influence is growing more powerful, more concentrated and more brazen, this is the very time that workers can fend for themselves as individuals? And from an institutional point of view, our economic prosperity and even our political stability rest in no small measure on an industrial relations system that allows all parties – management, labor, government – to represent their interests and their constituents. No one always wins, no one always loses, but over time the best public policies and private practices emerge, and this balance benefits society as a whole.
When labor is marginalized, we get an unbalanced system that produces skewed results. That’s precisely what people have been lamenting when they complain that the pendulum has swung too far to the side of the rich. Labor’s problem is that people are not connecting what’s happening to them and their neighbors with the weakening of the labor movement – and labor needs to help them make that connection.
L.E.: Unions have been under attack for decades, but only recently have those attacks turned into the sort of aggressive state legislative endeavors we’ve seen over the last few years with anti-union bills popping up in states all across the nation. What do you think caused this shift, and how can we combat it?
P.D.: What labor now faces is a concerted assault in which its ideological, political and economic adversaries see an unexpected chance to do what they’ve long hoped to do: deliver a knockout blow to the American labor movement. The poor economy, high unemployment and labor’s inability to create a level playing field by getting the Employee Free Choice Act passed have made unions vulnerable. Meanwhile, that same economy has average people struggling, concerned about taxes at all levels of government, and susceptible to ploys to encourage resentment of other working people. And so labor’s foes have seized the opportunity to take aim at labor in a host of ways, whether through state initiatives to restrict collective bargaining in the public-sector or to promote right-to-work (for less), by attacking National Labor Relations Board nominees or the NLRB over Boeing, by blasting labor’s role in the healthcare debate or blaming unions for management failures ranging from the auto industry to Hostess, and much more.
Having spent years weakening the private-sector unions through unfair trade deals, the outsourcing of work and increasingly aggressive employer actions to prevent the formation of unions at the workplace, labor’s foes now have focused on delegitimizing government unions because they negotiate with political leaders they helped elect. And, in a remarkable display of chutzpah, rightwing describe the private-sector unions – which they did so much to diminish – as at least being legitimate.
L.E.: For decades, unions and the workers they fight for were ignored or overlooked by the news media. Now that unions are back in the news (albeit not always for the right reasons), what can we do to capitalize on this opportunity to change the way people view unions?
P.D.: It’s true that as a whole, reporters have long done an abysmal job covering labor. Even the language used is unfair. Why do we read or hear about union ‘bosses’ and company ‘executives?’ Why are unions always ‘demanding’ better terms while companies are said to be ‘offering’ specific conditions? But many trade unionists, especially on the local level, spend too much time citing media flaws, and compound this by attributing the problems to journalistic bias or corporate influence – meaning they can’t get a fair shake.
For a long time, labor faced a Catch 22. The media saw labor’s numbers and influence wane, and so paid less attention to it. That reinforced the public’s view that unions didn’t matter anymore, which further weakened unions, serving to reaffirm journalists in downplaying coverage of unions – and the downward cycle continued. That cycle, finally, has been broken, with labor being catapulted the past couple of years into the spotlight. Suddenly, unions are in the news everywhere. Labor today, and for the foreseeable future, is and will be many things – assailed, defended, vilified, praised, criticized, defended – but not ignored. Nor can it be seen as irrelevant. Labor’s foes can’t have it both ways – they can’t argue that labor is meaningless and a thing of the past, and then put so much effort and resources into destroying it.
So, in part thanks – ironically – to its adversaries, labor once again has the attention of the public and the media. The question now is: What will labor tell them? Will it step above the back-and-forth and explain in clear and compelling ways why labor’s fight is everyone’s fight and how the public has a stake in the outcome? Will it tell people what a country without a strong labor movement would look like, and how everyone who works for a living, whether in a union or not, would be adversely affected?
This is especially critical now, because the politicians driving the current war on labor depend on the support or at least passivity of a misinformed or uninformed public – and labor has so many compelling stories to tell that could alter public opinion. For example, about the aerospace workers who saved taxpayers millions of dollars, while improving safety for our troops, by using their shop-floor experience to improve the way fighter jets are manufactured. Or, how a group of construction owners has traveled around the country explaining why hiring union workers saves money, because the work is done on time and at cost, safely, and with high quality and low absenteeism. Why doesn’t everyone know about those things, or indeed about the role played by the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Teachers in bringing democracy to Eastern Europe? And why don’t people know that 30,000 workers a year are fired or otherwise disciplined for trying to exercise their right to form a union? If that were happening in Poland or South Africa it would be front-page news; it’s happening right here and few know about it. But if this were common knowledge, not only would people understand what’s driving labor’s membership decline, they’d also appreciate the need for the labor law reform embodied in the Employee Free Choice Act.
L.E.: If there’s one anti-union falsehood that you could put to bed once and for all, what would it be?
P.D.: I guess it would be a two-part falsehood. The first is that labor’s a thing of the past and no longer relevant in the 21st century. Labor has never been more relevant, because the middle class has never been under greater assault and the gap between the rich and everyone else hasn’t been this large for nearly a century. The notion that labor’s past legislative and bargaining successes make it unnecessary now is belied by the push its foes are making to reverse many of those gains. The sense of partnership that once governed economic life has been replaced by corporate efforts to cut costs on the backs of employees and the middle class – and so to suggest that workers don’t need an advocate and instead should be disarmed is nonsensical.
Related to that is the notion peddled by many that labor is a special interest. That’s as absurd as calling the middle class a special interest. Labor is a critical part of a labor relations system that has helped produced the most dynamic economy and the greatest shared prosperity the world has seen – until, that is, the true special interests focused on attacking labor. This two-part falsehood makes labor seem at best irrelevant, at worst a negative force. Labor needs to vigorously combat it – by helping people understand that a strong labor movement able to fulfill its role serves not just members’ interests but the national interest, and is indispensable to restoring an economy that works for everyone.
L.E.: Where do you see the future of the Labor Movement going, and what can we do to ensure its long-term sustainability?
P.D.: In declaring war on unions, labor’s foes have energized, unified and motivated labor. They’ve expended significant resources and political capital. They’ve put labor back in the spotlight. They’ve generated sympathy for the public employees they’ve targeted. Now they’d better hope they can take labor out, because if unions can withstand this assault, they’ll emerge stronger.
Several factors are keys to labor getting through this. For starters, it would greatly help if the economy continues to improve. That would strengthen labor for obvious reasons while also reducing the effectiveness of the attack on the public sector, which relies on turning struggling taxpayers against government employees.
Similarly, labor will benefit if its foes stumble more than they already have. Wisconsin’s anti-union drive led Ohio Gov. John Kasich to overreach in seeking to restrict collective bargaining for his state’s public employees; a lopsided defeat forced him to declare, “It’s time to pause. The people have spoken clearly.” For its part, labor can’t get too high after such a win, or too low after a defeat. This is a long struggle that will play out on numerous terrains.
And, importantly, labor must raise its game in several key areas. (I say this, again, speaking broadly, with a nod to the accomplishments of California’s labor movement.) Labor’s message must be succinct and persuasive – and it must be heard. And labor should rethink its political strategy, focusing more on getting its issues into the public sphere and less on electing specific candidates. That doesn’t mean unions shouldn’t engage vigorously in elections; but it does mean that more should be done to use those elections as opportunities to educate and engage voters on why labor’s issues are their issues – and on their stake in labor’s future. Promising efforts on both fronts, communications and political strategy, are underway within the U.S. labor movement.
If labor emerges in decent shape from the all-out assault it faces, its future may be brighter than it’s been in recent memory. The need for a strong labor movement is evident given our growing inequality; a beleaguered middle class needs someone to defend and speak for it; and public attitudes about corporate malfeasance, about the role of Wall Street and powerful interests in the economic crisis, and about the need for the pendulum to swing back toward average people, set the stage for a reinvigorated labor movement. The question no longer is whether labor is relevant, but rather whether labor can strengthen itself so it can seize the opportunity to fill what is clearly a critical role for tens of millions of Americans and for our economy as a whole.
Visit http://www.philipdine.com to learn more about Philip Dine and pick up a copy of the new edition of “State of the Unions.”