Since the beginning of the labor union movement, the greatest threat it felt--often paranoically--was management (or the Republicans) "breaking" the union. The external threat was seen to come from anti-union laws, movement of jobs overseas, and negotiating tactics that left union strikes powerless. Now, it seems, that the union movement may, like communism, collapse from its own weight. After a steady 20+ year decline in union membership, the flagship of organized labor, the AFL-CIO, fractured this week, losing more than 1/3 of its membership. When the AFL-CIO merged 50 years ago, one-third of US worker were members of unions. Today the number is 8%.
The great schism resulted from the same thing Republicans and conservative union members have been complaining about for years: pouring billions of hard-earned workers dollars into the coffers of the Democrat party.
Ron Fournier of the AP writes about that money and how it helped Jimmy Hoffa Jr and Andy Stern decide to walk away
Much of that money goes to Democratic candidates and to political operations that benefit the Democratic Party. Stern, Hoffa and their colleagues in the Change to Win Coalition pushed the AFL-CIO to shift focus from such political activity to recruiting new union members, contending that a growing union movement would naturally increase its political and bargaining power.
"They said no," Hoffa said at a coalition news conference held a few blocks from the AFL-CIO convention site. "Their idea is to keep throwing money at politicians."
Expect to see smiling, smug Democrats spinning the division of labor as if newly discovered ancient scrolls revealed that Christ and the Twelve registered Democrat and voted absentee for Al Gore in Florida in 2000.
Dick Durbin, whose spittle-laden finger could not determine political wind speed or direction in a plebiscitary hurricane, made a half-hearted effort at putting a good face on the whole affair. Speaking about those who might think the split will weaken organized labor, he said:
We have news for them. It's not going to happen. Our unity is our strength. We will stand together and fight for working families.
Uh, Dick: maybe you should have updated your canned speech after learning of the schism.
They spin like a Maytag washer, but it won't change the fact that this split, unless it's patched, could be disasterous to the DNC.
"It's the worst thing that could happen to us as a party," said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist with long ties to labor.
The declining political clout of organized labor was evident in the 2004 election. The movement's favorite son, Richard Gephardt of Missouri, had his South St. Louis rump handed back to him on a platter by the Tom Harkin Democrats of Iowa--voters who usually follow their union masters' orders like early sci-fi zombies.
In November, the traditional union get-out-the-(Democrat)-vote efforts paled in comparison to the efforts by Republican friends, like Christian, military, and family organizations. The result was the reelection of a president Democrats hate more palpabably than Ronald Reagan who fathered the union slide by firing PATCO workers who struck illegally in 1981.
Once upon a time, labor unions, while attempting to promote the interests of their members, also represented the social, economic, moral, and patriotic sentiments of those members. (Well, except for the overtly communist Machinists, Longshoremen, and sanitation unions.) In those days, labor was staunchly anti-communist, Christian (often Catholic), and pro-family.
During the 1970s, though, the worst of the excesses of liberalism became the cornerstone of union leadership philosophy. Abortion, appeasing communists, and onerous taxation seemed more important to big labor than fair wages. Between inflation, encouraged by union protectionism, and spiralling taxes, supported by union donations to the DNC and opposition to tax indexing and cuts, combined to damage the very members the unions porported to help.
In the 80s, many union workers saw the problem. The rank-and-file voted for Reagan and sued to prevent their union leaders from giving their dues to his opponents. They won some and lost some in the courts where many judges were appointed with union and Democrat support.
At the same, open contempt for the economic damage unions were causing emerged. Even in South St. Louis, where unionism was once king, one could safely mock unions: lazy, overpaid, spoiled. While usually untrue, the image wasn't helped by stories like this one from wall street pot holes:
When I was in college I worked at a chicken factory, processing center. It had a union. Membership wasn't required but it was still a bizare bunch to have around. Workers would get suspended for being drunk on the job. And then the union steward would file a 'grivence' against the company. Because his rights were violated! The chickens can wait! Forget the hostile work environment that develops when workers are drunk n' dazed.
The Political Puzzle summarizes labor's weakness.
Used to be a huge Caterpillar plant in York, Pa. The union decided that they werent gonna budge. Five years, they were on strike. End result? Hello, South Carolina . . . Goodbye dumbasss.
The worst news for organized labor, though, is not off-shoring nor internal strife; it is the fact that no one really cares. Look around the blogosphere--nothing. Me and a few others blogging. The two blogs I linked above both carry the same reaction: "Who cares?"
If the break-up of the largest labor union in America is no longer interesting to pundits on the right, labor unions must have very little economic weight. That's been evident for some time, and you can take any NHL player's word for it. With the current schism drawing away hundreds of millions in political contributions, the movement's political clout could soon be a thing of the past.
Scrappleface ponders the Democrat response