America's labor movement may be at its weakest point in decades, with just 8 percent of private-sector workers in unions and a huge split in its ranks. But it's also fighting back, trying to resonate with Americans worried about job losses and healthcare.
Among its hopeful signs:
• A big victory in organizing janitors in Houston, not known as a union-friendly city. The win by the Service Employees International Union came just months after it and five other unions split from the AFL-CIO.
• The Communications Workers of America have been busily organizing at Cingular Wireless, adding more than 13,500 new members this year.
• The AFL-CIO has kicked off its largest worker-rights campaign in 15 years. It plans huge rallies this week, leading up to Saturday's International Human Rights Day and focused on workplace organizing as a fundamental - and threatened - human right.
"There's a real awareness on both sides [of labor's divide] that it's not business as usual," says Harley Shaiken, a professor who specializes in labor issues at University of California in Berkeley. While he emphasizes that it's too soon to assess the split's impact, Professor Shaiken says that both factions are trying creative tactics. "There are some really tough challenges out there for unions, but it's also a moment of real opportunity. There is so much downward pressure on wages and working conditions ... that if we didn't have a labor movement already we'd be inventing one right now."
Some early worries about the AFL-CIO split - due in part to philosophical differences over how much to focus on organizing versus political lobbying - have lessened. Last month, the members of the dissident Change to Win coalition and the AFL-CIO solidified an agreement to let state and local affiliates work together. The SEIU and the American Federation of State, County, Federal, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) - often at odds - have created antiraiding pacts and appear to be mending at least a few of their differences.
"I think the worst is over in that the two sides have overcome some of their initial bitterness or bad feelings," says Ruth Milkman, director of the Institute of Industrial Relations at the University of California in Los Angeles. "Both sides are trying harder to prove that they were right in the debate that occurred in the last year and a half. That can only benefit labor movement as a whole."
She and others point to the SEIU's success with Houston janitors as an example of how the labor movement is adapting to modern economic realities. The union used strategies that have worked in other cities: demonstrating workers' desire to unionize with "card checks" rather than National Labor Relations Board elections; organizing a whole industry at once so individual employers don't face unfair competition; and building a broad coalition of support including local churches, politicians, and immigrant groups.
"What they showed is, if you can do it in Houston, you can do it anywhere," says Professor Milkman.
It's a model the SEIU is holding up as an example of the direction labor should be - and is - heading, and the ways in which realities of globalization can be harnessed rather than fought.
"The world is shrinking so quickly that US cities look more and more alike and major capitals look more and more alike, and there are similar solutions," says Stephen Lerner, who runs the SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign.
Another innovative tactic: public information campaigns against nonunion Wal-Mart, which have attacked the company's worker policies and forced it to defend its image.
Such successes, though, provide the labor movement only occasional respite from an economy that's increasingly hostile to unionization. Current laws provide little protection to workers, and companies are rarely stopped from intimidating or harassing workers who try to organize.
Despite the studies routinely cited by labor leaders showing that some 50 percent of American workers would join a union if given a chance, the reality is that very few - fewer than 12 percent, including government workers, are unionized. Many Americans doubt labor's relevance. The recent job losses at places like General Motors underscore the threats to jobs more easily moved overseas than janitors or service workers.
At rallies, marches, serenades, and hearings around the US - and in a few far-flung locales like Bosnia and Bahrain - labor leaders this week are making the case that such an environment is an abuse of basic human rights.
In a survey of Chicago-area organizing campaigns, nearly a third of employers fired pro-union workers and just under half threatened to close a work site where workers tried to form unions, according to a pro-labor group, American Rights at Work.
"The average person doesn't know the horror stories that are out there when a worker wants to join a union, doesn't know what employers spend in high-priced legal firms whose job is to build an anti-union environment in the workplace or to bust unions," says AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. "The ability to form unions is the key to this nation's middle class, yet the right to come together in a union is a fundamental freedom that has been eroded beyond recognition."
That can be a tough argument to make in the US, where people tend to see work as an economic exchange rather than a human rights issue, says Robert Bruno, a labor expert with the Chicago Labor Education Program of the University of Illinois, but he believes it's an important piece of unions' quest to show relevancy in a 21st century economy. "It's another effort to broaden the question."