Unions' Message Lost With Attacks on the 1 Percent

Unions need to change their defensive campaign to show how everyone benefits from their existence.

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Melissa Conrad, center, of Atlanta, cheers during a labor rally in solidarity with union workers in Wisconsin's current labor dispute Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011 outside the State Capitol in Atlanta.

This is a pivotal time for the nation's public- and private-sector labor unions, and American Federation of State County and Municipal Employee labor leaders Gerald McEntee and Lee Saunders are seizing the moment in their new book, The Main Street Moment: Fighting Back to Save the American Dream. But while the book is a passionate call-to-arms for those who are already sympathetic to organized labor, it misses its chance to do what the labor movement desperately needs to do.

Labor unions have been simultaneously weakened and demonized by people in elected office and in industry. There is simple proof of that—the fact that the term "Big Labor" is still routinely employed in the media and in campaign speeches, despite the fact that less than 12 percent of the workforce is unionized. And the number is lower if one takes out public sector unions. The book includes some good detail about individual union members, pointing out how little some veteran public sector workers are paid, and how some, due to a quirk in the law, are not eligible for Social Security.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Occupy Wall Street.]

But the book spends way too much effort presenting the battle as one starkly between beleaguered workers and vastly overpaid elected officials and corporate managers. Even if that case can be made, the good versus evil presentation doesn't help the labor unions' cause. Plenty of people in the economic downtown are looking for someone to blame, and anti-union forces have done a good job of placing the fault at the heels of public sector workers. Shouting back with a sharp assault on the evil 1 percent doesn't change any minds.

The best part of the book is the chapter on what unions do for people who aren't even in a union. Employees in states with labor unions make, on average, $1,500 a year more than those in so-called "right-to-work" states, the book says—and that is a theme that would have made for a better theme for the entire volume. Part of the reason labor unions are struggling is that they have allowed themselves to be defined—very negatively—by their opponents. Humanizing the unions (as the book does with a few examples of actual workers) and chronicling what unions have done for the workforce as a whole would make for a much more persuasive argument.

The workplace norms many of us have gotten used to—five-day, 40-hour weeks; a ban on child labor—were fought for and won by labor unions, and apply even to those of us who aren't organized in the workplace. The most powerful slogan labor unions have come up with is "Unions: The Folks That Brought You the Weekend." That slogan is even more notable now, when even somewhat better-paid professionals are rightly complaining about being pressured to be available by smartphone 24/7. It's a powerful message, and a more persuasive one to those not already on the union team.

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