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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > State of the Unions

As organized labor moves toward what it hopes will be a large demonstration in Washington Sept. 19 against the Reagan administration’s policies, it is difficult to see any sector where union influence is not declining. Much of this decline is of the union’s own making and the rest reflects a major resurgence in the use and misuse of corporate power against unions and their workers.

Corruption, rigged union elections and self-perpetuating hierarchies have long gnawed at the innards of many unions and shielded the leadership from change or replacement. These afflictions, of course, also weaken the ability and will of union leaders to challenge corporate management. Investigations, indictments and trials of union of­ficials are not conducive to concentration on corporate adversaries.

The absence of any alternative economic models by labor unions was once a matter of pride in the old Philip Green days earlier this century. “What is it that labor wants?” went the refrain. “More,” was the reply. Not a differently structured economic system; just more money from the dominant corporate economy. Today, this vacuum of vision is a serious weakness and, in the context of endemic unem­ployment, it borders on being disastrous.

It would be logical to assume that sizeable unem­ployment would lead to worker militancy. That sophisticated union-busting by management would get up the fraternal dander of union power. That the fast-approaching tidal wave of robotics in heavy industry and computerized equipment in white-collar work would provoke hard thinking within union circles about decisively new directions and strategies. Not so. Where there is no gasoline for the engine, the vehicle does not move, no matter how compelling the destination.

Three-quarters of all workers in this country are not unionized—the lowest of the industrial countries in the Western world. Unions are losing more organizing elections than they are winning. Non-union workers are often rabidly anti-union, particularly in new factories throughout the South. Partly these workers are frightened of losing their jobs if they show pro-union sentiments, but the image of unions does not help, either. Companies are adept at saying to workers: “What does a union have to offer you in return for their dues?”

Reading through union magazines and newspapers reveals little sense of dynamism, of building new forms of power and alliance. The tone is indignantly defensive, like the AFL-CIO’s George Taylor’s regular observations on Reagan’s destruction of the job-safety agency. Apart from the Machinists union newspaper, the issue of corporate concentration of power and its consequences is little highlighted. The United Auto Workers’ publication “Solidarity” devotes space to consumer justice issues (what happens to wages) that is rare in union publications.

More than one union official has bewailed the contrast between corporate and right-wing use .of television and radio and that of organized labor. It is remarkable indeed how far back into this century unions remain as far as modern communications programming is concerned. There are no TV or radio programs conveying labor’s message.

But then what message does labor have to convey anyhow? Unions have their hands full just holding the line. Since 1978, workers’ incomes have lost ground to inflation. GM and Ford are asking the UAW to take wage cuts in next year’s negotiations! And business influence on Capitol Hill is sending organized labor reeling in defeat after defeat.

AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) is spending $1 million a year through a large advertising agency, for television spots showing how AFSCME workers earn their pay. Other unions are starting or contemplating similar ad campaigns. It would be better to spend this money for union town meetings throughout the country soliciting the best ideas from the rank and file—young, middle-aged and retired—about what kind of economy and society they want and how they propose to get the leaders and resources to pioneer these new terrains.

Most labor chieftains are caught in the worst of binds—unwilling to generate new energies and un­willing to give up the reins. Until one or the other occurs, the trend toward converting unions into de facto company unions will continue. And labor will he left with the weakest of options—that of demon­strating in Washington, D.C.