Bill Murchison

Big Labor took a roundhouse punch on the chin a week or so ago, and the ringside clatter made it sound as though nothing much had changed in America since the days of John L. Lewis.

Raise your hand if, along with me, you have the slightest recollection of John L. Lewis, the formidable, bushy-eyebrowed head of the United Mine Workers of America, who once personified the combative force of the post-World War II labor movement. In those olden times, shaped by battles over pay and working conditions, American unions attained unprecedented levels of influence. Only to decline from there -- descending lately to the agony of an election the United Auto Workers seemed sure to win.

In its quest to organize a Tennessee Volkswagen plant, the UAW -- likely the principal element in the diminishment of the American auto industry and the accompanying impoverishment of Detroit -- enjoyed significant advantages. The National Labor Relations Board put its thumb on the electoral scale. VW's management gave union organizers the green light to campaign, non-union forces the red light. VW wanted to establish at the plant a "worker's council," as in German plants. Why, whatever would be the problem with such a collaboration?

Only perhaps that unions, as a tool for the advancement of worker interests, are old hat -- getting older and more tattered all the time. Just 11.3 percent of American workers, by last year's count, belonged to unions, vs. 20.1 percent in 1980.

And yet ... and yet ... you'd sometimes wish John L. Lewis were still alive, to take in the media din concerning the loss in Tennessee. The Tennessee vote -- just 1338 workers participated -- was small beer, partly concealed by the media's insistence that "anti-union" sentiments had prevailed.

Oh, come on. Anti-union? (SET ITAL) Against (END ITAL) unions? To the hot place with 'em -- that sort of thing? Why bother being anti-union? The John L. Lewis days are done. Just 6.7 percent of private sector workers belong to unions these days. The harm the old UAW did by making auto production in America barely affordable and often not that -- the harm's done. It's past.

The public, not the private, sector unions are the present pain-in-the-neck for America -- and, to tell the truth, for themselves.

It was said of the French Bourbons after their return to the throne, Napoleon having been disposed of as well as Robespierre, that they had forgotten nothing and learned nothing. So with the public sector unions, especially the schoolteachers.

Bill Murchison

Bill Murchison is the former senior columns writer for The Dallas Morning News and author of There's More to Life Than Politics.
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