Friday, May 20, 2005

AFL-CIO May Split, But Do Unions Have a Future?

The AFL-CIO may be headed for a breakup as tensions over declining union membership continue to mount. The unions considering the split include Service Employees, the Teamsters, the Food & Commercial Workers, the Laborers, and UNITE HERE. They make up 40% of the AFL-CIO and their departure would effectively create two separate labor union federations.

This might be a good thing for labor. For decades, private-sector union membership has declined steadily. While this might please the big-business-is-always-right crowd, we’d do well to remember that labor unions played a vital role in 20th century American life, particularly in the rise of the middle class and in the adoption of worker benefits from weekends off to paid healthcare to the 40-hour work week.

But whether or not labor plays an important role in the 21st century depends a lot on how the unions can adjust. For the most part, the unions were caught flat-footed by the globalization of the economy and have seen their influence decline as many in the workforce transition from what was once a stable manufacturing economy to what is now a much more fluid and much more volatile service economy.

To survive, unions will have to figure out how to operate effectively in a nation where life-long employment is practically extinct, where workers change employers and even careers with great frequency and where the culture at large often views unions negatively (as promoters of laziness at best and as practitioners of organized crime at worst).

The possible breakup of the AFL-CIO might be the first step in establishing a reinvigorated labor movement. Two federations with competing ideas will generate twice as many initiatives. The American labor movement has an uphill battle but, with the right reforms and with the right creativity, unions could still play an important role in our nation’s ability to transition into the global economy while maintaining our standard of living.


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