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Thursday, February 03, 2005

Restructuring Labor

The long piece on the restructuring of the American labor movement in the New York Times Magazine has a couple of ideas, beyond the important discussion of where the unions are going organizationally, that really make me think.
The idea of a global union isn't entirely new. But the concept has never been translated into a formal alliance, and experts who study labor think Stern may be onto something important. I realized during our brief time in Birmingham why Stern seemed ambivalent about whether the A.F.L.-C.I.O. approved his reform plan, or whether his union even stayed in the federation. In a sense, no matter how the conversation is resolved, it is bound to lag a full generation behind the reality of the problem; it is as if the unions are arguing against upgrading from LP's to compact discs while the rest of the world has moved on to digital downloads. Even if the leaders of big labor do kill off half their unions and reorganize the rest, all they will have done, at long last, is create a truly national labor movement -- at exactly the moment that capital has become a more sprawling and more obstinate force than any one nation could hope to contain.

We realize how awful labor conditions are in other countries, and how competition from people in other nations forced to work for low-wages hurts American workers. Beyond adding protective stipulations in trade agreements, don't we need to do something about it?

Stern told me he had been partly inspired, oddly enough, by the example of Stephen Moore, the arch-conservative ideologue who, until recently, ran the Club for Growth. The club, which is anathema to both Democrats and moderate Republicans in Washington, raises millions from corporate anti-tax crusaders, then spends it not only against Democrats (Tom Daschle was a prime target) but also against Republican incumbents who aren't deemed sufficiently conservative. Moore has infuriated some Republican leaders, who say he divides the party, but the Club for Growth has helped push the party to the right, putting moderates on the defensive and making Republicans think twice before they cast a vote against a tax cut.
Now Stern has begun to emulate the club's model; last year, the S.E.I.U. ran its own candidate, a union ally, against the Democratic House speaker in Washington State, because the speaker voted against a health-benefits package for home health care workers. The union's challenger lost -- but only by about 500 votes. ''I think we need to spend more time running candidates against Democrats,'' Stern says matter-of-factly.