Six Ways to Reinvigorate Labor

“Fools make feasts, and wise folk eat them; the wise make jests, and the fools repeat them.”

—Gaelic proverb

If America’s working people are going to make any meaningful progress, they’ll need something more promising than having the recession end.  After all, they were disadvantaged before the recession hit (during the so-called “boom” years), and, unless things change, they’re certain to remain disadvantaged after we climb out of it.

Because the government can’t or won’t do it, and because management will never voluntarily give employees one dime more than it absolutely has to, it’s up to organized labor to lead the charge.  Unfortunately (and for a multitude of reasons), it’s been a while since labor has been a significant factor in the economy.

Here are six ways unions can help themselves.

First, promote your history.  Remembering who they are and where they came from should be as important to union people as remembering what happened at Iwo Jima is to the U.S. Marine Corps.  America loves a scrappy fighter, particularly a scrappy underdog; and the labor movement is nothing if not an underdog.

The movement wasn’t invented by academics or social do-gooders or political action committees; it wasn’t the product of legislation.  It originated in our streets, warehouses, factories and mines, and, corny as it sounds, was forged in sacrifice and bloodshed.

While no one’s advocating a return to violence, labor must take a deep breath, and ask itself what it wants to be when it grows up—the loyal opposition or Corporate America’s favorite sidekick?  One suggestion?  Lose that “buttoned-down” persona, where union leaders try to mimic the polished rhetoric and general worminess of business executives.  It ain’t becoming.  Let Harry Bridges be your role model, not Michael Eisner.

Second, if potential union members consist of those hard-working, gun-toting, Red State patriots who refuse to join because they think workers’ collectives are “un-American,” then wrap yourself in the flag.  Expose the Ruling Class for what it is: greedy, anti-patriotic bastards who care more about making money than improving the country.

If the appeal to patriotism can motivate these folks, then remind them that they’re far more apt to find genuine “patriots” on Main Street than on Wall Street.  In 1980, the top 1% of America’s richest citizens owned 9% of the wealth.  By 2007 that figure had jumped to 21%.  During the same period, average wages (in adjusteddollars) declined.  Organized labor needs to drive home that Us vs. Them dynamic.

Third, don’t shrink away from ideology.  When critics scream that such a divisive approach is an invitation to class warfare and a veiled call for the redistribution of wealth, labor must stand tall.  Instead of apologetically denying such “radical” accusations (which, alas, has been labor’s recent history), it needs to throw down the gauntlet and answer unequivocally, “Yes, that’s exactly what it is.”

Fourth, rethink your political strategy.  Flattery and solicitousness don’t work.  President Obama found that out when he invited key Republicans to watch the Super Bowl at the White House, hoping they’d return the favor by embracing his health care and banking reform programs.

God help us, even bribes don’t work.  Since the 1930s, labor has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the Democrats.  Arguably, if even a dime on every dollar had come back as a labor-friendly gesture, union membership would be at the 35% rate it was in the early 1950s, instead of the 12.4% it is today.  Because the Democrats have failed the movement, labor needs to choke them off.

Fifth, remind people that the most prosperous period in our history was when union membership was at its peak.  Remind them that without a viable middle-class we won’t have enough consumers left to do the consuming.  Remind them that without a middle-class we risk being reduced to a bloated Third World financial services entity—part-Zurich, part-Bangladesh.

Also, drum home the fact that America’s enemies—those “evil” countries around the world we’ve been taught to fear—all have one thing in common:  independent labor unions are illegal.  They’re outlawed.

And sixth, demand more of the rank-and-file.  For too long organized labor has coddled its membership.  Obsessed with the drop in national membership rolls, worried that union members will run away,  and terrified of being voted out of office, labor’s leaders have failed to challenge the membership.  That has to change.

Unions need to start requiring members to get involved.  Just as shop stewards are given rebates on monthly dues, rank-and-file members should get a similar deal, in the form of dues credits for carrying out labor-oriented community service.

There are 16.1 million union members in the U.S.  That represents an under-utilized, virtually untapped source of goodwill.  If they conducted themselves as labor’s emissaries or ambassadors, it could make an enormous difference.

And don’t say it’s too late; don’t say labor can’t turn the corner and once again become a powerful economic force.  Things can change in an instant.  Two months ago, who would’ve predicted there’d be half a million Iranians protesting in the streets?

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Americana,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at