Foreign Labor Unrest and the Future Here at Home

The M.P. Catherwood Library of the Cornell School of Industrial & Labor Relations has a service, Workplace Issues Today, that I receive daily. It’s a good way to keep up with developments.

I was struck by the three entry’s in today’s email:

  • SPANISH WORKERS PROTEST RAISING RETIREMENT AGE,  a protest against a proposed raise in the retirement age and a proposal to reform labor laws; and
  • UNITE WORKERS VOTE TO STRIKE, reporting that over 80% of the members of the union which represents cabin crews at British Airways have voted to strike, although negotiations continue.

Although on global labor issues, I am no more than a casual observer, there seems to be no question that the labor movement in other countries is more entrenched than in the U.S.

Over the almost 35 years that I have been working in the field, the U.S. labor movement in terms of percentage of the private sector that is unionized, has been on a long downhill slide, reaching its lowest point ever this year. Although I am by no means suggesting one way or another a correlation, over the same period it seems to me that, with occasional almost abberational actions, labor’s primary thrust has been political, not ground level organizing.

Anyone who thinks that they know what the future of politics in America is going to be this time next year, much less over the longer haul, is certainly more confident of their abilities than I would be. Still, you would have to think that among those in organized labor there is a re-thinking of their approach, since this time last year, it would seem that they had finally achieved a political breakthrough. A Democratic White House and Congress and one vote away from a filibuster proof Congress, and even that vote appeared shortly, when Senator Specter of Pennsylvania switched parties.

Now the filibuster proof Congress has gone with the loss of Ted Kennedy’s seat and from a legislative standpoint, none of the goals have been achieved. It is the second time in my career that unions were narrowly turned away from a significant change in labor policy that would have provided substantial aid in organizing.

The third time may be the charm, although many will wonder if that takes another 30 plus years, whether organized labor will make it that long.

There of course is still a lot that can be accomplished both by the White House and by administrative action, particularly the NLRB, although even there, labor has been at least temporarily frustrated in getting appointments they have sought through the confirmation process.

If reports from the ground are any indication, labor organizing is picking up as political hopes have waned. That would seem to be a logical response. Combined with an uneasiness about the future, which obviously is not contained to the U.S., and looking at what appears to be a stone wall on the the legislative front, I would expect to see traditional labor law reflect more organizing, although perhaps a modernized version to deal with a changed workforce. It would be hard to argue that this might not be a fertile time.

Some of my colleagues who spend most of their time on traditional labor law are of the same mind and will be discussing the changing perspectives in a seminar next month in DC, It’s Not Your Father’s Union Campaign III .

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