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Debating Labor's Future | The Nation

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Debating Labor's Future

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Q. What do you see as the main challenges facing today's labor movement? How much of labor's decline do you believe has been a result of weaknesses in the movement's own structures and strategies, versus external factors like labor law and the larger political and economic climate?

About the Author

Janice Fine
  Janice Fine is Associate Professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at the School of Management and...

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In Stamford, Connecticut, organizers are putting the movement back in labor.

Sweeney

: Working people are under attack in this country as never before, at least in the past eighty years, whether it is on Social Security or economic policies or attempts to take away collective bargaining and violate the right of workers to organize and form unions. At a time like this, we need unity and solidarity, and I think that is what working people in this country deserve. We really have to fight back stronger and smarter, and we have to do this together. Historically, our strength has been that we may not always agree, but when we take on big business or our political enemies we stand together.

Wilhelm

: Workers are in trouble in this country, and a significant part of the reason for that is that the labor movement is in trouble. I think the country got put to sleep in the 1990s by President Clinton, Labor Secretary Reich and others assuring everyone that they shouldn't worry too much about the loss of good manufacturing jobs because we are in a knowledge economy and if everyone would just get the requisite amount of education, people would be able to get good jobs, comfortable working conditions and higher pay. They did that to put people at ease about things like NAFTA.

The American people now know that jobs of all kinds are being exported--especially knowledge jobs that are supposed to be the future of our economy. At home we see the other face of globalization, the wreckage of the middle-class dream this country created in the post-World War II era. We need to re-create the possibility that my generation was raised on--you work hard, you play by the rules and you get a shot at achieving the American dream. I don't think that re-creation of middle-class opportunities is possible without a bigger, stronger labor movement.

McEntee

: The vast majority has been external factors, really. The Steelworkers went out and spent a lot of dough on organizing. They even looked toward other sectors like healthcare, where millions of workers are not organized. But they continue to hurt. The United Auto Workers are trying to organize parts plants and moving into organizing in the public sector to try and grow. What makes organizing so difficult are these external factors, much less the internal structure of the AFL-CIO.

Cohen

: I look at it in a global context. Why is union membership rising in Taiwan, Korea, South Africa and Brazil and declining here? They have strong collective bargaining rights. It has more to do with the politics of those countries and our own, and the behavior of management and the political structure, than it has to do with how workers and their organizations change their behavior. In any crisis, there is an absolute need to change your behavior. But we shouldn't confuse the necessity to change what we do with the cause of the problem.

Stern

: We have gone from a GM to a Wal-Mart economy. This can be slowed down, or, as we saw with the New Deal, we can organize unions and pass laws to soften the changes. There are a lot of factors we have less control of, but we have complete control over our own strategies and plans and the way we work with each other. That is where you have to start, with things that are in your control. If we want to reward work, we are going to need unions that have strategies, resources and the focus to be successful. I would say, right now we have unions that don't coordinate and cooperate and don't share a common strategy. We have a badly divided labor movement.

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