Members of several unions protest American Airlines' bankruptcy… (Rodger Mallison, Associated…)
American Airlines has spent the week trying to persuade a bankruptcy judge to allow it to chuck all its labor contracts and put the squeeze on thousands of union employees.
If things go as expected — that is, a victory for management and not for rank-and-file workers — it will be the latest blow to organized labor and yet another indication that, in the workplace of the future, most of us will be fending for ourselves.
"Workers in the United States are facing a number of difficulties," said Daniel J.B. Mitchell, a professor emeritus of public policy at UCLA. "Job security, healthcare, retirement funds — we haven't seen such levels of uncertainty since the Great Depression."
American Airlines says sky-high fuel costs and hefty payrolls have put too great a strain on operations. The carrier's parent company, AMR, says it needs to slash $1.25 billion in labor costs to remain operational.
An AMR lawyer, Jack Gallagher, said in court that the company must make 20% across-the-board reductions in employee costs. About half that amount, he said, has to come from increasingly costly medical benefits.
Unions representing airline employees say they shouldn't be punished for poor decisions by management in response to changing economic circumstances, and that workers have already been called upon to make substantial sacrifices.
AMR's Gallagher was sympathetic. But he said this doesn't change things.
"It's not the unions' fault we're in bankruptcy," he acknowledged. "But it's not about whose fault it is. It's about the facts of our business."
You could say the demise of organized labor is about the facts of all businesses, as well as a changed political climate that, since the Reagan administration in the 1980s, has emboldened employers in standing up to unions.
Private-sector union membership in this country hit its peak in the 1950s, when about 40% of the workforce carried union cards.
As of last year, private-sector union membership hit a record low of 7.6% of the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Public-sector union membership remains strong at about 40% of the workforce, although public employees such as teachers are under growing pressure to give up a variety of traditional protections, such as seniority safeguards.
Some of organized labor's setbacks have been self-inflicted. Allegations of corruption have been a perennial problem for unions, as has a seeming inability to adapt to changing times.
Damon Silvers, policy director for the once-mightyAFL-CIO, described this as a sense of "self-satisfaction" that prevented unions from "being able to effectively respond to efforts to wipe us out."
"The labor movement in the United States was built by people who were prepared to put everything on the line," he said. "What happened later is that unions were less willing to take such risks."
At the same time, many employers gradually became more sensitive to meeting employees' needs, such as health and retirement benefits, thus making union membership less necessary in the eyes of some workers.
Perhaps the greatest damage to organized labor was done by the ailing economy. Workers today are fearful of losing their jobs, and that has significantly tipped the balance of power in favor of employers.
"In a soft labor market, employers feel they can push people around," Silvers said. "Fear has been dominant in the American workplace for years now."
Is organized labor dead? Not quite. If nothing else, it will still require a generational shift before public-sector unions bow to the same pressures as their private-sector cousins.
But it's hard to escape a sense that the labor movement's best years are well behind it.
And that raises a serious question: What protections can U.S. workers reasonably expect in years ahead?
UCLA's Mitchell said workers will increasingly turn to legal recourse, such as lawsuits involving disability claims or charges of discrimination.
"They'll have protections, but perhaps not the same protections as under unions," he said.
Silvers at theAFL-CIOsaid he doesn't think unions will fade into the sunset, not as long as workers still have grievances against employers. But he thinks the labor movement of the future will look different from the sign-wielding, picket-line-walking actions of years past.
Workers will increasingly air grievances and organize online, Silvers said, citing the role of Facebook and Twitter in recent efforts to bring democracy to the Middle East.
He also said labor movements will be led not by professional organizers but cyber-savvy young people who know how to put social networks to good use.
That's probably true. As for how effective they'll be, that may be another matter.
"What can labor do for itself?" union leader Eugene V. Debs asked more than a half-century ago. "The answer is not difficult. Labor can organize, it can unify; it can consolidate its forces. This done, it can demand and command."
That's not so easy to do in 140 characters or less.
David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.