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Labor Pains



After bedpans, almost nothing is less sexy than labor unions. But, like bedpans, labor unions have put up with the sort of crap most of us would rather not deal with negotiating, among other things, a 40-hour workweek. How sad, then, to see the inevitable, inexorable decline of the American labor movement.

How very unsurprising, then, that both the Teamsters, led by James P. Hoffa, and the Service Employees International Union, led by Andrew L. Stern, decided to bolt the AFL-CIO at a Chicago convention early this week. United Food and Commercial Workers and Unite Here, constituted largely of restaurant and hotel employees, have yet to leave the federation but boycotted its convention. Stern and Hoffa complained that the federation spent too much of its time and money maneuvering candidates in the Democratic Party, and not enough time recruiting members. Stern can brag that his union hasn’t seen as precipitous a decline in membership as the federation, but that’s an easy boast when your union covers the growing ranks of janitors and nursing-home aides.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party groaned at the potential loss of financial support from dues-paying members, and AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney huffed loudly at the convention podium: “The labor movement belongs to all of us, every worker, and our future should not be dictated by the demands of any groups or the ambitions of any individual.”

The fact is that the labor movement belongs to fewer Americans with every passing year. Only 12.5 percent of all U.S. workers even belong to a union. Does anyone under the age of 40 even know what AFL-CIO stands for? Another fact is that the future of American workers is increasingly dictated by one force alone: the marketplace. Wal-Mart and other union-busting entities won that battle years ago. “Workers unite!” is no match for “Low, low prices.” And more and more Americans will be hard-pressed to beat better educated, more ambitious workers in China, India and South Korea as globalization continues apace and America loses more manufacturing jobs. Thanks to out-of-control medical costs, we’re already losing some of our best manufacturing jobs to Canada, which absorbs those costs so our country’s auto manufacturers don’t have to. As for the 40-hour week and weekends free'not to mention vacations'the majority of working Americans, white-collar included, lost those privileges years ago.

Utah workers belonging to the breakaway unions who bolted may wonder whether or not they still have ties with AFL-CIO’s national office. For everyone else, there’s something of the dinosaur’s last cries before extinction about this entire affair. Hoffa and Stern are right about declining membership, but they hardly have the cure. Sweeney is more right about maintaining political ties to the Democratic Party. Life won’t get any easier for working Americans, but it’s bound to get worse under a Republican elite only too happy to tax workers as it doles out favors and taxcuts to the super-rich.

As the French and other Europeans know, there’s only one sure-fire way to secure the rights of working people, and that’s to always make sure you’ve got the power of politicians on your side. The French have plenty of time to contemplate these matters, too, as they are guaranteed at least five weeks of vacation'and in most cases eight'per year, on top of a dozen public holidays. No wonder we hate them so much.