Stories & Grievances
Union Rise, Fall, and Failure
"Fifteen million Americans bring you Edward P. Morgan and the news.” From 1955 to 1967, that line, heard on the ABC radio network every weeknight at 7 P.M., heralded the nation’s best news broadcast. Those fifteen million Americans were the members of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., a federation that included nearly every union in the land. Organized labor was powerful and, for the most part, respected. Its economic and political muscle had played an indispensable role in insuring that the benefits of postwar prosperity were widely shared, transforming much of what many had unironically called the proletariat into an important segment of the broad American middle class. Labor has come a long way since then—a long way down.
by Hendrik Hertzberg March 7, 2011
“Fifteen million Americans bring you Edward P. Morgan and the news.” From 1955 to 1967, that line, heard on the ABC radio network every weeknight at 7 P.M., heralded the nation’s best news broadcast. Those fifteen million Americans were the members of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., a federation that included nearly every union in the land. Organized labor was powerful and, for the most part, respected. Its economic and political muscle had played an indispensable role in insuring that the benefits of postwar prosperity were widely shared, transforming much of what many had unironically called the proletariat into an important segment of the broad American middle class.
Labor has come a long way since then—a long way down. At the outset of the nineteen-sixties, one in four workers had the protection of a union. By the early eighties, after President Reagan destroyed the air-traffic controllers’ union, the proportion was down to one in five. Now it’s one in eight. In a workforce twice the size it was in Edward P. Morgan’s heyday, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s onetime fifteen million has shrunk to twelve million, with a couple of million more in unions unaffiliated with the federation.
Organized labor’s catastrophic decline has paralleled—and, to a disputed but indisputably substantial degree, precipitated—an equally dramatic rise in economic inequality. In 1980, the best-off tenth of American families collected about a third of the nation’s income. Now they’re getting close to half. The top one per cent is getting a full fifth, double what it got in 1980. The super-rich—the top one-tenth of the top one per cent, which is to say the top one-thousandth—have been the biggest winners of all. What is always called their “compensation” (wage workers lucky enough to have a job simply get paid) has quadrupled.
Over the same period, the composition of the labor movement, as it still defiantly styles itself, has radically changed. A few weeks ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that, for the first time, more union members are government workers, not private-sector employees. The Times quoted an official of the United States Chamber of Commerce as pronouncing himself “a little bit shocked,” and he wasn’t the only one. Yet this development has nothing to do with some imagined spike in public-sector unionism. It is entirely a function of the collapse of organized labor in the private sector. For the past four decades, the portion of the public workforce belonging to unions has held remarkably steady, at a little more than one in three. In the private sector, just one worker in fifteen carries a union card.
The causes of the disparity are many and mostly familiar, the hollowing out of American manufacturing notable among them. Unlike factories, government agencies cannot be relocated to China. Nor can government agencies flout the (notoriously weak) labor laws with the insouciance of private employers, many of whom, guided by anti-union “consultants,” regard it as their fiduciary responsibility to fire troublesome workers illegally now and, in the rare cases where a worker tries to get justice, pay a trivial fine years later. In short, union-busting has traditionally been a matter for private business. But this winter it has suddenly gone public, and its weapon is not flouting laws but making them.
Last Friday—in the wee hours of morning, after two weeks of tumult and protest demonstrations—Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly passed a bill that is breathtaking in its fealty to the ideology of the far right. The bill, dictated by the new Republican governor, Scott Walker, strips the state’s employees of their half-century-old right to bargain collectively—except over base pay, which can never be increased above inflation without a public referendum. It makes union dues purely voluntary and prohibits their collection via paycheck deduction. It requires the unions to face a certification vote every year—and, to get recertified, a union must win a majority of all employees, not just a majority of those voting.
The bill has not yet passed the Wisconsin Senate, because all fourteen members of its Democratic minority decamped for Illinois, thereby depriving the chamber of the quorum required for legislation of this type. Governor Walker claims that his bill is needed to close a budget gap. That is false: the unions have already agreed to all the cuts and givebacks he has demanded. Anyhow, Walker has called his dedication to deficit hawkery into question by pushing through large tax cuts for business (with more to come) and a law forbidding tax hikes without either a two-thirds legislative majority or a statewide referendum.
Liberals who applaud the Wisconsin senators’ interstate flight have been accused of hypocrisy, given that these same liberals indignantly reject the undemocratic use of the filibuster in the Senate of the United States. The analogy is as clever as it is flawed. The Wisconsinites are not trying to kill the bill (they can’t stay away forever); they merely want to delay a vote in the hope of mobilizing public support for compromise. And, instead of simply declaring an intention—the only effort a modern filibuster requires—they have to do something; to wit, camp out in cheap motels at their own expense, away from their families. They even have to forgo their own salaries: the Republicans have halted direct deposit to their skedaddling colleagues’ bank accounts. If they want to get paid, they have to come back to Madison to pick up a paycheck. And the Democrats have another point: although Walker now claims that he ran on curbing collective bargaining as well as cutting employee benefits, no one has been able to find any record that he ever said anything of the kind.
What’s getting awfully difficult to deny is that what the Wisconsin Republicans are doing—and they have plenty of imitators and admirers—is solely for a partisan purpose, and a potentially lethal one. Of the five biggest non-party organizational contributors to political campaigns in 2008, the top two were unions, both of them pro-Democratic and both composed partly or wholly of public-sector workers. The other three were pro-Republican business groups or PACs. In 2010, after the Supreme Court threw open the cash sluices in the Citizens United case, only one union made it into the top five, and it came in fifth. And from now on, thanks to five Justices, corporate campaign spending will be literally limitless.
Yes, unions will have the same freedom. But unions are already maxed out—and their resources, stretched to the breaking point, are diminishing. If, as Anatole France observed, the law in its majesty forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, the Supreme Court, in its majesty, permits both to spend as much as they can lay their hands on. If a Republican Party that has lately become rigidly, fanatically “conservative” can succeed in reducing public-sector unions to the parlous condition of their private-sector brethren, then organized labor—which, for all its failings, all its shortsightedness, all its “special interest” selfishness, remains the only truly formidable counterweight to the ever-growing political power of that top one-thousandth—will no longer be anything close to a match for organized money. And that will be the news, brought to you by a few very rich, very powerful Americans—and many, many billions of dollars.
August 7, 1995
A.F.L.-C.I.O. Candidates Prod Each Other to Move Unions Toward Change
By LOUIS UCHITELLE, NY Times
Suddenly the A.F.L.-C.I.O., awakening to danger, is trying to train and ship out hundreds of new union organizers. Never mind the cost. And the two men vying to lead the federation show up at every sore spot for workers, hoping to awaken in ordinary non-union Americans a new feeling that unions can help them.
Nearly two months into their election campaign, the candidates, Thomas R. Donahue and John J. Sweeney, keep upping the ante, turning initially vague platforms into ever more specific promises and even some action. Prodding each other, they are making a huge commitment: That organized labor will become a social movement, engaged in raising the living standards of all American workers, as it was in the 1930's, and not a collection of unions concerned mainly with trying to preserve the jobs and wages of those who are already members.
Not since the 1960's, when unions recruited Federal Government employees for the first time, enlisting tens of thousands, has there been so much innovation in the union movement and talk of change. Making money available, as the organization did last week, to send 1,500 union organizers into the field over the next 18 months is a huge undertaking for an organization that did not train any organizers five years ago and now puts only 200 a year through its three-month course.
"There has to be meaningful change," Mr. Sweeney said, a view he shares with Mr. Donahue. "We have started a dialogue and there is no turning back."
But there is great risk in the undertaking. If the unions, through a new activism, fail to win enough public support to reverse their declining membership, then the attempt at revival might instead convince Americans that the traditional unions have indeed become irrelevant in their struggle to deal with wage stagnation, layoffs and cuts in benefits.
No group has a bigger stake in the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s revival effort than Corporate America, and that makes the nation's executives a gauge for measuring progress. So far they are not showing any worry. "I don't see anything that is going on yet that is of major concern," said Robert Corlett, vice president of human resources for the Lockheed Martin Corporation, the big aerospace company. "And I think other employers share that view."
The revival movement is still in a very early stage. Mr. Donahue and Mr. Sweeney have only just crossed the line from campaign promises to action. They did so last week during the summer meeting of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s executive council in Chicago. Lane Kirkland, long an advocate of the status quo, formally retired as president, forced out by the pressure for change. Mr. Donahue, his secretary-treasurer, became the interim president, until the October presidential election, and took four steps toward change.
The first involved the organizers. He committed the A.F.L.-C.I.O. to eventually spend $20 million a year on organizing, up from $3 million today. That is an eye-catching shift in resources for an organization with a $60 million budget. If it works, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. would become the driving force in recruiting workers into unions, a task now left to the individual unions. But what other way is there to organize a company like Wal-Mart, with employees spread across stores in every state, or the ubiquitous parts makers that supply the big auto manufacturers.
"The key is the scale," said Richard Bensinger, executive director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s Organizing Institute. "The task has gotten beyond what any individual union can do."
Beyond organizing, Mr. Donahue obtained from the executive council, for the first time, the authority for the A.F.L.-C.I.O. to make no-interest loans totaling $1 million to unions on strike and running out of money to pay their strikers. He also appropriated money to train 500 local union people to be political advocates -- recognizing, in effect, the federation's failure as a lobbyist in Washington, where it has been unable to win legislation that would prohibit the use of replacement workers in strikes or pass bills that would make organizing easier.
The focus is now to shift to the cities and states. The hope is that local union members, now largely passive in election campaigns, can be turned into lively agitators for or against members of Congress. They would become, in Mr. Donahue's words, "the most powerful foot soldiers of the entire electoral process."
Finally, Mr. Donahue set up a committee, with himself and Mr. Sweeney as co-chairmen, to draw up by early fall a proposal to revamp the federation's governing executive council. The idea is to include more women, as well as black and Hispanic union leaders. Women and minorities are close to edging out white males as a majority of all union members. But the council is still dominated by white male union presidents.
In all this flurry of activity, Mr. Donahue comes across as the incumbent, still identified with the 16-year Kirkland era, during which union membership went into steep decline. The insurgents pushing hardest for change have gravitated to Mr. Sweeney, whose just updated platform incorporated most of the proposals put forth a few days later by Mr. Donahue.
Above all, the Sweeney supporters, in talking up their candidate, point to his achievement as president of the Service Employees International Union since 1980. Early on, he threw resources into organizing, and membership in his union grew, bucking the national trend.
Such arguments keep Mr. Donahue hopping. "People say that Sweeney has the election locked up," he said, acknowledging that Mr. Sweeney has enough delegate votes pledged to him now to win the balloting at the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s October convention in New York. "But don't exclude the possibility that my performance as interim president can change a lot of minds."
Maybe. But no matter who wins, converting the A.F.L.-C.I.O. into the flagship of an aggressive union movement goes beyond organizing, or revamping the executive council. Somehow the federation must persuade Americans that unions are an answer to their concerns. By nearly every union leader's reckoning, that requires the sort of authoritative, charismatic voice that made Samuel Gompers such a national figure early in the century and Walter Reuther in mid-century.
In pursuit of such a voice, Mr. Donahue and Mr. Sweeney, and their running-mates, have been criss-crossing the country in recent weeks, speaking to strikers on picket lines, at rallies to protest all sorts of issues and at demonstrations against members of Congress with anti-labor voting records.
But the constant public appearances have drawn very little national attention. Union mergers have gotten more publicity, particularly the announcement late last month that agreement had been reached to create a giant union by combining the Auto Workers, the Steelworkers and the Machinists.
Mr. Donahue and Mr. Sweeney publicly favor union mergers as a means of strengthening unions, mainly by eliminating duplicate bureaucracies and freeing money for organizing. A dozen mergers have been announced or completed in the past 18 months as unions join the trend that has produced so many corporate mergers. But neither the union leadership nor corporate America view the union mergers as sufficient by themselves to challenge the hegemony that management now exercises over labor.
"Corporate America has become comfortable dealing with the unions that represent its workers," said William Lucy, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "But it has not had to face a challenge from a national union movement to corporate sway over public opinion."
Broadcast Journalist Edward P. Morgan Dies
The Washington Post, January 29, 1993
Edward P. Morgan, 82, the veteran broadcast journalist and writer who reported for ABC, CBS and the forerunner of the Public Broadcasting Service, died of cancer Jan. 27 at his home in McLean.
His evening radio program of news and commentary, "Edward P. Morgan and the News," was sponsored by the AFL-CIO and broadcast by ABC for more than 12 years. In it, Mr. Morgan reported and discussed a range of issues, including the shortcomings of the broadcasting industry and corruption in some unions, and the show attracted a wide audience.
When he won the George Foster Peabody Award, broadcasting's top honor, in 1956, he was cited for his skill and brilliance and the public acceptance his program had gained.
That same year, Mr. Morgan also broadcast an impassioned and intimate account of the disastrous collision of the luxury liners Andrea Doria and Stockholm in the Atlantic off the coast of Massachusetts. What he did not reveal that night was that his only child, Linda, 14, had been aboard the Andrea Doria and was believed to have been killed. His voice broke with emotion at times as he described "the numbing, the wait, the confusion, the conflicting reports."
Mr. Morgan's daughter was discovered alive the next day, having been miraculously catapulted to a deck of the Stockholm when its bow crashed into her cabin.
"Within the space of 24 hours, this reporter has been pushed down the elevator shaft to the sub-basement of despair and raised again to the heights of incredible joy," he said on his broadcast that day.
A critic of commercial broadcasting even while he was employed in the industry, he signed off his 12-year radio program in 1967 with this indictment:
"There is enough wrong in this republic to merit a full-scale exposure daily, if not every hour on the hour. But newspapers run prize contests to lure readers or keep the ones they have. Broadcasting is driving thoughtful citizens away in droves by fertilizing the wastelands of the airwaves with the manure of utter mediocrity. The situation is so bad the commercials, even in their saturation, are often better than the programs they support."
Mr. Morgan won the Sidney Hillman Foundation, Alfred I. du Pont and George Polk Memorial awards and the Missouri Journalism Medal.
A native of Walla Walla, Wash., and a cum laude graduate of Whitman College, Mr. Morgan began his career in 1932, as an unpaid sportswriter at the Seattle Star. He worked in print journalism for two decades - for United Press, the Chicago Daily News and Collier's Weekly - before joining CBS as a radio and television broadcaster.
His print assignments included Mexico, where he scooped other reporters on the assassination of Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky in 1940, Honolulu and Europe during World War II. He was with the 5th Army when U.S. troops captured Rome in 1944, and he was in London when it was under bombardment by the Germans.
Mr. Morgan reported from the Middle East as a freelance writer after the war, then moved to CBS and Washington, where he covered a range of assignments that included the White House. CBS named him director of radio and television news in 1954 and he joined ABC as a commentator the next year.
He took a leave of absence from ABC in 1967 to become chief correspondent of the Public Broadcasting Laboratory, the experimental programming that later evolved into PBS. Mr. Morgan's premiere broadcast for PBL in 1967, a three-hour program on racial problems in the United States, was regarded as a landmark in public television.
He retired as a columnist for the Newsday Syndicate and as an ABC commentator in 1975.
In recent years, Mr. Morgan had continued lecturing and writing, including work on an autobiography. His earlier writing included "Clearing the Air," a book of commentary.
Mr. Morgan was a trustee of Howard University and a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Federal City Club, the International Club and the National Press Club.
His marriages to Jane Stolle Kirstein and Wendy Morgan ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter from his first marriage, Linda Hardberger of San Antonio, survivors include two stepdaughters, Sage Sohier of Brookline, Mass., and Elaine Sohier Juli of Grass Valley, Calif.; a brother, Arthur H. Morgan of Seattle; and a granddaughter.