Author says union decline hurts economy

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

With the exception of Teamsters Union President James Hoffa, who has the same name as his late famous father, and possibly the current AFL-CIO head John Sweeney, few Americans can name as many organized labor union leaders as they could in the heyday of the colorful former labor leaders AFL-CIO president George Meany, United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis or United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther. The lack of knowledge by most Americans of who leads major labor unions is a symptom of the steep decline in the power of labor unions in the United States, which to author and journalist Phillip Dine, is harmful to the strength and stability of the U.S. economy.

Dine, longtime labor reporter and national affairs reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was a featured speaker at the 2007 St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, where he spoke to an audience of more than 500 on his current book, State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve our Economy, and Regain Political Influence. (McGraw Hill). Dine, an award-winning investigative reporter, who describes St. Louis as a “great labor town,” has devoted much of his career to the coverage of the American organized labor movement, the good, the bad and the ugly. “With groups as diverse as steel workers, Teamsters, and coal miners, teachers, actors and civil servants, union members once acounted for more than one-third of the American workforce. At a mere 12 percent today, union membership is a shadow of what it once was.” Dine says that his book is designed to show “what happened to organized labor in America and what can be done to restore it to its role of the defender of middle-class values and economic well-being.”

Dine does not gloss over organized labor’s own responsibility for its decline, including corruption in such unions as the United Mine Workers under A. J. (Tony) Boyle, who was convicted of ordering the murder of his reformist challenger, Jock Yablonski and his wife, and alleged Mob connections to the Teamsters and other unions. Dine, an aggressive investigative reporter told the Jewish Book Festival audience that he had felt directly threatened by tough elements in unions because of his labor journalism in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Dine, who was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his more than two decades of labor reporting, not only details how labor went wrong, but also stresses its recent significant positive accomplishments, including, among others: “The women of Delta Pride — a major player in the multi-billion dollar catfish industry — went up against generations of racial and economic prejudice; Iowa’s firefighters union flexed its collective muscle to score a major political victory in the 2004 Iowa Political Caucus; the American Federation of Teachers and the AFL-CIO played a key role in bringing about the fall of the Iron Curtain through its support of the Polish labor union Solidarity, and the Teamsters Union enlisted community support to temporarily block a move by Mister Coffee to relocate to Mexico and saved nearly 400 jobs in the Cleveland area.”

Dine said, “covering labor unions is like covering cops. You really have to get to know and win the trust of those involved. How do you cover a beat when nobody will talk to you? To break the logjam, Laszlo Domjan, the paper’s executive city editor, suggested that I take a labor leader out to lunch. I settled on Tommy Harvill, a colorful ‘big guy’ and a major local player as head of the Eastern Missouri Laborers’ District Council of the AFL-CIO.”

Describing Harvill as a “gruff big guy,” Dine said, “I brought him to a nice restaurant at Union Station. To show we were kindred spirits and to make him feel comfortable ordering whatever he wanted, I told the waitress to bring me a bowl of soup, a large steak and a slice of pie with ice cream. She asked Harvill what she could get for him. ‘Nothing’, he said. The waitress stared at him. This was starting off badly. ‘Mr. Harvill,’ I pleaded. ‘I really don’t want to eat all that food and have you just watching me.’ He was unimpressed. ‘I’m on a diet,’ he barked. The waitress tried to help out. ‘Can I at least bring you something to drink?’ ‘Yeah, okay,’ he replied, ‘a glass of water.’ She had a better idea — ‘perhaps an iced tea?’ Finally he relented and put something on Joe Pulitzer’s tab. ‘Iced tea, unsweetened.’ So, as I ate, he talked. I listened, learned a lot about him, and ended up writing a decent story. He was startled, and he began returning my phone calls. The world didn’t end, and he had a way to get his views across not just to his members — that, remember, was what the local labor press, the Labor Tribune, was for — but to the general public, the politicians, and the business leaders.”

Summarizing the challenges of covering organized labor, Dine said, “beyond the investment in time and energy this requires on both sides, it often runs into the chicken-and-egg dilemma — labor won’t talk to you until they trust you, but they don’t trust you until they know you. Jeff Weiss, who for many years was the communications person for the 500,000-member Chicago Federation of Labor, once lamented to me how labor has ‘such wonderful stories to tell, and unfortunately, our stories are shut out.'” He added that Weiss owned up to labor’s own culpability in the problem, describing a labor reporter at a major Chicago paper, “who was enthusiastic about being assigned to the labor beat, promptly placed 100 calls to local union union leaders — without getting a single return call.”

He added, “labor’s proclivity to act as an intimidator, an ostrich, a sleep aide, or a wary suitor would be amusinjg if its survival weren’t on the line. These types of attitudes and behaviors contribute significantly to the poor press coverage labor gets, which is part and parcel of its failure to find its voice and project a clear message.”

Dine cited the late Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and an AFL-CIO vice president, who had a regular paid column in The New York Times, as an effective communicator of labor’s viewpoints, as well as an effective supporter of the Polish labor Union Solidarity of Lech Walesa, which helped bring down the Iron Curtain. Dine recalled being assigned to cover the 1989 executive council meeting of the AFL-CIO in Florida, where he met Shanker “as he sat near the hotel pool one morning. I did so with hestitation because I was relatively new on the labor beat and he was a figure of immense stature — and more than a little gruff. But I was interested in foreign developments, he headed the federation’s international affairs committee, and I wanted to hear his thoughts on the world. Within a few minutes, I was listening intently as he discussed what he called ‘incipient labor movements’ in Eastern Europe. Other than Poland’s Solidarity, they were getting almost no attention.”

The meeting with Shanker inspired Dine to pursue contact with labor union leaders in Hungary, where Liga “was the strongest of the new union federations, (which) challenged the official Communist-controlled unions. Most important, Shanker told me that the AFL-CIO was quietly working on ways to help such unions wihtout endangering them, and he said he was about to be named head of a new labor panel to forge closer ties with the rebel unions.” Dine felt this information was “fascinating material, and I wrote about it.” At first his editors were skeptical about his writing stories about Hungary, but he later was sent to Western Europe, which led to meetings in Budapest where he met with Mihaly Csako, a leader of the Hungarian Liga movement. “Two years later, I would return to report extensively on the changes engulfing the region, including the role these maverick worker organizations played in bringing about those changes and then in facilitating the arduous transition to democracy and free-market economies.”

In the question period following his remarks, Dine said that there were no parallels to the Solidarity and Liga reformist labor unions in China which could possibly play a similar role in reforming that nation or bringing about democractic changes to accompany its booming economy.

Looking towards the future, Dine said, “I hope that unions manage to refashion themselves in ways equal to the tasks before them so the American labor movement can survive and continue its work, only more effectively.”

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