A true story. Following a monthly executive board meeting, the business agent, vice-president and I were casually sitting in the union hall, when a young man walked in carrying brushes, mops and squeegees. He offered to scrub our windows and floors on a weekly basis, and quoted us a fair price. We thanked him but said this place wasn't an office so much as a meeting room, which we generally used only twice a month. We did our own clean-up.
This young man -- a very presentable, clean-cut fellow in his early 20s -- studied the three of us for a long moment, then smiled and asked almost cheerfully, "Do you guys use it for AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings?" Frankly, this struck me as a rather personal question coming from someone who just walked in off the street, but I answered nonetheless. "No," I said pleasantly, "we use it for union meetings."
He actually flinched when I said that. I'm not exaggerating. He flinched. When I informed him that the place he was standing in was, in fact, a union hall, he physically recoiled. Then he muttered to himself, with the slightest trace of dread, "Oh, wow." That's all he said. Oh, wow.
You had the feeling he now believed he was in the presence of something sinister, as if he had stumbled into a coven of witches. Needless to say, he high-tailed it out of there as fast as he could. Clearly, this kid liked us more when he thought we were a bunch of middle-aged alcoholics instead of union members. If this represents the younger generation's opinion of organized labor, Big Business has got nothing to worry about.
America's unions are in need of a massive make-over. Despite having always been the working man's best friend, somewhere along the line unions allowed themselves to be demonized. When you hear "regular" people (and not just rightwing Republicans and the privatization fiends who want to do away with free public education) criticize unions for being anachronistic, unhelpful, "corrupt," unnecessary, etc., it's enough to break your heart.
Apparently, everyone's forgotten the role of resistance. Resistance isn't simply important; resistance is everything. Resistance is as true in socio-economic matters as it is in Nature. Resistance to slavery is what created the abolitionist movement. Resistance to the English crown is what created this country. Resistance -- people rising up and demanding better wages and benefits -- is what created the middle-class.
Resistance is why your bullying neighbor knows better than to steal your trash cans or park on your lawn, because he knows you'll "resist," by either punching him in the nose or calling the police. Accordingly, the role of unions has always been to keep things "in balance" by fighting for better wages and benefits on behalf of working people. Fighting how? By offering resistance.
There's a myth suggesting that companies pay their employees all that they can afford to pay them. That is patently false (which is why it's a myth). They pay their employees as little as they can get away with. Consider the state of the middle-class. Why is it shrinking? It's shrinking because, with union membership at an historical low, there is not enough resistance to keep it from shrinking. Profits are high, but resistance is low. Do the math.
Here's a shocking statistic. The Department of Commerce reported in November, 2010, that U.S. companies just had their best quarter... ever. Businesses recorded profits at an annual rate of $1.66 trillion in the third quarter of 2010, which is the highest rate (in non-inflation-adjusted figures) since the government began keeping records more than 60 years ago. Shrinking incomes and fewer good jobs, but record profits and a soaring stock market. Not good signs for working people.
The AFL-CIO needs to hire a public relations company and begin the biggest pro-union public relations campaign in the history of the world. Because perception matters, unions need to recapture the imagination of the American people. Having succeeded in tricking the country into perceiving unions as "harmful," the corporations are snickering with glee, thinking they have won. America's unions need to mount a counter-offensive, and they need to do it now.
David Macaray, a former union president, is a labor columnist and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor, 2nd Edition).