07/26/2005 03:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Organized Labor, You're Done (Now Deal With It)

As the son of a unionized postal worker, and a former United Auto Workers affiliate member myself, I have been watching the tiff between the AFL-CIO and the upstart Change to Win Coalition with profound sadness.

Just like two male bull antelopes at a mostly evaporated waterhole, these two organizations are fighting territorial battles over a withered resource.

The fact is that for buckets of reasons -- many causal, more than a few a result of malevolent trends in society -- labor can no longer be the economic, social and political factor that it once was.

The political factor that as late as four Presidential campaigns ago, made Michael Dukakis endlessly repeat the mantra "good jobs at good wages" like the consultant-manipulated marionette he came off as.

That tag-line at least got Dukakis the nomination. Sixteen years later, a similar degree of "I'm with ya" pro-union partisanship did far less for Dick Gephardt. And his was more authentic.

The mainstream media quantifies the dilemma of declining union influence as one of numbers -- one of every three private-sector workers unionized 50 years ago, compared to eight percent now. But that is just the result of forces at work for a long time.

I'm not even convinced that globalization or automation is the key cause of labor's decline in political influence.

No,the loss of labor's clout is largely due that as a nation, as a whole, we have been party to a cosmic shift in attitudes.

At one time, most Americans viewed wealthy individuals and institutions as "them," and working Americans as "us."

That's changed -- largely because the growth in availability of personal investment vehicles has seduced so many Americans into thinking they can become rich. Fifty years ago, some 10% of Americans owned stock. Now, according to some estimates, 60% do.

When you compare the percentage trend lines of unionized Americans who work for corporations to those who own stock in them, you see two opposite-headed bar-graphs, passing many years ago. When those two percentage paths met, there was a polarity shift in our values that was largely ignored then, and still is now.

What did this values-shift entail?

For so many of us who became investors, we began to believe that what was the right corporate strategy -- closing an 8,000-worker plant here, dis-arming a pension fund there -- was good for our own personal future as stakeholders in these companies. Even indirectly, through mutual funds.

So much of the body politic has guzzled this Kool-Aid, that even the corporate scandals of the last few years have had little effect on even slowing down this march toward a belief that what corporate America does is good for us - and our portfolios.

Of course there are those that still realize that it still is us against them. Some are still unionized, but how long will there be jobs for them?

And for the truly alienated, there are Evangelical movements that may be empowering -- but encourage support for the same conservative candidates backed by a corporate America too eager to trample worker's rights in the name of "shareholder value." And sadly, more than a few still-existing union households have chosen (cough)"moral values" over their own rights as workers.

These same dark conservative forces are those who constantly argue for "smaller government." That means fewer public sector employees to draw new union members from.

So where does this leave Big Labor?

A largely spent force. In those few states with both a significant labor presence and a relatively even split between the parties, labor can still make a difference.

It is, for example, still well within big labor's power to elect a Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, or to help win selected House seats. But with few exceptions, the fastest growing states -- and the ones with an increased number of Congressional Districts and Electoral College votes -- are in states with relatively minimal union presence.

Yes, AFL-CIO and Change to Win Coalition. Fight the good fights. I am with you, brothers and sisters. But don't expect to win too often.