08/31/2012 07:26 pm ET Updated Oct 31, 2012

Labor's Love Lost

"Look for the union label." That was one of the catch phrases for the union movement in happier times. It used to be labor unions were something that many working class Americans loved. It now appears that labor unions are something that many working class Americans hate.

What is the status of labor unions as we approach Labor Day 2012? On January 27 of this year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its Union Members Summary for 2011 which showed that the union membership rate for wage and salary workers was 11.8 percent with a total of 14.8 million union workers. The release highlighted that "public sector workers had a union membership rate (37.0 percent) more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.9 percent)."

The BLS release observed that "In 1983, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent." Thus, the overall decline in the membership percentage between 1983 and 2011 was almost 41 percent. That is a substantial shrinkage in those 28 years.

The more complete and revealing picture is provided by examining comparative historic data available at maintained by Barry T. Hirsch and David A. McPherson. That data goes back to 1973 and shows that in the ten years between 1973 and 1983 private sector union membership went from 24.2 percent to 16.5 percent (a decline of 32 percent) and public sector union membership went from 23.0 percent to 36.7 percent (an increase of nearly 60 percent).

Public sector union membership from 1983 to 2011 has hovered in the 36 to 37+ percent range. In stark contrast, private sector union membership tumbled from the 16.5 percent of 1983 to 6.9 percent (a decline of almost 58 percent in that time frame, and a decline of over 71 percent since 1973).

These statistics are stunning but they only tell part of the story about the current status of unions in both the private and public sectors. That story is in the back stories and not in the numbers.

Undoubtedly, the highest profile union story for the past two years has been the battle between Governor Scott Walker (R) of Wisconsin and its public sector employees. The battle began when Walker introduced legislation which the Wisconsin legislature passed to significantly change the collective bargaining process and powers of the union. The union in turn led an effort to have Walker recalled. The recall election was held on June 5, 2012 and Walker easily beat his opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett (D). Walker's dual "union-busting" victories along with the Republican Party Platform for 2012 which endorses, as Josh Eidelson points out in his August 29 Salon blog, "the enactment of a National Right to Work Law" do not augur well for the future of unions -- either public or private.

The resolution of the dispute between Caterpillar and its striking workers at its Joliet, IL plant does not augur well either. As Steven Greenhouse reports in his August 18 New York Times article, "The fight... was considered a test case in American labor relations, in part because Caterpillar was driving such a hard bargain when its business was thriving." It was a "test" that Caterpillar won and the union lost as the workers, voting against the recommendations of their leadership, ratified a deal that gave Caterpillar almost everything that it was asking for. This included: a six-year wage freeze for employees hired before 2005, a pension freeze for the senior two \-thirds of the workforce, and a "steep increase" in the portion of the health care insurance to be paid by the workers.

If there is any one thing that symbolizes the sad state of the union movement today, it is the fact that the A.F.L.-C.I.O has put its National Labor College, which according to Eugene L. Meyer in his August 1 New York Times article sits on "47 prime acres ripe for development just off the Capital Beltway," up for sale. Meyer reports that the College is being sold because of the "decline in organized labor's finances as well as the college's shift to mostly online courses." He quotes Greg W. Giebel, the school's first provost on the sale, "It's a big failure on the part of the labor movement. It certainly is not what was intended as I knew it. The dream was we were to be the West Point of the labor unions." That dream is dying.

Another one that is threatened is the respect and regard that we as Americans hold for teachers as Frank Bruni highlights in his August 18 New York Times article titled "Teachers on the Defensive." In that article Bruni writes, "In Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and other cities, Democratic mayors have feuded bitterly with teacher's unions and at times come to see them as enemies." Bruni points out that at the United States Conference of Mayors meeting in June, the Democratic mayors joined with the Republican ones in a "unanimous endorsement of so-called parent trigger legislation" which would "abet parent takeover of underperforming schools, which may then be replaced with charter schools or private entities."

So, on this Labor Day, unions are under siege on all fronts and their future looks increasingly murky. There are a multitude of reasons for this that Eduardo Porter cites in his excellent July 18 New York Times article. These include: an ideological shift dating back to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher that caused employers to confront rather than work with unions; globalization; technological changes in the nature of work; the movement toward a more "free agent" and part-time work force; a loss of public trust; and resentment of non-union employees toward union employees.

The list could go on. Probably the overriding problem of unions has been that they have not changed with the times and their leadership has not been advocates for change. Porter makes this point continuously through his article and concludes, "Union leaders understand this -- to a point. They are slowly beginning to experiment with new models of organization. Time is not on their side, however. If they fail to embrace radical change, in 80 years unions may not be around at all."

We hope Mr. Porter's most dire prediction proves incorrect. America's unions played an essential role in the development of our democracy and helped create the strongest middle class in the history of the world. We believe that unions can play a role in building America's future and ensuring a vital middle class. We know, however, that hoping and believing will not make it so.

What will be required will be union leaders with the vision, tenacity and courage to make their unions relevant to the 21st century. Ed Crego's father, Ed, was Chairman of the union for Commonwealth Edison Company in Illinois. When he passed away in 1982, Jim O'Connor, the Chairman and Chief Executive of the Company, came to his funeral and said to Ed Jr., "Your father gave his enemies 110 percent." The unions need that 110 percent today. They need it to make new friends and allies and to regain that loving feeling.