Workers Are Wonderful, But Where's the Union?

The AFL-CIO's new ad

The AFL-CIO is starting a new public relations campaign and the first ad is, well, interesting.  The theme is work as a common experience and as a form of giving to the community. As a statement of the dignity of working men and women, it's not bad. If you can overlook the source it's even moving. That's easier than you would think for an ad put out by the AFL-CIO, because it doesn't say anything about unions. Hardly even hints at them. Which is odd.

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Instead, it describes work as a common and life-defining experience: it's what wakes us up in the morning, knocks us out at night, and binds us together. It's how we improve ourselves and provide for our families. Work builds the country. And the ad borders on mystical when it describes the exchange of services that makes a modern economy possible: "I teach your kids, you fix my car, he builds my city, she keeps it safe." What a wonderful thing work is! (Really!)

The question — and the ad gives no hints about this — is how all these exchanges get negotiated? How do we decide who teaches our children and who fixes our cars? A central plan? A free market? An "Occupy Wall Street" style public meeting? An anarcho-syndicalist commune? The ad seems to want to suggest that workers could actually run the country on their own, without those obnoxious business owners and treacherous bankers, but it doesn't come out and say that. It certainly doesn't get into who would inevitably take their place: central planners and bureaucrats.

Perhaps that will come in a later ad. There has to be a follow-up of some sort. The AFL-CIO has more to say than "workers are wonderful." They want new members, willing or not. They want to protect the privileges of government employees, including lavish benefits. The warm and fuzzy bit is just a setup; demands and threats are bound to follow.

It seems that the union establishment feels the need to reassert the notion that workers should be treated with respect — as if this was actually open to debate. The real question is how we best show that respect: force workers into unions they may not support, or give them meaningful choices?

The problem for the AFL-CIO is these same honorable workers have lost their faith in unions. Union membership has been declining for decades; in Michigan the percentage of workers who are union members is barely half of what it was in 1983. Interest in right-to-work protections, which would give individual workers the freedom to give or withhold financial support to a union — a concept that is anathema to union officials — is growing in Michigan. That may explain why the AFL-CIO feels the need not to talk about itself and what it does. It is one thing for the unions to say that workers deserve respect, but they cannot be allowed to wrap themselves in the "Dignity of Labor" when so many actual working men and women have rejected them.

At this point it should be redundant to point out that this ad was produced and air time for it will be bought with dues and agency fees taken from workers who were forced to pay in order to keep their jobs — at least that's where things stand in Michigan until a right-to-work law passes. If there ever was a union ad that workers wouldn't object to this might be it. One suspects that the next ad in the series will be much more cynical and divisive though.