Split could breathe life into labor

A Times Editorial
Published July 29, 2005

Over the last decade, organized labor has been rapidly losing its relevance to the modern worker and the global economy. The AFL-CIO has spent enormous amounts of money - nearly all of it to support Democratic candidates - in an effort to influence the White House and Congress but received little in return. One-third of the national work force was unionized when the AFL-CIO was formed a half-century ago; now just 12.5 percent of the work force belongs to a union.

Against that bleak background, it's difficult to imagine that the break from the AFL-CIO by the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters does much more harm to an anemic labor movement. What SEIU president Andrew Stern and Teamsters president James Hoffa already are bringing to the debate is new energy and a new focus on basics: Unions need more members, and to get more members they need to be more persuasive in the workplace. The union agenda has to move beyond protectionism and CEO greed, and Stern is at least talking in those terms.

"The 1930s adversarial type unionism isn't going to apply to nurses and reporters and child-care workers," Stern told the Wall Street Journal. "We need to create a lot of different models of unions."

The outsourcing of labor in manufacturing industries has created extraordinary burdens for displaced workers, but the trend in the service industry may be just as worrisome. Service jobs can't be exported, but far too many companies are treating them as a form of servitude. Whether they employ American citizens or illegal immigrants, too many companies are leaving workers behind.

Organized labor still has a vital role to play in American commerce. Congress has been too busy granting tax breaks for the wealthy to take serious note of the working poor. Too many corporate leaders are too consumed with pleasing investors to care that some of their own employees are losing economic ground. If unions are to find their place again, this may be a beginning rather than an end.