A Work Order For Big Labor

The sad truth is that over Labor Day weekends, few Americans give much thought to labor unions. Organized labor used to play a major role in the lifeblood of the nation's economy, but now it appears increasingly irrelevant. Andrew L. Stern, head of the dynamic 1.6 million-member Service Employees International Union, is trying to change that. His efforts to help the working poor garner a larger share of recent productivity gains are laudable. But Stern's efforts lack a larger vision of the role labor unions can play in a rapidly changing, super-competitive global economy based increasingly on knowledge, not sweat.

Big Labor needs to reinvent itself and move beyond the 19th century industrial model of simply demanding "more" for its members if it is to gain traction in the 21st century. The sole drive for "more" has seen union members in steel, airlines, and other industries achieve their goals only to lose their jobs and much of their pensions because higher costs and lack of flexibility helped make their companies uncompetitive.

Stern is having success organizing the low-skilled, low end of the service sector among nursing home workers, hospital aides, and janitors where there is little global competition. The people who take care of our sick and elderly earn minimum-wage salaries that often leave them below the poverty line. Union efforts to get them a toehold into the middle class by winning higher wage gains and benefits would be welcome.

But true upward mobility requires training and education, and here labor unions can do much more. Teaching union members the skills they need to move up from low-end service jobs to work in the more highly paid parts of the economy should be one of Big Labor's major goals. Understanding and harnessing computers and information technologies would give workers a better chance for a better life. Unions should work toward positioning their members with the skills and education to get to where the real money is made -- in the global information economy.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.