"When the union's inspiration through the worker's blood shall run...." That's the opening line of Solidarity Forever, perhaps the foremost and most familiar of the old union anthems. Next stanza: "There shall be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun."
Well, the power of the union movement slipped away long ago, as the entire process of working began to undergo a transformation. Union membership today is but a shadowy fraction of the totals seen during the heyday of the labor movement: the 1920s to the 1950s.
Unions are still around, of course. Some actually remain potent, at least within their particular spheres. But the ultimate weakness of even the strongest unions shows up when the corporate/political powers choose to demonstrate their will. That's what happened in late 2008, when Republicans in Congress pressured President Bush to insist, before granting a "bridge loan" to General Motors and Chrysler, that members of the United Auto Workers Union (UAW) agree to wages that matched those given to non-union workers in southern-state factories.
Not that President Bush needed much pressuring on that score. Like his presumed idol, President Reagan - who broke the air traffic controllers' union during his own term - Bush was no friend to the labor movement. How far President Obama will go to expand the presence of unions is one of many vital, as yet unanswered questions in the early months of his Administration.
How the Administration handles the "card check" question, which could change the way workers adopt union representation, should give a clear signal of what labor can expect. Critics have long charged that Democrats in Congress are beholden to the unions - as if that would be more dastardly than being in the pocket of corporate interests, as too many Republicans inevitably appear to be.
Critics also point to what they claim is the excessive influence of certain labor organizations that retain a degree of power, most notably the United Auto Workers. During the quandary about "bailout" money for General Motors and Chrysler, opponents regularly cited the UAW as a prominent cause for those corporate travesties. If only those Detroit workers would be reduced to earnings levels enjoyed by their non-union counterparts at import-brand auto plants in the southern states, they insisted, the auto companies would be able to survive and regain strength.
At this stage in history, the UAW is fully able to fight its own battles. Not so, the millions of unorganized workers across the country, who have been ignored both by business and labor - with several notable exceptions on the part of activists for hotel workers and the like. Clearly, the need for unionization is greatest among the lowest-paid workers, who are the most vulnerable. That was recognized more than a century ago by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the "one big union" that was formed to organize unskilled workers who were shunned by the labor organizations of that era. As the furor over immigration continues to fester, efforts to improve the lot of restaurant workers, cleaning people, and other occupations that are often filled by immigrants who lack legal status to work in the United States face monumental opposition. ....
Note: The complete story of Solidarity Forever? will be posted soon. The text above is intended as a sample.