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Labor's tenuous future

About this time every year, in spaces such as this, comes the annual essay on “Whither Labor,” or maybe “wither labor,” given the usual dolorous tone of such tomes.

If ever there was an appropriate time for this pre-Labor Day standard to be played as a dirge, this would be the year. For all the hyped clout that the labor movement achieved with the 2008 election results at the state and national levels, the political returns (outside of scattered wins such as the General Motors bailout) have been threadbare.

Indeed, such is the rank-and-file discontent with the Wall Street-D.C. establishment nexus that, when it comes to economic populism, the political entity with which labor seems to have the most in common at the moment is not the Democratic Party, certainly not the Republican Party, but the tea party (although both would be horrified at the idea).

Nor is labor’s political clout, such as it is, proving to be much help in its once supposed area of strength – representation of public-sector employees. With government at all levels unable to maintain the payrolls it has now, much less pay the retiree obligations it is accumulating at a frightening clip, and with taxpayers unsympathetic to pleas to preserve either, even onetime allies are wielding budget axes like a turkey farmer two weeks before Thanksgiving. And if the polls are to be believed, labor’s clout and allies are headed for a bruising this November.

As for the private sector, where labor’s waning influence is a long documented trend, what little clout the movement had has been further emaciated by the recession. If there’s no demand for your labor at the moment, and an abundance of supply, what sort of pricing leverage would you expect to have?

Any news of labor restiveness, such as the recent walkout at Coca-Cola bottling operations in the region or the continuing icy relations between Boeing and its unions, is likely to be greeted by the general populace with comments such as “What are they thinking?” and “They ought to be thankful they even have a job” (and those are the more polite observations).

But what of this is news? Labor’s condition of perpetual ailment persisted through the nominally good years. Blame generational and attitudinal differences, blame laws and regulation, blame corporate strategies for thwarting labor, blame labor’s own successes and more benevolent employers, blame whoever you like, but labor didn’t get to where it is overnight.

So let’s break with tradition and mull over a scenario in which labor reclaims some of its economic clout in the workplace and with the work force.

The baby-boom generation (roughly the 79 million or so Americans born between 1946 and 1964) has been disrupting society wherever it went, from the explosion of school construction and suburban growth in the 1950s and 1960s to creation of huge markets for consumer products today.

Now the baby boomers are promising to throw into turmoil the work force simply by leaving it. As they retire – when or if they can retire, no thanks to their battered investment accounts – they’ll have to be replaced, not just their bodies but their skills and expertise.

Talk to enough employers and you get a distinct sense of doubt about where workers with the basic and advanced skills to be those replacements will come from.

The labor movement has a long tradition of apprenticeships and training programs to provide entrants to the trades and industries whose members it represents. In recent years much of the work has been taken up by vocational, technical and community colleges, with extensive labor involvement.

That involvement will be key to organized labor’s continued presence and relevance in the workplace. The workers of tomorrow are not going to join a union just because someone hands them a card asking them to join. The employers of tomorrow have alternatives to filling the worker gap caused by the boomer retirement wave – outsourcing, greater automation to boost productivity, importation of labor (legal or otherwise).

Labor’s future rests on its ability to act as a gatekeeper or sorts, offering workers an avenue to training and employment, and offering employers workers skilled not only at showing up for work but in doing the job right once they arrive.

In other words, what unions would offer to both workers and employers is a value-added proposition. That’s a phrase likely to make labor-movement purists shudder. But those interested in seeing the movement survive, and maybe even grow, might prefer that bit of terminology to the sort of words being employed to sum up its present unhappy condition.

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday in The News Tribune. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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