Amanda Hammock (center), a Delaware County, Pa. Democratic party activist, is dressed as Rosie the Riveter as she attends a protest by Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO June 27, 2018, in Philadelphia. (Jacqueline Larma/AP)
Columnist

On this Labor Day weekend, a few thoughts about labor:

Abraham Lincoln was right, as usual, when he observed that: “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

This quote is sometimes trotted out to support the idea that Lincoln was a closet Marxist. No, he was the quintessential American Dreamer, whose own rise from poverty to prosperity left him determined to expand opportunities for all. Having started with nothing, Lincoln knew that hard work precedes profits — brain work, muscle work, teamwork. “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him.” Gradually, that saved surplus becomes a store of capital to be invested in the labor of others, unleashing the productive power of a whole society.

Why, then, if “labor is the superior of capital,” has labor union membership in the United States dwindled to just 10.5 percent of the workforce? Why has this erosion been going on for 65 years? Myriad academic papers and manifestos purport to explain the phenomenon, but I think the root of the problem is organized labor’s self-image. Too many unionists see themselves as outsiders battling the market economy, when they should be asking how unions can add new value to the marketplace and share fairly in the value they create.

It’s no coincidence that the era of organized labor’s rising influence — the 1930s through the 1950s — was also an era of labor-intensive mass production. In steel mills and coal mines, in fields and factories, large numbers of workers toiled side by side like cogs in a machine. The dark cloud of such conditions had a silver lining for labor: It gave unions the power to severely disrupt an enterprise by going on strike.

The power to strike was also the power not to strike. Obviously, having workers on the job rather than on strike was better for America’s factories, mines and shipyards. The strength of labor unions in their heyday lay in the power to exchange labor peace for higher wages and better working conditions, and in their ability to control access to those improved jobs.

Visit a typical American factory or farm today, however, and you won’t see long rows of workers toiling side by side. You’ll find fewer workers operating smarter machines. This trend — certain to accelerate — has greatly diminished the threat of a strike in most sectors, which devalues the power not to strike.

The challenge facing organized labor is to find a new bargaining chip to replace the value of labor peace. What is it that unions can offer to employers to win better wages and working conditions? And what can the unions offer to members that persuades them to part with union dues?

It seems to me that American labor unions should rush to fill the so-called skills gap that many employers complain of, the mismatch between the training workers receive in school and the rapidly changing skills actually needed on the job. This skills gap is generally blamed on the public schools, but it is too industry-specific to be easily solved at such a general level. It makes more sense to tackle the problem sector by sector, job category by job category.

All unions should hasten in the direction of existing craft guilds and trade unions, many of which already ensure the training and skills of their members. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, for instance. A member becomes a certified journeyman only after years of supervised training and instruction. Thus, an employer hiring a journeyman electrician knows the worker has a defined set of skills and knowledge — plus the discipline and work ethic necessary to pass a lengthy apprenticeship. Employers pay for that added value.

This shift would require a new self-image for many labor leaders. They need to see themselves as partners with employers rather than as adversaries. They need to become guarantors of worker quality, anticipating and accelerating workplace change through nimble, lifelong training programs. For only successful enterprises can sustain good jobs over the long term.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nurses in the United States earn an average of $33,000 per year more than the average American worker. Guess what: Their union, the American Nursing Association, operates an Academy of Nursing to promote quality and a Credentialing Center to certify nursing specialists. We’ll know labor is headed in the right direction when the National Education Association becomes an engine of school reform and the Communications Workers of America trains reporters to tweet safely.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.