Labor Day 1991 finds organized labor marching on the Capitol in an attempt to resuscitate the weakened liberal coalition of unions, minorities and other wellsprings of traditional Democratic Party power. The aim of these marchers, like that of those in the first Solidarity Day a decade ago, is to mobilize attention and support for a crazy-quilt of labor and liberal causes ranging from strike issues to health care and civil rights.
Now, as then, the labor movement finds itself mounting an uphill offensive. Its numbers have dwindled to fewer than one in six workers. Congress, an increasingly fair-weather friend, dealt the AFL-CIO a body blow this year when many long-time Democratic allies backed the president's bid for extended trade powers. This demonstrated, with painful clarity, the eroding might of the labor lobby -- despite the fact that many Democrats rode a wave of union support to Washington.
Waning political power is only one point of vulnerability. The nature of the American work force and the American workplace is changing, not to the advantage of organized labor. The unions may support such causes as family leave and universal health insurance coverage, but these issues transcend traditional union-management issues. So too, with such gritty issues as retraining workers cast off from dying industries and educating today's children for the job skills of tomorrow.
This, in essence, is the Labor Day message of Labor Secretary Lynn Martin, who proposes "to keep America on the cutting edge -- of education, of training, of protections for workers and of pension and income security." Just how the Bush administration intends to achieve these objectives differs materially from the agenda of those in the forefront of Solidarity Day.
Republicans don't mind the confrontation. They look at dwindling union numbers, and make their pitch to the unorganized majority. At the same time, the AFL-CIO has bound its identity so closely with the Democratic Party and liberal causes that it sometimes loses touch with its own membership. It perforce finds political opportunity mostly in terms of adverse developments, such as the current recession and the soaring numbers of jobless.
Yet there is a mutual goal that ought to transcend management-labor and Republican-AFL-CIO frictions, and that is the need to improve American living standards, American well-being and American economic viability in a more competitive world. This demands a new approach based on cooperation and commonality of purpose instead of acrimony. Those converging on the Capitol this Labor Day and those who prefer the Republican agenda should be clear on this.