The state of America's trade unions on this Labor Day weekend is not good. The labor movement is deeply divided with conflicting views of how to reverse its declining membership and clout.
Were it not for public employee unions there might not be much of a labor movement at all. Only 8 percent of private sector workers are unionized.
Therefore, it is important to reflect on why free unions with the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively are vital to a democracy. As it happens, this is the 25th anniversary of a compelling example, the founding in Poland 25 years ago of the trade union Solidarity.
The Iron Curtain countries had nominal trade unions, but they were shell organizations controlled by the Communist Party and leadership to snuff out any sign of worker unrest. Solidarity was a genuine, voluntary grass-roots union — it would eventually grow to 10 million at its height — and so, of course, the Communist government set out to crush it. The union was a living reproach to the hollowness and hypocrisy of communism.
But Solidarity endured, even despite martial law; forced the government finally to recognize it; and eventually prevailed. In 1990, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa became Poland's first freely elected president in 51 years.
Adulators of President Reagan like to give him credit for the collapse of the Iron Curtain, but it was Solidarity that gave it the definitive shove — and The Economist flatly calls it "the trade union which dealt the death blow to communism."
And it did so with no small help from the American labor movement, especially AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, who made Solidarity his personal cause. Through means overt and covert, the AFL-CIO supplied Solidarity with money, expertise and, most especially, copying machines that put the union's communications outside the reach of government control.
Thanks to free trade unions millions and millions of workers are themselves free. America's trade unions are in a real sense victims of their own success, having won the great battles of worker rights. Their presence, even as they quarrel among themselves and thrash around for new roles in a changing economy, is a vital sign of a healthy democracy.