Bankole: What’s left of labor’s clout?
Unions have long made the argument that the success of the American worker is directly linked to the economic strength of the nation. That an investment in workers simply means investing in the future of the nation.
With that union bosses called the shots in Democratic politics through financing and securing electoral victories by placing pro-union candidates in political offices.
Today's Labor Day parade will be no different as union officials and their allies seek to remind the public that they are the last ones standing between workers and those seeking to pay them less for full wages earned.
But what is often left out of the Labor Day conversation is how unions are losing influence across the political spectrum in a state once touted as a stronghold for labor, and a city like Detroit, which is referred to as the home of organized labor.
Consider the following:
In 2010, unions touted Democrat Virg Benero as their gubernatorial nominee and failed to elect him. Two years after that, Gov. Rick Snyder pushed through the controversial right-to-work legislation, prohibiting workers from paying union dues as a prerequisite for employment. Labor leaders unsuccessfully waged a battle against the law, claiming it could potentially doom its membership.
But despite the so-called anti-Snyder fervor in the wake of the right-to-work law, the Republican governor in 2014 was able to easily ward off a challenge from Mark Schauer, the union-backed candidate for governor during that election cycle.
In 2016, President Donald Trump won Michigan with 28 percent of United Auto Workers members reportedly voting for him. Then add the latest federal corruption scandals that have rocked the UAW and netted convictions of some officials of the labor organization as another hit.
This string of losses represents the clearest example of the waning influence of unions. And the issue is even more significant now as the UAW seeks to assert itself once again by helping their gubernatorial nominee, Gretchen Whitmer, win in November.
Whitmer faces Attorney General Bill Schuette, the Republican gubernatorial nominee whose political trajectory some link to UAW missteps.
In 2010, the UAW failed to nominate Richard Bernstein as attorney general and instead chose David Leyton, the Genesee County prosecutor. The move was widely seen a miscalculation because it made it easier for Schuette to win the attorney general race that year. Leyton appeared to lack the fundraising prowess of Bernstein, evident by his election to the Michigan Supreme Court.
Mike Smith, a labor historian and principal archivist at the University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library, says unions have broader work to do in view of the current challenges.
“There is no doubt, in my opinion, that labor needs to rethink its role and its programs in the 21st century. The American political economy has dramatically restructured over the past 30 years, and labor has not always successfully adapted to the changing nature of the U.S. workforce,” Smith said. “Labor needs to continually prove its worth to workers. So, yes, some of the problems facing labor are self-inflicted. But not all problems are internal. Labor has also been under a constant legal assault in terms of Supreme Court decisions, a severe dismantling of the National Labor Relations Board, and election of vehemently anti-labor public officials.”
He added, “It would be premature to write off labor. Yes, at this point in time, labor’s influence has waned from its heyday, 1950-1980. This is, in large part, due to the demise of American manufacturing. But there are still nearly 15 million union members nationwide, and in certain segments labor has shown surprising resilience in the face of right-to-work laws and hostile conservative politicians.”
Smith has a point. Labor is being forced to reorganize and redefine its purpose like any organization that wants to remain relevant and meaningful would be required to do. But we cannot ignore the fact that unions have been taking some serious missteps that only serve to undermine their standing as a voice for those workers who are exploited in the workplace.
And like a wounded lion, labor must now fight to prove that it is that once-selfless movement that protected and uplifted those who are confined at the bottom of the economic scale.
Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Superstation 910AM.