When The Red Queen boasts in Through the Looking-Glass that in her country, "it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place," she could have been talking about today's labor movement. To turn their long slide into a winning streak, unions need to add millions of new members each year. The terrain seems only to get more treacherous, with a White House in thrall to business assaulting labor at every turn, a worldwide economic slowdown, increasing layoffs and plant closings, growing economic inequality.
But hold the sympathy cards. As various reports in this special Labor Day issue attest, unions have been organizing more boldly and effectively in recent years, making inroads into new constituencies, like immigrants, and opening up the once-scorned service sector. Election 2000 aside, more adept political organizing has boosted the union-household share of the electorate from 19 percent in 1992 to 26 percent in 2000. Unions have forged promising new alliances with students, religious communities, anti-WTO activists and environmentalists. There have been tactical stumbles--and most unions have yet to shake old bureaucratic habits--but the stepped-up investment in organizing by the AFL-CIO and its aggressive affiliates has begun to show the way forward.
The challenge now is for all unions to wield their resources and power more strategically, to engage their members as organizers and campaigners, and to articulate a social vision that will inspire hard daily slogging but also elevate eyes to long-range goals beyond paycheck issues, important as those are. Such a vision can impart unity and strength to the progressive movement. Teamsters can't be expected to hug a sea turtle daily, but their embrace of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was destructive, as was the United Auto Workers' endorsement of the weaker fuel-efficiency standards in the Bush Administration's energy plan.
The "blue green" coalition is currently facing another important test in George W. Bush's demand for fast-track trade promotion authority. Big business will spend $20 million lobbying for fast track, which would grease the way for the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas through Congress. The crucial fight is in the House, where the Administration will dangle all sorts of phony "side agreements" before Democrats and moderate Republicans. Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch is on the road, fanning out into home districts of key representatives. Labor is ready to jump into the fray, guns blazing. Recent ruptures notwithstanding, progressives have formed a united front to block fast track twice before, under Clinton, and they can do it again.
But labor's political success will be short-lived unless it is driven by an energized rank and file and animated by a morally compelling mission that resonates with workers at home and abroad. Labor will thrive to the extent that it acts not as a "special interest" but as a new civil rights movement--rallying union and nonunion workers alike around their rights to dignity and democracy in the workplace, to economic justice and a living wage, and to the voice and power that union representation can bring. The rest of us can't stand on the sidelines. Despite its frustrations, the labor movement remains the backbone of progressive politics in this country.