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March 8, 2004
Labor Fading?

Tomorrow's New York Times looks at the decline of the modern labor movement and its associated political power, especially focusing on a few recent events:

As the nation's labor leaders gathered at a luxury seaside hotel here, they were struggling on Monday to find ways to keep the union movement from sinking further after it suffered several recent setbacks.

In the biggest confrontation in years, a 138-day dispute involving 59,000 California supermarket workers, the companies trounced the union, obtaining a two-tier contract that means lower wages and fewer health benefits for new employees.

Organized labor also appeared badly disorganized as unions split over endorsing Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri or Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, for the Democratic presidential nomination and then appeared woefully ineffective when both of the preferred candidates flopped.

And labor was embarrassed by a January government report showing that union membership fell by nearly 400,000 last year and that the percentage of workers belonging to unions dropped to 12.9 percent, down from 35 percent in the 1950's.

Part of labor's problem is that they have been too successful, pressing Congress and the state legislatures to pass into law what used to be negotiated with ownership and management in labor contracts. Overtime definitions, termination policies, workers comp, and even layoffs are much more regulated and controlled by government than by contractual arrangements. State and national Labor Relations Boards have replaced union grievance procedures. Looking back at the level of government protection for workers that has been enacted over the past fifty years, the transformation of the workplace has been truly remarkable.

And that is also the problem -- the organized labor solution has, in some places, gone too far. Workers go on strike now to get benefits and wages that don't resemble anything in the current market outside of organized labor, making their cause much less sympathetic than in job actions from decades past. In California, the grocery strike resulted from organized labor fighting against the employees paying for part of their own health insurance, even though the vast majority of their customers contribute to theirs to a much larger degree than the grocers proposed in their contract offer. Then when the workers went on strike, they harassed these same customers, hardening public opinion even more in favor of the grocers. After all, ultimately the consumer pays for the labor, and most consumers understand that.

Faced with runaway government imposition in labor relations -- California's workers comp system is a nightmare that keeps growing and driving business out of the state -- and fighting battles that bear little resemblance to fairness and much more to privilege, labor rapidly has lost the sympathy of the masses. That is no small thing, either. For many years, labor has been living off of its past glories, when management held coal miners in the thrall of company scrip and workers died by the dozens because of unsafe working conditions. These days, the face of labor is either snarling grocery workers harassing the customers they expect to pay for their health insurance, or overpriced sports celebrities going on strike and disrupting the World Series so that they don't have to be tested for illegal drug use.

Now with membership rapidly declining and facing the debacle of having their endorsements of primary candidates Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt have absolutely no effect on any of the primaries, labor asks why things have gotten so bad. Perhaps it's because they never knew when to declare victory.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 8, 2004 10:29 PM

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