The fall of Teamsters President Ronald Carey comes at an unfortunate time for the U.S. labor movement. Carey, who according to the federal government diverted union funds into his reelection coffers, was part of the reason that the labor movement has been regaining some of its organizing muscle and political clout. But even before the Carey episode, labor was falling short in creating a progressive new movement that could be a player in the Information Age.
If unions are to play an important role in America--and we think they should--it is not enough for them simply to be clean and representative. It is not even sufficient for unions to participate in politics to protect their interests. Instead, they must rethink just what those interests are.
Right now, all the talk about "revival" involves a return to the glorious past--when Big Labor had negotiating clout with Corporate America and political clout in Washington and in state capitals. Nothing wrong with that except the world has changed during the decades of labor eclipse. The cold war is over, competitive global capitalism is a reality, and the Information Age defines our lives.
The good old days are gone. There is no return to anything, only a march toward the future. And what is the labor movement's plan for the future? We don't know. Right now, labor is absorbed in securing old jobs for aging workers in the auto industry. It is suspicious of such innovative concepts as working in teams--even though these practices may raise productivity. It opposes immigration because immigrants compete with workers. It is against free trade because that, too, is said to hurt workers. In a high-tech, global world, organized labor is opposed to both the high-tech and the global.
Much more is required from a modern labor movement. Instead of playing King Canute trying to sweep back the tide, unions should be actively preparing their members for the global economy. At a time when the only security employees really have is the skills they carry in their heads, not the union contracts they sign, unions should be centers for training and education. They should be improving the productivity of their members as a way of improving their bargaining position with management. There was a time when unions taught their members skills to better themselves and their families. Today, they should be teaching computer literacy, math, and English. Instead of battling new organizational techniques at work, they should be inventing them.
Union hypocrisy on free trade should end as well. In Asia, the past 30 years have brought the sharpest decline in poverty and the fastest growth of a middle class in history--all thanks to free trade. There has been no race to the bottom but a convergence of wages toward the top. Union leaders who say they are helping workers overseas by insisting on conditions on free trade are not helping overseas workers.
Ron Carey's fall is an opportunity for organized labor to take stock. Rather than looking to the past, it must find a way to the future.