The splintering of the AFL-CIO this week by the departing teamsters’ and service employees’ unions should be seen by liberals, progressives and friends of human rights everywhere as a terrible milestone in American social history.
It should be, but it isn’t. And that’s the real tragedy.
To be sure, the breakup was reported across the nation as a major event. The world’s largest labor association, the champion of the great American working class, was going through its greatest crisis in 70 years. It was duly reported on the nation’s front pages and soberly editorialized in the major newspapers. And just as quickly, it disappeared to the back pages.
Everybody knew something important was happening, that it should matter deeply, that they should care. They just couldn’t remember why.
It’s impossible to overstate the transformation of values that’s overtaken us in the last generation, embodied in this national yawn. A half-century ago, when unions represented more than one-third of the American workforce, the right to join a union and bargain collectively was deemed a fundamental human right, on a par with freedom of speech and religion. Today, with barely one worker in eight unionized, the right to organize is often seen as a whim, and an eccentric one at that.
An exaggeration? Consider the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and still accepted worldwide as the benchmark statement of human dignity. Among its 30 articles, it names “the right to form and join trade unions” as a distinct, fundamental freedom, grouped along with the right to a job and fair pay in Article 23, smack in between the right to vote and the right to an education.
But a union was more than just one of many human rights in 1948. Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady of American liberalism and the moving spirit behind the declaration, laid out the America’s vision of freedom in a speech in Paris that September, on the eve of the General Assembly vote. She mentioned elections twice, religion once and trade unions seven times.
Why did unions used to seem so central? It was an understanding that grew out of a very ancient value, the right to work, to be paid, to support a family in dignity. That principle was one of Franklin Roosevelt’s “four freedoms.” It was in the opening of Thomas Paine’s soaring 1792 essay, “The Rights of Man.” It was embodied in the biblical commandments to pay the worker on time and leave a share of the harvest — a tax on profits — for the welfare of the poor. The rights of working people are at the heart of our shared moral code.
Unions are merely a modern expression of that ancient value. Tom Paine couldn’t imagine a world where one employer controlled the fates of thousands of workers. A century and a half later, with an industrial revolution and two world wars behind them, the world’s leaders understood the power and danger of mass society. The need to counter that power with free, independent associations of ordinary people — working people — was instinctive, obvious and unanimous.
How did we forget all this? The litany of causes is a familiar one. Unions have come to be seen, with justice, as insensitive bureaucracies. Our labor laws have been changed, steadily and without fanfare, until union-busting is an unpunished crime. The rise of the global economy has gutted our industrial base and created a global race to the bottom. Along the way, we have come to accept Orwellian twists of language in which stripping workers of economic security is called “flexibility” and impoverishing one’s employees is called “controlling labor costs.”
It’s too early to write labor’s obituary. The labor movement is still the largest single force for progressive values on the American scene. It is an essential element in any liberal political strategy. It remains the best single guarantor of decent treatment for working people.
But that list only underscores the urgency of the moment. A labor movement that represents barely one worker in eight is no labor movement at all. As unions continue to decline, every one of their tasks — political and moral as well as economic — hangs in the balance, and with them the entire liberal project in America.
The unions that left the AFL-CIO this week have taken an enormous risk. It’s not clear that they know what they’re doing. The last great labor rift, the secession of the CIO unions in 1935, led to a period of explosive growth, but that couldn’t be foreseen at the moment of schism. Now that the die is cast, liberals everywhere must hope the gamble pays off. Unions must grow or die. A decent society requires that they succeed.