Wednesday, August 17, 2005

OP ED: Unions need more than public relations

The Wall Street Journal (August 15) carried a story under the title "Labor's PR Problem." It chronicled the decline of organized labor, as more and more workers find unions irrelevant. Such articles always hit my launch button.

I cannot understand all the attention given to the remnants of American unions. Despite their decline into virtual irrelevancy, they continue to exert disproportionate power almost solely on the basis of past momentum, anachronistic viewpoints and an ever favorable press -- which reports union happenings as if they carry great importance in setting public policy or electing significant numbers of public officials.

First we have to look at the numbers. Less than 12 percent of the workforce is unionized, and that number decreases each year. Union protection is no longer seen as vital to the American worker -- white or blue collar. Workers prefer to keep the money that is solicited for union dues and fees. In many cases, they feel management is giving the best deal possible, anyway.

Union corruption plays a role. Who wants to belong to an organization where the leaders have funny nicknames, like "Big Ears" Ba ba doo or "Knee Caps" Ba da bing. A private club that is too often under investigation, indictment or taken over by federal judges (which also is not a good thing, in my judgement).

Family bread winners are not interested in solidarity. Mandatory strikes strain personal finances. Union members notice that while they walk picket lines to payless pay days, the union honchos are not only paid, but very well paid -- and lots of high roller benefits. There maybe more unions official in Cancun in February than at the national headquarters of the AFL-CIO. Laborites and their political friends (mostly Democrats) mutually peddle a mythology that unions are the strong voice of the American worker. Unions leaders and labor positions are put forward as THE voice of the working masses.

In the past, they could influence, if not outright select, the Secretary of Labor. The Department of Labor, itself, is still regarded by many as organized labor's Cabinet position. That mythology is evaporating, I am pleased to note. The more conservative culture in Washington, D.C. has made it known that it is the Department of LABOR, not the Department of ORGANIZED LABOR. The Secretary of Labor is mandated to represent the concerns of ALL workers, not just those in unions -- and many independent workers find their interests at odds with the platform of organized labor.

The great majority of workers in America do not see the union position as representing their views regardless of out the media represents it. The involuntary confiscation of political contributions from worker paychecks is a case in point.

Union leaders have not sold their private political agenda to the members. Despite labor leaders' massive effort to re-elect Jimmy Carter (1980) and elect Walter Mondale (1984), the majority of union workers and family members cast ballots for Ronald Reagan -- the perceived arch enemy of the labor bosses.

More recently, the AFL-CIO decided to place all its eggs in the Democrat basket. All the resources it could muster did not prevent the two-time election of George Bush and the increased majorities in the U.S. Senate and House -- not to mention enormous GOP gains at the state and municipal levels. The disastrous AFL-CIO strategy was a major factor with the decision of several major unions, including the powerful Teamsters, to withdraw from the AFL-CIO. The schism will leave the rebel unions stronger individually, but is a major blow to the already weakened union landscape.

Despite the headline in WSJ, no amount of public relations can salvage the unions. To suggest otherwise is to believe that public relations can get people to buy horse whips. When something as lost its purpose and relevancy, no amount of salesmanship can make the sale.

As the global economy emerges, it appears to advance very nicely without the grassroots zeal for unionization. Where once labor leaders could echo the call of the downtrodden working class, today there is no such call. Unions are not dying because of the skill or guile of management as much as the disinterest of workers.

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