Labor activists are making a concerted effort to raise public awareness in the United States about dangerous working conditions at overseas factories that manufacture clothing for American consumers, following the tragic fire that killed 124 textile workers in Bangladesh late last fall.
The goal is to put pressure on U.S. companies who sell the products to compensate the victims and, more generally, to improve working conditions at such plants.
These goals – generating publicity about the conditions, securing compensation and holding the companies accountable – are laudable. They’re also insufficient.
Focusing in on the specific issue and what should be done to ameliorate the problems would suffice if the American labor movement didn’t have an overriding imperative: Survival.
As is often the case, labor needs to back up from the issue at hand and broaden its approach, dealing simultaneously with the specific matter in question and with what it says about why a strong labor movement is vital for our country as a whole.
This bifurcated approach wouldn’t be necessary if we were back in the 1950s, when labor represented more than one-third of the American workforce and its influence and power were widely accepted.
But now, with labor’s numbers declining, unions under attack on various fronts, and so many Americans – journalists and public officials from both parties among them – uncertain of labor’s continuing relevance – unions need to do more than fight on this or that individual issue.
Rather, they need to deal with the existential threat they face by constantly striving to show why a robust labor movement is in the national interest, how it’s inextricably linked to a strong and growing middle class, what the current war on labor is all about, and how labor can revitalize itself.
Emphasizing the big picture is not at odds with more narrow struggles; it is complementary. In fact, accomplishing the former will boost success in the latter.
In this case, for example, labor needs to educate the public about why workers everywhere need the right to organize so they can fight for better conditions, about how a dozen workers a day in this country are killed daily on the job, about how poorly written and poorly enforced trade laws put American workers unfairly on the defensive, about what this does to our balance of trade, and about how factors such as the mass export of jobs to countries whose disregard for worker safety is what is weakening the U.S. labor movement as opposed to labor’s troubles reflecting a lack of relevance.
In other words, show why unions still matter in the 21st century and how public policies – such as unbalanced trade agreements or tax policies that encourage outsourcing — are hurting unions and driving down their membership.
If labor can help the public understand the dynamics of what is going on in our economy and internationally and the back story to labor’s woes, it will accomplish two things – improve the specific conditions in the news, and help people understand why labor still matters.
Explaining why labor still matters is labor’s biggest challenge – and the one on which labor’s future rests. If it can’t meet this challenge, it can argue cogently on every issue that comes along – and still it will continue to lose ground. If people don’t think the messenger matters, they won’t care about the message.
But if labor can educate folks about why a strong labor movement is in the national interest, several things will happen. Those factors that are weakening labor – including de-industrialization, counterproductive trade deals, employer aggressiveness, labyrinthine labor laws – will be seen not only as labor’s problems but as national problems that need to be addressed. This will go a long way toward assuring labor’s future. Meanwhile, unions will be listened to more attentively when they enter into the debate on individual issues. And these contributions will play into the larger narrative about labor and the national interest. It is this reinforcing dynamic that has been missing too long from labor’s public presence – and that is today more needed than ever, with labor’s future very much at stake.