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Commentary: To survive, unions must evolve

After the Wisconsin beat-down, an existential wail arose from shattered union leaders, members and their friends.

Ritual moaning about the array of forces aligned against labor accompanied second-guessing over tactics and strategy.

And why oh why, many cried, did four in 10 union members in Wisconsin vote to retain Republican Gov. Scott Walker?

(The labor split extends beyond Wisconsin: In a Gallup Poll released last week, 35 percent of union members favored Mitt Romney for president.)

We all know private-sector unions are suffering a relentless decline while public-worker unions have been growing. But now public union ranks too could start thinning drastically.

In part, blame fiscal realities. Even in Democratic-run California and New York, taxpayers are trying to balance the need for services against earlier commitments to public workers on pay and pensions.

But instead of reining in pay and pension obligations at the bargaining table, Walker and other GOP governors are ruthlessly blowing up the foundations of unionism — curtailing collective bargaining rights and automatic dues collection.

You can argue whether public unions should have strong collective bargaining rights in the first place. Even FDR thought they shouldn’t.

But in some states — not Missouri and Kansas by the way — public unions have won such rights and want to keep them.

Losing in Wisconsin makes it ever more important for labor to intensify its fight for survival.

Talk to labor experts and leaders, and you’ll find a couple of different viewpoints, diverging over “business unionism” and a more aggressive “socially conscious unionism.”

These are not bright dividing lines. The labor advocates all agree that strong unions are good for the country.

Bill Fletcher Jr., director of field services and education for the American Federation of Government Employees, strongly advocates the socially conscious model. He thinks labor should again lift up the burden of solving “why workers are getting their asses kicked.”

Fletcher is the co-author of the book “Solidarity Divided” and has a new book coming out, “They’re Bankrupting Us! — And Twenty Other Myths About Unions.”

In an interview, he said unions had in essence become trade associations — bureaucracies “not focused on the needs of workers beyond the workers they represent.” Union members no longer see how they fit into the battle for economic justice for all working people.

Unions now should put more emphasis on educating their own members about that battle, Fletcher said.

And they should build alliances with other groups in society fighting for economic justice. Shop stewards, for instance, could get involved in neighborhood activities.

“Unions need to organize unemployed people,” Fletcher said. “Working people need a sense that there’s something out there ready to fight for them.”

On the political front, Fletcher allows that there are a few labor-friendly Republicans but says the GOP has “mutated into a hard-right party that is in a search-and-destroy mode.”

That leaves labor even more dependent on Democrats, he said, but labor has failed to make them deliver.

After Barack Obama won the White House in 2008 and Democrats took the House and Senate, labor “conducted business as if they were lobbying. They were unwilling to go after Democrats.”

So the Employee Free Choice Act — the so-called card-check legislation to make it easier for unions to win organizing elections — went nowhere.

Similarly, unions lost their effort to include the public option as part of health care reform.

“Our failure to keep after the people we endorse ends up demoralizing members,” Fletcher said. “And we keep doing that.”

Judy Ancel, director of the Institute for Labor Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, echoes Fletcher.

She shared a letter she received from Bob King, president of the United Auto Workers, as a good example of business unionism:

“In an era of global competition, the UAW of the 21st century must work in a collaborative way with our employers and must support the companies’ success. We have rejected the adversarial, ‘us versus them’ mentality that fostered rigid work rules, narrow job classifications and a grievance culture. We recognize that true job security comes from producing the best-quality products at the best value.”

Ancel argued that missed the point — that a fundamental power shift is taking place, that 20th-century progressivism is being rolled back and that “labor has been like the proverbial frog in the slowly heating pot.”

So tweaking institutions or labor laws isn’t enough.

“The key to change and a rebirth of labor power is and always has been a broad mass movement of working people and allies, be they small business, small farmers, environmental activists, the faith community,” Ancel said.

She wants labor to “develop broad democratic coalitions of working people, organized and unorganized, around common interests. Don’t say you can’t organize restaurant workers or temps into dues-paying union members. Figure out how to organize them so they can act in their own interests. Support others’ struggles for housing, civil rights, prison reform.”

Unions must also go global and “overcome our national perspective and develop worker-to-worker, union-to-union ties along global production chains capable of engaging in concerted action, bargaining with common employers, and support for workers and human rights. The global economy is here to stay. We are part of a global labor force.”

Herb Johnson, the secretary-treasurer of the Missouri AFL-CIO, is closer to the front lines than Fletcher or Ancel, and like King an advocate for business unionism, although he calls it “job-conscious unionism.”

“We do not have the political capital or the capacity to be out there involved in all these issues.”

He pointed to his work in the Republican-dominated Missouri General Assembly, where last session labor stopped more than a half dozen anti-union bills.

By educating Republicans about the issues, he said, “we found many in the GOP on our side.”

He stressed that labor would still work against unfriendly Republicans, and emphasized he agreed with Fletcher and Ancel about economic justice.

But “these are NOT bread-and-butter issues. You can’t be what we were in the past.”

Labor’s problems, Johnson said, stem not from a lack of passion for economic justice or from ignorance by Americans about the good unions do.

“Americans love unions,” he said.

Union membership has declined because of two forces, he said. One is that so many union jobs have been exported.

The other is just as potent.

“We have professional union-busting that we didn’t have 20 years ago,” Johnson said.

Union-busting law firms staffed with anti-labor attorneys help companies fight union organizing drives and union elections. Even after unions win organizing elections, companies drag their feet and delay certification. Workers then lose interest, and companies succeed in decertifying them.

Rather than tackling larger issues, Johnson said, a thorough reform of labor laws would better protect the right to organize, vote for, and keep unions.

Gordon Clark, international representative of the Transport Workers Union of America in Kansas City, stressed educating younger people better:

“If you don’t have a background in unions, like your parents or friends, then you have no means of learning about unions or even care about their value. Most Americans are brainwashed (on television) to think that unions have no purpose in the 21st century. Unions are perceived to be unnecessary, corrupt and do-nothing for modern Americans.”

And he suggested that unions revamp themselves to some extent to make them more desirable to new members:

“We could help them with issues such as taking over pensions and retirement plans so that there would be no way companies (in bankruptcy) could do away with pension funds with the stroke of a pen. Medical plans would be another area to look at.”

Whichever course labor takes, a tough road awaits.

When prosperity returns, you wonder whether any current passion for economic justice will fade.

“I think it’s wrong to equate social movements with economic slowdowns,” UMKC’s Ancel pointed out.

Economic justice shouldn’t depend on prosperity.

Just under 12 percent of the labor force belongs to unions. But membership in private-sector unions is down to about 7 percent, a historic low.

Labor had better regroup after Wisconsin. If it doesn’t, not enough union members will be around to care.