American organized labor is one of those contrary institutions--the Catholic Church may be another--that seem to thrive in adversity and to decline in prosperity. In recent times, the proudest triumphs of labor have been recorded among the shipyard and texile workers of the anti-union South, where labor's organizers overcame threats, the entire establishment and worse.
The leadership of organized labor has determined the present time to be a period of great adversity for the labor movement. To get that message out to trade unionists and others, organized labor is putting together a giant rally here tomorrow in support of "a fair and humane America." The event is called Solidarity Day, and its sponsors are confident enough of the turnout to predict that 100,000 will participate. By the rules of low-balling crowd predictions, that means the event's sponsors expect at least twice as many. All of this should be very good news for the political allies of organized labor and especially for the Democrats, who can use any and all encouraging news.
To say that labor has been, politically speaking, alternately petulant and sullen in its dealings with the Democrats is not to deny the validity of labor's beefs. For some irrational reason, labor has been consistently held to higher standards of nobility and altruism than any other private institution. The historic civil rights bills never would have become law without the savvy, the clout and the all-out support of American labor. Yet, there are those who falsely and cruelly indict laboring people for alleged racism. It never occurs to these careless individuals to inquire as to the role of the Fortune 500 in the civil rights struggles in Congress. Apparently, only labor is expected to have a legislative and social agenda larger than its own interests. And virtually alone among our political and private institutions, labor does have just such an agenda.
Labor and its friends now find themselves answering over and over again the question of whether labor may have simply outlived its usefulness. These same people are never sufficiently curious to inquire about the relevance of football half-time shows or the Dow-Jones 30 industrials (which, by the way, have not been accused lately of being defenders of the status quo, another charge against labor). Do the Democrats--or somebody else?--have some long progressive program they now want enacted that we missed? Lately, defending the status quo in budget items in health and welfare seems to be more a liberal than a conservative political act.
But the long labor record has not helped the current labor reputation. In spite of much of the unfairness of the criticism, a lot of it has obviously stuck. In statewide surveys conducted this year, organized labor did not get good reviews. When asked whether labor was "a positive or negative force" in the life of their state, voters in state after state (including labor states) rated labor as a negative influence by more than two- to-one. Among others, the women's movement and environmentalists rated ahead of labor, winning positive scores in most cases. In fact, there were only two groups that the voters consistently ranked lower than labor: major oil companies and welfare recipients. Labor has a large image problem to attend to before it can be an effective messenger for its message.
None of this prevented the AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education from jumping totally into 1981 special house races in Maryland, Mississippi, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In all but Ohio, the COPE-backed candidate won, and in Mississippi that victory may have stopped a stampede to the GOP. In fact, in the 1981 special House elections, labor has a better won-lost record than either the Democrats or the Republicans.
Now American labor, which came within a few thousand votes of electing Hubert Humphrey to the White House in 1968, is determined to get politically active once again. Its numbers are reduced, its ranks thinned. In 1958 one of three non- farm workers belonged to a union; today it's one out of five. But labor can be awfully effective in the political foxhole. Take it from someone who's seen it in action; labor can be tough in adversity.