The Future for Workers:
Some may find this title odd, given the actual name of the program. I apologize for any confusion, but as you will see, I believe any rebirth for organized labor will be more about workers collectives than about an out dated and bloated business (biz) union bureaucracy. That may sound harsh, but I was one, and have grown very skeptical of any hope under the current format.
Last year in San Francisco I forecast the ultimate demise of the labor movement by 2012. The wild card was the 2004 election, and it is still the qualifier for an end product whereby the labor movement, as we know it, be gone. If George Bush is re-elected we will see an incredible collapse as he repays those folks who contributed so heavily to buy the election.
I don't want to dwell on this matter. It would be very political, and my hope is to avoid politics and focus on what really matters... workers. Even if a Democrat is put in the White House, it only delays the inevitable. Organized labor has been in a tailspin for nigh on 40 years, and has shown it has no clue on how to stop it. Sadly, union officials have felt friends in high places would make a difference: Utter foolishness.
There are so many forces at play in the USA and the world that it is immaterial who is elected. These are the issues that will cause workers to look for solutions well beyond just joining a union. The whole idea of paying dues and hoping the union will fix the problems has been exposed for the fallacy it is. That may sound like heresy, but I assure you, I am a die hard union man through and through.
Unfortunately, I am also a realist and understand the biz union model is a failure in today's environment. In a world economy and in a setting where the elected officers and a handful of union staffers are expected to be anyone's salvation is nonsense. Men and women who weren't in it for the money originally built the labor movement, they believed they could forge a better way of life for themselves and their co-workers. Union leaders are now living a life style that is totally removed from that of the average worker. Salaries for officials are outlandish and their perks are such that their first objective is to remain in office.
I could spend hours rattling on about the sins of organized labor, but it would sound like little more than sour grapes. In the short time we have together, I would prefer spending it painting a picture of where I believe we are headed as a society. Some of you will struggle as I trudge down this path, but indulge me, by the time I am done; at least you will see how I arrived at these conclusions.
Let's start with a simple observation and see if we can agree. For some people in our society, life has been very, very good. I think many would even suggest too good. To use a term virtually everyone understands; the "haves" have gotten it all. The wealth of our nation has been consolidated like never in our history. I'll spare you the statistics, but suffice to say there some who have more than they need.
Conversely, the "have-nots" have grown in number, and as the good jobs have left this country, the potential for a growing class of working poor has increased dramatically. The good blue-collar manufacturing jobs have gone overseas and retail and service sector work is on the rise. Even the numbers of white-collar workers has fallen off as tech jobs have been exported. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is projecting almost all job growth to be in the low wage sectors.
These facts alone give reason to be concerned, and there is so much more looming beneath the surface. Jeremy Rifkin's book, The End of Work, talked of the growing job shrink, and it is finally starting to take root. While his suggestion that volunteerism replace work was a noble one, people still need to pay the bills. One only has to look at the alarming growth of bankruptcies to see how ugly it's getting... and that's from the folks who are doing alright.
There are millions and millions of workers who fall into the category of the working poor. In most cases, they aren't the ones filing bankruptcy. They are the masses that are lucky to have food on the table and a roof over their head. They most likely are in that group of nearly 45 million uninsured, and the vast majority will rely on social security to be their only source of retirement income.
This is where the real societal problems will come. There have been volumes written about the potential collapse of social security. The exploding cost of Medicare is even more problematic. Everyone talks about the number of baby boomers who will reach retirement age over the next twenty years, but few have grasped the impact to our system. While many are "taken care of," there are huge numbers of them who will have no insurance; limited job opportunities and virtually no savings tide them over.
Income disparity is easy to identify, it's the benefit disparity that will cause a worker revolution in this country. There was a time when unions were able to negotiate wages and benefits that would be matched by non-union employers. With the shrinking numbers of unionized workers, the non-union employers are having the reverse affect. Wal-Mart like wage and benefit packages are causing reductions, job loss and major restructuring by union employers to try and compete. They are doing so on the backs of their employees.
While some argue we get lower prices, the bigger question is, what does it do to us as a society? What kind of future is there when the Walton types have 90% of the wealth and the rest of us are scratching to make ends meet? How do we survive when we have one hundred million uninsured, we have baby boomers that never can afford to retire and the masses are competing for the few jobs that are out there?
The labor movement has been unable to answer those questions to date, and I don't see any reason they will in the near future. Having said that, there is an underlying message from the past that does pave the way for the future. The power of the collective force of workers is undeniable. We have seen what workers can do when they come together. We know we are the largest single constituency group in the world. As a special interest body, there are none larger.
I am convinced it will be a force similar to the civil rights movement of the sixties. It will start small in pockets around the country and even the world. The clergy and community activists will lead it, not the labor leaders. The Internet will allow like-minded people to connect in ways we have never before seen. The rallying cry will be social and economic justice, and once it starts, we will see politicians and unions join in out of necessity. It will be unstoppable, undeniable.
We will find ourselves mandating not minimum wage laws, but living wage legislation. All employers will be required to provide health insurance, or to at least pay the government for creating pools so no one is denied coverage. Social security will be restructured so those who need it the most will be the first to qualify. The Medicare nightmare will be resolved in a National Health Plan where all have access, and funded by employer contributions.
I know there are those who blanch at the thought of society becoming more socialistic in nature. It is inevitable. The problems we are facing are so far beyond the reach of any other solution; it will be the only one that can work. The days of telling workers to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps will be gone. The belief the union will fix it are over. The social contract between employer and employee won't return unless and until we force employers to embrace it. Whether it is through consumer boycotts, whole citywide strikes or civil disobedience; the solutions will be forged by massive numbers of workers coming together.
I wish I could stand here and tell you the labor movement is up to the task. They're not, at least not those in power today. Maybe the ones coming down the road will be. I do believe Jeremy Rifkin was on the right track. The future of both our Country and the world are solidly embedded in finding ways to make for a more just and humane arena for all of us to exist in. While there is no utopia; there is clearly the opportunity for everyone to enjoy a much better future than the one where the masses have little and a handful have a lot.
I know the challenges are staggering. One final bold forecast, my mentor says we aren't into making predictions. I expect we will see a John Kennedy/Martin Luther King type leader emerge in the next 5 to 10 years. He/she will be the person who inspires millions and millions of workers to join The Movement and change forevermore our destiny. With all due respect to those in power, we sorely need to have this kind of spiritual and emotional leadership emerge. Someone who can give us hope, who is pure of heart and knows we have so much more we can achieve.
I wish I were able to stand here today and tell you the labor movement will be the defining difference. I can't. Having said that, I am convinced the power of the collective voice of workers is infinitely stronger, louder and more powerful than anything we have ever seen. It is looming, lingering only for the right leader to come along and unleash it. Once they do, society, as we know it will be changed, and changed for the better.