Hired Hands

Labor is dead and unions are dead and workers of the world have done anything but unite. Marx and Engels turn in their graves!

But with Labor Day come and gone, it’s a good time to ask: is labor really dead? Or is it just that in the year 2012 labor looks different from the way it did – not only at home but abroad? Is it just that the strength of unions – our traditional way of measuring the American labor movement – is less than it was, and not labor more generally?

There is of course no question that unions are diminished. At their peak, in the 1950s, some 34% of American workers belonged to unions; now membership is closer to 12%. Moreover among younger workers, the figures are even lower.

But, unions are still among the living. They are not without power, and they are not without money, and they are not without a voice in American politics and markets. In fact, notwithstanding that North Carolina has the lowest unionization rate in the country (about 2%), the presence of unions was strongly felt at this week’s Democratic convention. Mary Kay Henry, president of the Services Employees International, gave a prominent speech, as did United Auto Workers president, Bob King. Over and over again we heard how the Democrats have supported labor by, for example, rescuing the American automobile industry. And the overriding theme – jobs, jobs, jobs – was as at the Republican convention: intended to warm the hearts of American workers, the middle class, above all.

Moreover labor is finding ways other than through unions to express its needs, wants, and wishes.The recently touted Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is just one example of how the law has been used to further the cause, here working women demanding their fair share. Similarly the media – new and old – can jumpstart the effort to press a point, as did the New York Times, when it ran a long piece of investigative journalism on how Chinese workers who produced parts for Apple were underpaid and even maltreated.

This is not for a moment to suggest that unions are unimportant, or that American workers would not benefit from having unions that were bigger and stronger than they are now. Rather it is to point out that unions are not the only game in town, and that some workers some of the time have taken a creative approach to showing some muscle.

One final point: some workers in some place are restive. In South Africa a series of illegal wildcat strikes have hit the country’s coal mines, profoundly unsettling the nation’s political establishment. In Bangladesh protests are breaking out in the huge, previously docile garment sector, threatening the country’s image and industry worldwide. In China there is growing social awareness of issues pertaining to workplace safety, especially in the nation’s coal industry, which has been the scene of a spate of recent fatal accidents. And millions of European workers have for years now engaged in massive public protests against their governments’ unwillingness or inability to give them what they want when they want it.

The growing income disparity in the U. S. testifies vividly to the fact that labor is weaker than it once was. Still, rumors of its death are greatly exaggerated.

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