CINCINNATI - On a frigid winter afternoon, scores of people stood shoulder-to-shoulder on Cincinnati’s downtown Fountain Square, to chant, cheer, give speeches and wave placards and banners in support of better economic opportunity and union rights.
Linda Watson, a janitor, told of life at minimum wage, depending on a bus for transportation, lacking coverage to pay for medicine, hoping that becoming unionized could help.
“We all need to stick together,” she declared.
Loud rallies. Aggressive organizing. Talking proud. Flexing political muscle.
Once common traits of one of America’s most powerful movements, today they reflect the fanning of efforts to rekindle unions’ importance, after years of decline.
“We think it’s going to turn around; we think it’s a movement that’s going to continue and grow,” said Bill Dudley, an organizing strategist for the United Food and Commercial Workers in southwest Ohio.
Watson, who is black, was part of a diverse group including Hispanic workers, civil rights activists and religious leaders in the boisterous rally here. It was one of several across the Midwest this month by a labor coalition — including the UFCW, UNITE HERE and the Service Employees International Union — that has stepped up organizing of lower-wage workers.
Also in March, leaders of the AFL-CIO gathered in Las Vegas to map the federation’s strategy for the 2008 elections. They talked about people feeling good again about being in unions, about union pride in the aftermath of 2006 elections that represented one of the best results for labor-backed candidates in decades.
“It’s time to finish what we started,” said John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO president.
The new Democratic-majority Congress offers hope for labor initiatives including a bill to make it easier to organize union representation. And established unions are broadening their recruiting efforts to add members from janitors, nurses, casino dealers, and other groups beyond their traditional bases.
“The situation for labor is a little more optimistic than it has been in awhile,” said John Schmitt, senior economist for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a nonprofit think tank. “That said, the labor movement is really in a significant squeeze. There’s a lot of movement and activity to address it right now.”
Mark Weaver, a veteran Columbus-based Republican strategist, said that while unions remain effective at mobilizing their voters, they are being eclipsed in political importance.
“One thing that we know is that 40 years ago, labor unions were the Tyrannosaurus rex of politics,” he said. “Today, they are a smaller, less-dangerous dinosaur. Whether they’ll soon be extinct remains to be seen.”
A half century ago, about a third of American workers were members of unions. Federal labor statistics show that’s down to 12 percent, after a loss last year of more than 325,000 workers from union ranks.
The fall has been most pronounced in the industrial Midwest, where hundreds of thousands of union jobs have disappeared and unions in states such as Indiana and Ohio have seen double-digit percentage drops in membership over the past two decades.
Jon Spears, 35, became one of the casualties last September when he accepted a separation package from Delphi Corp.’s auto brake plant in Dayton, Ohio, where he had worked since 1999. He has no regrets about his union membership or the representation he received. But he felt beaten down by the unrelenting “gloom and doom” of the loss of security as the company filed for bankruptcy and the union weakened.
“I thought I was going to be there for my 30 (years). When I started working there I was very excited to have that job. I loved going to work,” said Spears, who now is looking for a job.
There are a variety of reasons for organized labor’s decline, including improved technology and productivity that requires fewer workers, more aggressive anti-union actions by employers in the era after President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981, movement of jobs overseas and the rise of mostly nonunion foreign automakers. U.S. economic growth also dilutes the urge to unionize.
“It is very difficult for the unions to get a foothold where there is not a need,” said Brian Burton, vice president of the Indiana Manufacturers Association, which represents some 1,500 companies in the state. Burton said workers there are able to get nonunion jobs with good pay and benefits.
Much of the economic growth in recent years has been in the Sun Belt, including states with little history of union support but with eagerness to welcome good-paying jobs.
“They give ‘em just about anything they want to locate here,” said Robert Shaffer, president of the AFL-CIO in Mississippi, where the state recently offered an incentives package worth some $300 million to Toyota. The Japanese automaker will build an assembly plant in Tupelo, bringing 2,000 jobs to an area that has seen other jobs move overseas.
“If they treat the people good and don’t screw ‘em around, it will probably be hard to organize them,” Shaffer said.
Toyota, which employs 7,000 at its Georgetown, Ky., plant, is viewed very favorably locally, even as U.S. automakers cut back in the region.
Unions at a glance Hard times: Union membership has declined sharply among American workers, with auto and steel industry unions taking especially big hits.
Rally time: Unions are casting wider nets in their recruiting, and pushing for labor-friendly legislation by the Democratic majority they helped elect to Congress.
Potential: Experts say there is a gap between union membership and Americans who view labor favorably that leaves room for a rebound, and key union issues such as health care and pensions are concerns for many people these days.
ON THE WEB
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF LABOR: http://www.dol.gov
CENTER FOR ECONOMIC AND POLICY RESEARCH: