Are we Hearing the Death Knell for Unions?

New Orleans The backdrop to the grCN21811OhioUnion-NoEPSeat excitement and fight back in Wisconsin, Ohio, and India for the labor movement seems to be a very black curtain that some are trying to pull across the stage.  The evidence seems everywhere.  Steven Greenhouse, one of the last labor reporters, sounded the death knell in the Times while watching the pushback in Madison.  Reporters today in the Times tried to compare the lack of support for unions with the positive support for collective bargaining.  What does that mean? There is no collective bargaining without unions as the representatives across the table from the employer?  It’s like saying you like marriage but don’t like either women or men.

More depressing to me was reading an Ezra Klein interview with former SEIU President Andy Stern in yesterday’s Washington Post. I wish it were a case of misunderstanding or mistaken identity, but Andy seems happy enough with how his views were presented that he linked to the interview on his twitter account, so I guess this is what he really thinks.  Long and short he seems to say, his well ran dry:

“What I would say is I felt that the next strategy of change would be different. I had tried everything I knew. I was too much of a victim of the model I created. I tried Change to Win and helping Obama, and then I just ran out of Andy Stern ideas.”

I actually don’t believe that is either true or what Andy really thinks.  The rest of the interview in fact belies that quote as does his interest in broadcasting the interview.  Andy has never been short of ideas, what he seems to have realized is two more fundamental things in leaving SEIU.  First, that he could not convince people to follow his ideas, and, secondly,  after having led people to follow him  through past ventures like Change to Win, sometimes they don’t work.  It may have been the right idea, but it was the wrong strategy or set of tactics.  The rest of the ideas in the interview are feints in different directions.  I can remember how he scoffed at the German workers’ councils a dozen years ago, so it’s a little hard to see him touting them now.  I’ll think about all of that and get back to you….

But worse in all of these comments whether high or low, Twitter or Times, is that even when expressing hope they still reflect the old post-Katrina refrigerator slogan:  Hope is Not a Plan.  There still seems to be no coherent strategy or plan that pulls labor together in a more fundamental direction to rebuild and reassert.  In some ways it is too easy to see Wisconsin as a last gasp of the old school.  I heard recently that the Madison AFL-CIO was debating calling a general strike.  If called, who would come?  If we came, what would we really stop?  I want to see this and count the feet on those streets!

In the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago a breathless story about a possible $100,000,000 organizing campaign being launched by SEIU in more than a dozen cities around the country was attributed to an anonymous SEIU board member and other sources.  Whatever the merits and truth of those reports, SEIU and every other union need to pull all of their last dollars together and figure out how to survive and turn the tide and do it now, make it real, and make it very, very different, because the bell has rung on the old school and the old ideas, as Stern acknowledges, and we are running out of time and money with the tide coming in hard against us.

Time for speeches is over.  It’s only sweat that counts now.