Labor’s Depressing Data and the Contradictions Lying in Our Huge Potential


Coretta Scott King (center) with strikers, Charleston, South Carolina, 1969, courtesy of the Avery Research Center.

New Orleans    Over the last week I found it hard and frustrating to come up with a coherent picture of the current predicament of the labor movement both here and yon.

Talking to a long tenured colleague at the Change to Win federation in the USA, my brother remarked soberly that private sector union density was now hovering around 6%, seemingly on its way to the 5% he and others have direly predicted for years now. The Supreme Court seems committed to give a butt kicking take-down of public sector support by eliminating fair share payments for nonmembers, and the daily papers continue to follow Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his anti-union crusade for big donors and business. His most recent proposal would dismantle civil service protections for workers there and allow hiring by resume rather than by non-discriminatory examinations.

Another colleague, an organizer in Canada, sent me a fairly recent piece to read from the London Review of Books that alternatively seemed to be poking fun at the long heralded British labor movement while indirectly chiding them for their lack of militancy, as if hoping for the United Kingdom version of a Custer’s Last Stand fight to oppose the current Conservative government’s new Trade Union Bill. The can’t be any question that the bill is draconian in its hollowing out of labor rights including implicit threats to discontinue all checkoff, but the data points were also depressing. Since 1979, density has decreased in the British labor movement to 54% in the public sector and 14% in the private sector, better than the USA, but going the same way. Membership has fallen from 13.2 million to 6.7 million in the same period. 38% of the members are over 50 years old compared to 28% in the general population.

The article talked about a small union outside of the mainstream of the labor movement that was trying some different methods and tactics to organize lower waged workers like cleaners and security workers. They claimed 600 members and some success using direct action. At the same time they claimed they were so overwhelmed with their membership growth that they had had to freeze any new membership from enrolling. Hardly a prescription for growth.

At the same time sharing the article with ACORN’s organizers in England with labor experience who scanned the piece, ACORN UK’s coordinator Stuart Melvin immediately responded in part, “…depressing for sure, though frankly I’m sick of being depressed by it. The opportunity for us is overwhelming…” He also added tellingly in discussing the proposed right wing Trade Union bill that the existing “… protection you gain by striking legally is pretty minimal anyway. As a worker, I’d rather be on a solid illegal strike than a shaky legal one.”

A conversation on Skye this week with an Marielle Roux, an organizer from ReAct, ACORN’s partner on a campaign to organize domestic workers in Rabat, Morocco combined the contradictions we face everywhere in a microcosm. In several months she was able to hire and train several women as dynamic organizers. Their success identifying support from both native and migrant domestic workers was exhilarating with workers pressing their phone numbers in the organizer’s hands even when they cold knocked at their employer’s residents in the suburbs. Meanwhile a local group is trying to divert the money away from the hard, but exciting and successful organizing program towards fancier offices and fluffing their own nests.

Some of the unemployed marching on their way to Brighton for the Trade Union Congress. 1933.

Some of the unemployed marching on their way to Brighton for the Trade Union Congress. 1933.

Nation wide strike called by Trade Unions in India on September 2, 2015

Nation wide strike called by Trade Unions in India on September 2, 2015