IN 1929, they gave us the weekend. Nine years later, they got us minimum wage. In 1942, they scored employer-sponsored health insurance. In 1963, they helped organize the march where Martin Luther King told us about his dream.
Labor unions — whether you belong to one or not — have improved our lives in more ways than we realize. But they are fading. Just 12 percent of America’s workforce belongs to a union, down from 35 percent in the 1950s. Support for unions is fading, too. The number of Americans who view them favorably has plunged, from 75 percent in 1957 to 48 percent in 2009, according to Gallup.
Organized labor is in such crisis that the president of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, told members in September that they can’t keep doing what they have always done.
“Our movement as a whole is still shrinking,” he said in his speech. “We must ask ourselves: how must we change?”
Enter: Boston Mayor-elect Marty Walsh.
Perhaps labor’s feeling of being on the defensive spurred it to rally around Walsh the way that it did. It was no surprise that Boston firefighters and ironworkers cut him a check. But Local 840, in Rolla, Mo. ($200)? Boilermakers in Kansas ($1,000)? Miners in New York ($2,500)? The Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council Political Fund? Of the 101 candidates that group has supported since 2003, all but one have run in Wisconsin. Yet it donated $15,000 to Walsh.
“When word got out around the country that the former head of the building trades had a shot at being mayor of Boston, they might have been thinking ‘He could be a great spokesman for us,’ ” said Barry Bluestone, Director for the Dukakis Center of Urban and Regional Policy.
Such voices weren’t always so rare. In the early 1900s, several American cities sent labor leaders to City Hall, including San Francisco, Hartford and Brockton, said James Green, professor of history at University of Massachusetts. But today, the outcome of the Boston mayor’s race flies in the face of a national trend.
Part of the dwindling membership comes from changes in our economy. Factories have been shipped overseas. But unions have also played a role in their own demise. Some have become so narrowly focused on advocating for their members that they lost sight of the big picture: At the end of the day, their survival depends on putting out great product for a great price. Public unions — now the majority of all unionized workers — are all too often at odds with the taxpayers they serve.
Consider Illinois, where a tiny, secretive change in a 1991 law resulted in enormous payouts to 23 labor leaders. One of them, Liberato “Al” Naimoli, president of Cement Workers Local 76, receives a $158,000-a-year city pension for a $15,000-a-year job he took a leave of absence from 25 years ago. (Cement Workers Local 76 donated $3,000 to Walsh’s campaign.)
Such stories fuel an anti-union backlash. When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker stripped public sector unions of collective bargaining rights, unions failed to push him out of office. Then Michigan, the birthplace of the auto industry, became the 24th right-to-work state.
Defeats like that are causing unions to realize that they can’t just advocate for themselves. They need broader alliances. And their future lies in being seen as allies of the taxpayers, not adversaries.
Just like United Auto Workers realized they had to help design competitive cars, teachers’ unions realize they have to improve their schools, or face an exodus to charter schools.
This is where Marty Walsh could make the biggest difference, Bluestone says.
Walsh has a chance to build on models like the Massachusetts Education Partnership, which brings together teachers’ unions and superintendents to make classrooms more effective.
“If taxpayers and residents see the union as on their side, working for better schools, safer streets, then it would play a tremendous role for rebuilding support for public-sector unions,” Bluestone said. “If he does that, he could be much more than a good mayor for the city. He could actually help push forward a new era of labor relations in the country.”
Farah Stockman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.