The labor movement doesn't have much to celebrate this Labor Day. Congress first established the national holiday in 1894 at unions' behest. Since then, the American labor movement's fortunes rose to their zenith in 1956, when more than three-in-10 workers were union members, only to decline each year after. Today, only 12 percent of workers hold union cards. And if you discount union members who are public employees, barely 7 percent of private-sector workers are union members.
So why has labor unions' membership declined so far in the last 54 years? Some of it has to do with the changing work trends in the United States. We've moved from large-scale industry to service and white-collar jobs, from big employers to small business, and from lifetime tenure to job insecurity and frequent career changes -- all of which makes union organizing more difficult. But the biggest problem for unions has been their own leadership, which has grown increasingly out of touch with the very people those unions hope to represent.
In a recent Washington Post column, Harold Meyerson quotes a member of Working America, a political group founded in 2004 by the AFL-CIO: "When our canvassers call on our members on their doorsteps, they hear Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly in the background." You can bet that drives union leaders crazy, especially since unions now spend an increasingly large share of their members' dues trying to convince them that the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Barack Obama represent their values and aspirations.
But workers aren't buying it. They've watched as the Democratic troika has shoved unpopular health care legislation down American throats. They've witnessed unprecedented government spending that promised jobs but delivered nearly 10 percent unemployment. And now they're bracing for tax increases, which they know will come out of their pockets, one way or another, even if the Democrats promise only "the rich" will pay.
Union households were a decisive factor in the 2008 election of President Obama. The president won 53 percent of the popular vote, but that victory came largely because he won such relatively union-heavy states as Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. But many of those union members who voted for the president and his Democratic cohorts in Congress won't make the same mistake again.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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