Even after a long string of losses â Wisconsin's recall election and the votes on public-sector pensions in San Diego and San Jose being only the most recent â it seems that our public-sector unions still don't get it. Within the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, for example, there is now a bitter debate about whether the country's largest government employees' union should continue its one-sided political involvement, doling out cash to Democratic causes and candidates.
The answer is clearly no. It doesn't matter how much money unions spend on lobbying and elections. If most Americans don't belong to a union and don't have the benefits that unionized workers like AFSCME's 1.3 million members have, they're going to vote against the unions, as they did overwhelmingly in San Diego and San Jose and as they are likely to do elsewhere if they are given the chance. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, for example, now is threatening to take his pension-reform proposals to the voters if the city council doesn't give him what he wants.
The smart thing for the union movement to do — and the only way for it to survive — is to focus on organizing, especially in the private sector.
The seeds of the present debacle were planted decades ago. In 2010, overall union membership in the United States fell to less than 12 percent, a 70-year low. When private-sector union membership, now at less than 7 percent, peaked in the mid-1940s, less than 10 percent of public-sector workers belonged to a union. Today the situation is reversed, with more than 36 percent of government workers unionized. Since 2009, more than half of the nation's union membership has consisted of government employees.
For most of the period since the 1930s, well over 60 percent of the public supported unions, and that support actually surged during the 1980s. But since the recession began, public support for unions has been declining sharply and is now at less than 50 percent. That should not be surprising in a period of extreme partisanship, with the unions aggressively fighting in a very high-profile and partisan way.
Playing to the base in these fights might feel good to the insiders, but it is a losing strategy. In Wisconsin's recall election, for example, exit polls showed that just 21 percent of voters consider themselves liberal, while 36 percent call themselves conservative.
Unions ought not to spend another dime on partisan politics. Every cent they have and every ounce of their energy ought to be focused on organizing and gaining membership, particularly in the private sector.
This is important to every one of us because, make no mistake, we need organized labor. Powerful unions benefit all workers, not just those who belong to unions, as Harold Meyerson documents so convincingly in the Washington Post. Strong unions contribute to a strong middle class, and a strong middle class is critical to a vibrant democracy.
For all our sakes, I hope our country's labor leaders come to understand that they are in an existential struggle and take the right steps to rebuild their membership. The need for organized labor is real and is still recognized by many in the public. There is time and a path forward, but not much time and the path is narrow.