The litany of complaints of the squeezed middle class is familiar.
Three million jobs gone overseas this decade. People working all their lives on the promise of pensions they don’t get. Declining availability of health care. Parents believing, for the first time in U.S. history, that their children will not do as well as they did.
“Everyone knows that recitation,” said Philip Dine.
Then he produced a less familiar fact: last year, 32,000 people were sacked from their jobs for trying to organize unions. And knowing this last fact helps explain all the others.
Yet, he said, in the popular consciousness, there is not a lot of understanding that the declining influence of organized labor and the declining quality of so many American lives are intimately related.
“People make the mistake of thinking that the decline of unions is both inevitable and irrelevant,” he said. “They think unions are dinosaurs that once mattered but have outlived their usefulness and are dying. Who cares?”
Well, Mr. Dine cares. Thus he has written a book, entitled State of the Unions, and subtitled How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy and Regain Political Influence.
And he will be touring it through the Vineyard this week, appearing at the Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven at 7.30 p.m. tonight.
Now, Martha’s Vineyard might at first seem an odd stop on such a book tour; the Island is not part of the front line in labor relations.
But in a way it is emblematic of the widening division in America. When the rich folks leave at the end of summer, Dukes County is the least wealthy in the state.
“There are a whole lot of average working people on the Vineyard. Maybe not the summer visitors, of course, but there’s a lot of people struggling to get by,” he said.
That, however, is not the main reason he’s coming. The main reason is that he loves this place.
“I’ve been coming to the Vineyard since the Sixties,” he said. “My parents started coming in the Forties. My brother and I worked there during the Sixties and Seventies and my parents retired there, and bought a house my brother and I now come to every summer.”
His father, Joe, a retired journalist, once did a radio show here. His mother Laurie worked for the town of Tisbury.
His family was originally from Boston. The family background he describes — journalists, doctors, lawyers — hardly seems to fit a champion of the role of unions. No blue collar jobs, no heavy union involvement.
“But,” he said, “my parents were both always interested in social justice and fairness, civil rights and equality, were always trying to make the world a better place.”
It rubbed off.
So he studied industrial relations at Massachusetts Institute of Technology “as sort of theoretical thing” then went off to Europe, to look at the issues in more practical depth.
“I spent two years doing research on immigrant workers and trade unions in Europe, specifically France and Germany.”
And when he got a job on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1987, he recalls, he was told he could focus on any beat he wanted.
“I said labor. I saw it as a broad topic which included racial, gender, political and economic issues,” he said. “And right from the beginning they let me cover it that way. I did local things, but also national and international ones.
“They let me cover the biggest strike by black workers ever in the history of Mississippi — pretty much alone, unfortunately. I was able to report on the role of fledgling, democratic labor unions in the changes in eastern Europe. I defined the job sort of broadly and they let me do that.”
Even so, he conceded, industrial relations “is not considered the sexiest of beats.”
“It used to be the labor movement was a coveted beat. Covering Jimmy Hoffa or the miners or George Meaney ... And 35-37 per cent of workers belonged to unions and it was a great beat for a reporter to have.
“These days if you produce a story on labor, your editor will say ‘why?’”
“Which is part of labor’s problem. I mean if you’re in journalism these days you better do something else.”
And he did do something else, something journalistically sexier – national security. But so many people, better qualified people, were doing that.
“I’d go to Pentagon briefings – I covered Rumsfeld for years, [but] Rumsfeld didn’t know who the heck I was and didn’t care. Whereas union people really appreciate it, if you just give them a fair deal, the good and the bad, they appreciate it.
“It’s very satisfying, and ultimately you’ll get good stories, because you’re the only person covering it.”
Besides, there were important things which need to be said, which nobody else was saying.
“I argue in the book that it’s no coincidence, this assault on both the living standards of people and also the rights of the workplace.
“Nor was it a coincidence that the time of the greatest expansion of the American middle class, the late Forties through the Fifties, was also the time of labor’s greatest strength. What labor has done is bring millions of people into the middle class, and it’s maintained their living standards.”
And the decline in the strength of unions is not because they were no longer relevant to workers’ concerns, he argued.
“It’s not that the steel worker in Pittsburgh or auto worker in Detroit gets up and says ‘I don’t want to be in the union,’ it’s that their jobs are leaving the country. Secondly employers are getting way more skillful and aggressive at squashing unionizing drives.”
He points to federal statistics showing the huge number of cases which now come before the National Labor Relations Board each year, arising from employers persecuting those who would unionize.
“In the 1950s, 100 workers or so per year were awarded back pay by the board after having been fired for trying to organize. Last year it was 32,000. And that’s under this conservative NLRB,” he said.
“Figure more broadly the chilling effect that has.”
“There is no industrialized democracy where it’s as hard to form a union as it is here,” he explaned. “It’s not that workers don’t want to join.”
But his book does not serve simply as a lamentation of the decline of unions; it is a guide to how they can be more relevant.
To that end, Mr. Dine analyzed cases over the years where the workers have won, against the odds (and often, incidentally, to the longer term benefit of their employers).
And he came up with broad strategies they should employ. The detail is in the book, but in summary they are: 1. Get past the old generic union playbook and devise an individual strategy in each dispute; 2. Get the rank and file out front, rather than the union officials, telling their stories; 3. Labor needs to redefine issues of economic justice as values. The black women who achieved that big win in the catfish processing plant in Mississippi cast it as a matter of human dignity and rights, not simple dollars and cents, and; 4. Keep communicating with the media, even though they may be indifferent or even hostile.
Of them all, communications is probably the most important.
“Americans don’t know that 16 workers a day die on the job from accidents, and many more from occupational illnesses. Americans don’t know 32,000 workers last year were fired for trying to form a union.
“They think that happens only under repressive foreign regimes.
“Until people know those kinds of things, people aren’t going to demand that labor laws be changed, that all these jobs don’t have to leave America,” he said.