The return of big labor

After the 2004 elections some pundits declared big labor dead, killed by its own inability to influence elections.

Organized labor spent millions trying to defeat George W. Bush and put Democrats back into power.

It failed. Nobody wanted to look for the union label.

That was then, this is now. Big labor is back and it is looking to flex its muscles in 2008.

As Patrick Coolican and Michael J. Mishak report in The Las Vegas Sun:

The lowest moment for the modern American labor movement came after the 2004 election.

Unions spent more than $85 million trying to beat President Bush, money spent and gone forever. The loss left unions facing another four years of hostile labor regulators and anti-union policies, as well as the relentless effects of globalization on American workers.

“No one woke up the day after the election and didn’t feel like they shouldn’t go back to sleep for a few years,” said Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union.

After the election, unions also faced an internal fissure, with the SEIU and its 1.8 million members, as well as six other major unions, splitting from the AFL-CIO.

The drive to destroy organized labor, which had begun in earnest 25 years before with the election of President Ronald Reagan, was, it seemed, nearly complete.

But now, just three years later, labor is suddenly resurgent.

The signs are all around: Passage in the House, and near passage in the Senate, of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow workers to join a union by signing a card rather than going through what labor advocates consider the onerous process of an election; and a genuine sense that Democrats, on the cusp of real power, will owe their allegiance to labor rather than the party centrists, or New Democrats, who dominated the party during the Clinton presidency.

The story of how and why labor has reemerged is instructive on the recent past and future of American politics and the American economy, where tectonic shifts now seem possible.

Paradoxically, Bush and the Republican Congress turned out to be a gift to labor. The Iraq war, economic insecurity and various Washington scandals helped unite Democrats and deliver Congress to them.

Nor is the Democratic Party what it was 10 years ago.

The country has moved to the left on a range of economic issues. The richest 1 percent of Americans in 2005 controlled nearly one-fifth of the nation’s income, the greatest share since the ominous year of 1929. American workers tell pollsters they are deeply pessimistic about their future, naming health care, exploding college costs and the outsourcing of jobs overseas as major concerns.

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