Big Labor's Long Climb Back

Big labor is back. The AFL-CIO, under tough new President John L. Sweeney, is back in the political game, pouring millions into key congressional races to help Democrats return to power. It's back in the economic game, winning strong support for a hike in the minimum wage. And it's back in the organizing game, training thousands of people to recruit new union members. But getting in the door doesn't mean being accepted at the political and economic negotiating table. That will take a lot more from union leaders.

In an age of economic anxiety, the return of Big Labor shouldn't be surprising. But it is. For 20 years, unions have not been playing their traditional role of channeling economic discontent. Not only have they lost members and strength, they have lost respect. Polls have consistently shown that while the public is sympathetic to workers, it is hostile toward unions. It wasn't until hard-right Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan crystallized public antipathy toward pay stagnation that raising the minimum wage became a popular issue.

The truth is that union leaders have been out of touch with most workers, especially young ones. In negotiations, leaders fought to retain seniority and rigid work rules to protect workers over 50 but failed to focus on the new skills and workplace flexibility crucial to those in their 20s and 30s. Not only did these tactics alienate corporate managers competing against overseas companies, they provided incentives for outsourcing, further sacrificing the interests of young workers.

Flexing political muscle, as unions are now doing, will not by itself regain respect or power. The real gauge of a rejuvenated union movement will be whether its leaders fight as hard to make their members globally competitive as they do to blindly protect their jobs.

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