Organized labor is an institution fighting for its life. But the battle cries issuing from the AFL-CIO convention in Las Vegas last week showed it has plenty of fight left.
Leaders of the premier labor organization in the US vowed to continue the vigorous organizing that added 385,000 workers to union rolls last year. And they have big plans for the political year ahead, targeting legislators they consider anti-union and preparing a lineup of "issue ads" to convey the pro-union message.
On both these fronts, however, labor faces substantial resistance.
Though the organizing gains of 1997 were hailed as an advance over earlier years, they failed to reverse a steady, decades-long decline in union membership. Forty years ago, union members made up some 35 percent of American workers. Today, that figure is down to 14.1 percent.
Clearly, the old adversarial view of management doesn't draw quite as it used to. While unions have scored some notable victories in low-wage service sectors of the economy, high-wage workers in the fastest-growing areas of commerce - such as high technology and financial services - are a tough sell for organizers.
Worker skepticism about unions may be part of the reason why ballot initiatives designed to undercut the political clout of organized labor are so far doing well. California's Proposition 226 is the prime example. Polls have shown support hovering around 70 percent.
Even union members support it overwhelmingly. The measure would prevent the use of union dues for political purposes without the specific OK of individual members.
A similar measure has been pushed by congressional opponents of campaign finance reform. They insist that such restraint on the use of dues be included in any reform bill. That angers Democrats who rely on labor backing. Whether in Washington or the states, such "payroll protection" measures are inherently political.
But they're also ethical. People feel they should have a say in how their money, paid as dues, is used by unions.
In a larger context, though, healthy American politics demands a flow of ideas from all sides, including organized labor. Healthy politics also requires reasonable restraints on the overall flow of money into campaigns, to head off tacit buying of votes.
If laws like Prop. 226 pass, they'll tend to mute one source of political- money influence, but do nothing about the rest of the problem of money in politics. Hence their march toward enactment only strengthens the case for passing campaign reform legislation.