October 1, 1996

John Sweeney’s Children: Labor Lost

By: Clay Waters

Heralding either the last gasp of sixties-style activism or the first new blood to fuel the coming progressive era, the AFL-CIO declared the summer of ’96 “Union Summer.” Twelve hundred college kids got a chance to flex their social activist muscles in three-week bursts of demonstrations, picket lines, and rushed factory floors in a nationwide effort to canvass non-unionized workers. As Maryland student Arnold Cole told the Washington Post: “It’s like summer school with a cause.”

Big Labor could use fresh blood. Even with their surprise victory on minimum wage, it’s a long road back to Labor’s glory days of 1955 when 35% of all American workers were union members. Big Labor lost on NAFTA, the trade treaty designed to lower tariffs and increase global competition. With barely 10% of the private sector unionized, labor has worked hard to remake their image for Generation X. Gone is the muscle-bound thug of lore, replaced now with young, smiling, ethnically diverse folks spreading Big Labor’s message that this is no longer your father’s (or grandfather’s) union.

Predictably, Union Summer has been a hit with liberal journalists, who fall for the AFL-CIO’s shrewd echo of “Freedom Summer,” the voter registration drive in the pre-civil rights South. Time made the connection explicit: “In 1964 ‘Freedom Summer’ volunteers flooded the South. Now ‘Union Summer’ puts young activists on the job.” Newsweek captured the sweet stink of liberal chic from one participant: “I feel ready to take on the world. I’m finally doing something instead of just talking.” After harassing a group of Japanese tourists and later busting up a wedding, another girl expressed her misgivings but then thought, “What would Cesar Chavez do?” And who says liberals don’t have religious feelings?

But the comparison to 1964 doesn’t take. Freedom Summer was a movement of optimism and courage, when young idealists took risks so others could have their say in the democratic process. By contrast, “Union Summer” is a movement of limits, a dystopian vision of helpless workers vs. corporate greed. It may feel good to spend a summer saving the world, but the AFL-CIO’s agenda may well end up hurting the very folks union bosses are claiming to help.

It would hardly be unprecedented. Unions and their allies have long made rich on the ignorance of the average collegian. Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Research Groups use coercive funding mechanisms to collect a portion of mandatory student fees, as does the United States Student Association.

USSA supports a familiar laundry list of radical causes (Medicaid-funding for abortions, college admissions quotas, banning ROTC from campus) and one reactionary one: they’ve made common cause with seniors against Republican plans to slow down Medicare growth. USSA opposes any slowdowns in Social Security and Medicare spending. Without reform, of course, these programs will ultimately be bailed out through confiscatory tax rates, borne by the very generation of current college students whom USSA claims to represent. Are these really Generation X’s best allies?

Union Summer is just the youth outreach of Labor’s election year strategy. This campaign year, the AFL-CIO is spending $35 million of mandatory union membership dues on ads targeted to defeat some 75 Republican congressmen. Although 40% of union members are Republicans, 100% of the these mandatory dues will go toward defeating Republican candidates. The recently installed AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has even announced a surtax on its affiliates to raise the extra money, equivalent to 15 cents per member per month. This doesn’t even include the hundreds of millions of dollars of party-building money that makes its way to Democrats. President Clinton, aware of Big Labor’s power in the Democratic Party (1 in 4 Democratic Convention delegates are union members), rescinded the Supreme Court’s Beck decision, which forbade the use of compulsory union dues for political purposes.

Unions have been active on the local level as well. ACORN, a union-backed activist group once notorious for brandishing lunch trays during a Gingrich speech, helped place an initiative to increase the minimum wage on the California ballot. But the Employment Policies Institute pointed out that ACORN will do anything for the minimum wage except pay it to their own workers: the group filed a legal brief to exempt themselves from paying the state’s current $4.25 minimum wage, explaining with devastating common sense that “the more that ACORN must pay each individual outreach worker . . . the fewer outreach workers it will be able to hire.”

Just as ACORN exempts itself from the policies for which it lobbies, the Union Summer kids will most likely escape the consequences of the labor agenda they’re pushing. It will be the unskilled workers, those without college educations, who will take the fall if the government saws off the lowest rungs of the pay ladder. Those dissatisfied working for $4.25 an hour will be unemployed at $5.15 an hour. And the Union Summer protesters will be back at school.

It’s an irony that the AFL-CIO has done admirable work for freedom abroad, most notably in Poland, where they lent moral and tactical support to the striking shipyard workers of Gdansk and later to Solidarity, Eastern Europe’s first independent labor union. Yet, Big Labor’s vision for America remains authoritarian, not above using their grip on the government and service bureaucracies for strategic strong-arming. The AFL-CIO’s Sweeney recently remarked approvingly, “I couldn’t help but be impressed with what is going on in France . . . the workers shut down the country — even though only 8 percent of the work force is organized!”

This is Labor’s vision for the future in miniature: a never-ending struggle between the unalterably opposed monoliths of workers and management. Sweeney seems to welcome a future of adults acting as wards of the state, pitching fits of work-stoppage when they don’t get their way. One suspects that Generation X, the most skeptical generation in history, will be less eager to fit the union label.

Structural changes are taking place in the world economy that not even the most activist president can forestall; and hurling college students as cannon fodder against the barricade of the global marketplace won’t revive Big Labor’s prospects. In retrospect, Labor’s youth movement may come to resemble the Children’s Crusade, when cynical elders worked 13th-century youth into a religious fervor before sending them off to liberate Jerusalem from the Moslems. Promised glory and salvation, they suffered death and slavery for their pains.

The kids of Union Summer will be more fortunate. If their mission succeeds, and unions ram through their agenda of federal jobs programs, union wage scales, and unchecked entitlement spending, they may suffer at worst an extended bout of unemployment. Still, this is a high price to pay for a summer of “saving the world.”