Even as income and union membership declines for America’s working class, problems of forced labor and low working standards worldwide are driving new activist movements.
Many concerns are focused on the AFL-CIO, the leading federation of traditional U.S. industrial unions.
John Sweeney, president of the group, is under pressure from dissidents to make huge changes in priorities, including a new emphasis on organizing over lobbying.
Andrew Stern, president of the growing Service Employees International Union, is even calling for Sweeny’s removal.
At its peak in the 1960s, about 30 percent of workers in the United States were unionized.
That number has dropped to 7.8 percent of the private sector today.
These developments come at a time when wages for the middle class are shrinking and the income gap is widening between rich and poor.
The Washington Post reported that, in 2001, the top 20 percent of households for the first time earned more than half of all income, while those in the middle earned the lowest amount in nearly 50 years.
According to the New York Times, the economy added 2.2 million jobs in 2004 and produced strong corporate profits, but wages for the average worker fell.
According to the newspaper, the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit group promoting “research and ideas for working people,” reported that 95 percent of workers’ after-inflation wages were flat or down in last year, while wages rose for the top 5 percent.
Global competition from China and India, as well as soaring healthcare costs, are expected to put additional pressure on wages.
In the U.S., unions are looking for new ways of staying relevant in the face of falling membership, according to the Associated Press.
Many labor unions are trying to organize high tech workers and academics in order to survive.
Unions are courting high-tech employees of Microsoft and IBM.
To date fewer than 200 of IBM’s 130,000 employees have joined.
Aggressive new unions, led by the S.E.I.U., are organizing health care and hotel workers around the U.S.
Current S.E.I.U. activities around the U.S. are targeting Illinois nursing homes, staff and faculty at the University of Iowa, nurses in New York State, and Sutter hospitals in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Labor unions have also teamed with political groups in order to fight Wal-Mart, according to an online forum titled “No News for the Working Class.”
Wal-Mart has a long adversarial relationship with unions, clashing over issues such as low wages, lack of health care, overtime pay and globalization.
The Union Network International, a global union for skilled and service workers, plans to challenge Wal-Mart in China.
In a press release, the organization said it was preparing to create unions in the western multinationals moving into China.
It’s unclear whether China will support this move.
According to Al Jazeera, China’s weeklong May Day labor holiday was marked by consumption and travel rather than activism.
However, protests did occur around the world on May Day.
In Pakistan, Europe, Malaysia and Australia workers came out for better working conditions.
A new U.N. study says that the worldwide demand for cheap labor has forced 12.3 million people, including 6 million children, into slave-like working conditions.
Offenders included Brazil, Bolivia and Peru, where people were forced to work under armed guard.
North Korea reportedly has labor camps.
Asia and the Pacific accounted for over 9 million of the total enslaved workers, in part because of the lucrative sex trade there.
A report by the International Labor Organization makes the case that forced labor can be abolished over the next decade by working with governments to develop strong legislation and enforcement.
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“AFL-CIO urged to undergo major changes”
New York Sun, May 10 2005
“A.F.L.-C.I.O. Is urged to oust its leader”
May 17, 2005
“Falling fortunes of the wage earner / Average pay dipped last in for first time in decade”
New York Times, April 12, 2005
“Income gap widens, uncertainty spreads”
Washington Post, Sept 20, 2004
“Unions shift to white collar world of workers”
Associated Press, May 10, 2005
Labor’s Pain: Societal shift challenges unions, Democrats
Associated Press, May 15, 2005
Nurses rally for end to mandatory overtime
Albany Times-Union, May 17, 2005
SEIU bulks up with Harbour Health nurses
Buffalo Business First, April 25, 2005
SEIU looks to unionize UI P&S staff
Iowa City Press Citizen, May 5, 2005
Illinois nursing home owners and SEIU reach tentative agreement
Business Wire, April 21, 2005
Sutter in the crosshairs / Health system’s growth made it a powerhouse and target
Sacramento Business Journal, May 15, 2005
No News For the Working Class (Liza Featherstone interview)
China part of union response to Wal-Martization of global economy
Union Network International, May 10, 2005
“World wide protests mark May Day”
Al Jazeera, May 1, 2005
“U.N. says 12 min stuck in labour worldwide”
Reuters, May 12, 2005
“ILO releases major new study on forced labour / Says more than 12 million are trapped in forced labour worldwide”
International Labor Organization, May 11, 2005