They dare to dream

Observations on the United States

The trade union movement in the United States has been in decline for half a century, but it is daring to hope that this year will be different. If John Kerry wins the 2004 presidential election in November, he promises to be the most pro-labour president for three decades. Inspired by the chaos in Iraq and the stagnant economy, US unions are funding their most expensive ever effort to mobilise voters in an attempt to secure a Kerry victory. To some, a new dawn for American labour might be at hand, but to many others the unions' reckless spending and rash rhetoric have more than a whiff of the gambler's desperate last fling of the dice.

Organised labour in the US has never enjoyed good health, and today looks very sick. From a peak of only 35 per cent in 1954, trade union membership has fallen to an all-time low of 12.9 per cent. In 2003 alone, membership fell by 400,000. According to Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University, unions "are haemorrhaging members, and they can't stop the bleeding". Strike activity is negligible, and the most recent major strike, by supermarket workers in California, ended in almost complete defeat for the unions.

The political influence of unions has never recovered from the Taft-Hartley Act, passed by Congress in 1947, which prohibited unions from donating directly to federal political campaigns, banned the closed shop and gave the federal government strike-breaking power. Economically, the growth of a service economy and the leaking of manufacturing jobs overseas have bled union arteries. Millions of jobs in unionised industries such as steel and textiles have vanished. The largest private employer is not General Motors but Wal-Mart, almost none of whose 1.2 million employees belong to a union.

The established gerontocracy in charge of the major union combine, the American Federation of Labour (AFL-CIO), has risen little to these challenges. Its organising skills are extremely weak and its rhetoric is out of touch with ordinary people. It has failed to muster much of a fight against globalisation, instead fighting rearguard actions to protect its existing membership. The AFL-CIO and other major unions have consistently backed populist politicians with a narrow political base - their preferred candidates in the Democratic presidential primaries, Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean, both flopped. The only union that has shown any growth in the past decade is the upstart Service Employees International Union (SEIU), whose charismatic president, Andrew Stern, has been highly critical of the AFL-CIO, and has made some efforts to organise service workers.

Much hope now rests on the 2004 election. Organised labour as a whole is spending $160m on campaigning this year, up from $100m in 2000. The AFL-CIO has endorsed John Kerry, and its president, John Sweeney, recently announced a four-cent-a-month levy on his membership to pay 2,000 union members to work as full-time activists. The AFL-CIO has labelled Bush the most anti-labour president since Herbert Hoover, pointing to his restrictive changes to the overtime laws, his attacks on collective bargaining and the net loss of two million jobs during his presidency.

It is unclear whether such efforts will be enough. While Kerry and John Edwards have attacked free trade and aggressively promoted legislation to make union organising easier (the Employee Free Choice Act), many conservative working-class voters still find Bush's positions on "social" issues such as abortion and gay marriage far more sympathetic than those of the "liberal" Democrats. Bush's aggressive foreign policy is also attractive to many "heartland" voters, and the image of Bush shoulder to shoulder with firefighters and construction workers in the ruins of the World Trade Center has been endlessly replayed in Republican commercials. Bush has relentlessly visited industrial states such as Michigan and Ohio, and has made a determined effort to woo labour votes with protectionist measures such as steel tariffs. In his closing speech to the Republican convention, he mentioned "workers" no fewer than 17 times.

These Republican strategies might work. There is no guarantee, as in Britain, that the left-wing party will win the working-class vote: although Gore won 63 per cent of union members' votes in 2000, 32 per cent backed Bush. Moreover, among union households (including spouses and children), Gore barely won a simple majority. The class of so-called "Reagan Democrats", conservative blue-collar workers and their families, may well return a Republican to the White House this year. If they do, they will bang another nail in the unions' coffin.

But even if they don't, and Kerry wins, the battle hardly ends there. The real enemy of US unions is not Republicans but globalisation, and companies such as Wal-Mart that provide managers with manuals entitled Toolbox to Remaining Union Free. And on the question of how to deal with globalisation, the union movement remains depressingly silent.