August 30, 2014 at 1:00 am

LABOR DAY

Don't write labor's epitaph just yet

Former UAW boss Walter Reuther understood the give-and-take necessary for unions to be successful, O'Neill writes. (Detroit News Staff / Detroit News Collection, Walt)

Labor Day is again upon us. And so are the inevitable epitaphs for the labor movement in America.

The distressing analysis of the labor movement is familiar.

Whereas union membership peaked in the 1960s to one-third of the American workforce, union membership today hovers around 12 percent.

But there are ways to gauge the vitality of the labor movement other than membership percentage.

And while there is no question these are lean times for the labor movement, intangible considerations reveal a movement more vibrant than membership levels indicate.

Consider the nonunion workforce. Much (if not most) of this element enjoys wages and benefits comparable to those of union employees.

What is often not considered is that employers of nonunion workforces provide these high wages and benefits just to keep the union out.

This means that nonunion employees are just as reliant on a strong labor movement as are union employees.

Nowhere is this more true than in the foreign auto plants in America (whose employers are ever vigilant to extend wages and benefits comparable to those of the United Auto Workers for the sole purpose of keeping the UAW out).

Consider also the grocery industry. Our land is dotted with family-owned grocery stores.

Were there no unions at Kroger and Meijer, however, the large corporations would run right over the small private grocers. Look no further than nonunion chains like Walmart, which face no family-owned competition.

Walter Reuther, the late great labor leader of the 20th century, once said that the fate of the labor movement is invariably tied to the fate of the rest of America. Reuther’s words ring true when measuring the labor movement in terms other than union percentage.

Of course, Reuther’s words imply a give and take. Unions must come to terms with the reality of foreign competition by embracing the free trade advocated by labor leaders of yesteryear like Reuther himself.

But the labor movement is waking up to its part of the bargain (as evidenced by the two-tier wage scales prevalent throughout the country).

The UAW’s efforts to organize foreign auto plants in American show the union movement coming to terms with open trade.

Don’t get me wrong.

These are tough times for organized labor. But as we approach Labor Day, it is important to stress that the woes of the labor movement in America cry out more for a diagnosis than a eulogy.

John O’Neill is an Allen Park freelance writer and a member of AFSCME Local 3309 in Wayne County.