What Unions Should Do To Turn Their Dwindling Numbers Around

Union Membership StatsWith the recent break up of the AFL-CIO, some people believe that unions will finally wake up, and change with the times.

The Wall Street Journal gives some great suggestions on what might actually turn the downward tide of union membership around:

What’s missing on both sides, however, is a vision of economic opportunity that might actually make workers want to join a union in the first place. Tactics aside, both factions continue to believe in the idea of unions that arose in the Industrial Age: Greedy management versus the exploited working man, seniority over flexibility, fixed benefits and strike threats over working with management to keep a U.S.-based company profitable and innovative in a world of growing competition. On the political front, both factions favor trade protection, higher taxes and government help to enforce restrictive work rules. This is the agenda of Old Europe, where jobless rates are above 10%, and it merely offers more economic insecurity in the U.S. as well.

What the labor movement really needs is a new generation of leaders who understand the emerging competition to U.S. workers from the likes of India and China. Rather than oppose imports to protect textile jobs that can’t be saved, such leaders would work to reform education so future Americans can compete in the knowledge industries that will grow the fastest. They’d also work to make pensions and health insurance transportable from company to company, so a worker wouldn’t be trapped by benefits in a job or industry he didn’t like. They’d be partners with management, not antagonists.

Without such a new vision, Big Labor will only continue its slide. All the more so given new Labor Department rules, recently upheld in court after an AFL-CIO challenge, requiring that unions disclose more details about how they spend hard-earned member dues. Some of the nation’s largest unions will now have to disclose their spending by specific categories, such as political donations, grievance proceedings, or organizing. This sunshine will expose just how much labor money is being wasted on political activities that have little to do with improving workers’ lives.

Union leaders seem genuinely to believe that their glory days will return if only they can defeat President Bush, or oust Tom DeLay as House Majority Leader. But their real obstacle is the reality of the modern global economy. Until they offer workers something more than class warfare, circa 1955, they will continue to decline.

Without such a new vision, Big Labor will only continue its slide. All the more so given new Labor Department rules, recently upheld in court after an AFL-CIO challenge, requiring that unions disclose more details about how they spend hard-earned member dues. Some of the nation’s largest unions will now have to disclose their spending by specific categories, such as political donations, grievance proceedings, or organizing. This sunshine will expose just how much labor money is being wasted on political activities that have little to do with improving workers’ lives.

Union leaders seem genuinely to believe that their glory days will return if only they can defeat President Bush, or oust Tom DeLay as House Majority Leader. But their real obstacle is the reality of the modern global economy. Until they offer workers something more than class warfare, circa 1955, they will continue to decline.

I won’t hold my breath.

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