A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

This Labor Day, unions must commit to grinding it out like ballplayers

Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, Sept. 1, 2 or 3

It’s almost synchronicity this week: Thursday is when MLB teams expand from 25 to 40 players, and on Monday, the nation celebrates Labor Day.

Comparing social movements to sports isn’t always apt, but when looking at labor’s prospects in the foreseeable future, a baseball metaphor seems effective.

In the National Pastime, pitchers don’t just rear back and throw. They anticipate where they’ll move to back up a play if the ball is bunted or hit deep in the outfield. Outfielders look at any runners on base and plan where their cut-off throws will go. Infielders consider situations and know whether they’ll try for a double play or head off a lead runner. Batters survey the number of outs and anyone in scoring position and weigh whether to bunt or try to hit a sacrifice fly or a drive to the opposite field.

Likewise, unionists’ approach today should be to start a play and prepare to respond to reactions by the “opponents”: employers. We aren’t sure where the play will lead; we can only be as ready as possible and try to shape the outcome. To do that – like ballplayers – we imagine possibilities and make choices, like people with free will deciding to be faithful, to be coached and organized, to have hope.

This Labor Day, choose hope. There are signs of optimism, like progressive leadership in strong unions such as the Steelworkers and Communications Workers, labor unions working for reform with allies in community, religious, environmental and Civil Rights organizations.

That said, the opposition is formidable, and labor is the underdog. The more successes we have in organizing, bargaining and enforcing contracts, the tougher contests can be.

However, unions’ great strengths are members’ skills, commitment and perseverance.

“That painstaking approach to organizing is another specialty of the labor movement,” says Pennsylvania political scientist Adolph Reed, author of Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene, “– the pattern of broadening, then consolidating, then broadening some more.”

Progress – winning – can be as difficult as facing an offensive juggernaut fielding a stellar defense and a league-leading pitcher. But it’s possible if we compete as a team, using our whole squad, being creative, and grinding out efforts.

This long election-year campaign has had additional positives, such as the Labor for Bernie venture bringing together disparate interests with a common goal. But for unionists preparing for November, it’s necessary to ask what it means when Democrat Hillary Clinton says she’s a “progressive who likes to get things done.” And it’s doubtful that Clinton defeating Donald Trump will be a “mandate,” given the influence of rich campaign contributors, powerful Wall Street interests, and dominating corporations and lobbyists. So a new administration isn’t certain to be a reliable “teammate.” Still, past victories point to paths to a labor “pennant.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal shows the effectiveness of structural reforms: creating “countervailing power” to help “level the playing field.” Balancing giant business interests were small businesses, political activists at state and local levels, community banks, and especially labor unions. Together, they helped public education grow, infrastructure developments like the Interstates, social programs like Medicare, and reasonable taxes on the wealthy (the marginal income tax rate for top incomes during Eisenhower’s Republican administrations was 91 percent).

Since then, the deregulated financial sector was allowed to gamble with assets and hurt many hometown banks; gerrymandering, campaign finance and voter suppression weakened civic engagement; local retailers lost to the likes of Wal-Mart; funding for state-assisted schools was gutted; roads went unrepaired; social programs were targeted for privatization; and organized labor was devastated.

The 1950s was a high point for a strong working class and growing middle class, a time when more than 30 percent of the U.S. work force belonged to unions, and – according to researchers Frank Levy and Peter Temin’s 2007 study Inequality and Institutions in 20th Century America – that shared success relied on institutional supports drawing on the power of organized labor.

So, we must be hopeful – and prepared – to revive countervailing factors in the economy and nation, with many Americans displacing the dependence on huge donations and restoring involvement at the grassroots level. Already, Bernie Sanders has initiated an organization, “Our Revolution,” to press for progressive change, and a related endeavor, “Brand New Congress,” wants to recruit and run 400 progressive candidates for Congress by 2018. (That’s like a ball club investing in a plan to dramatically improve and invigorating a scouting staff to sign hot prospects.)

Organized labor must build a deep bench, be ready to use the abilities at hand, and commit to grind out every pitch, every at-bat, every play.

And instill in ourselves the hope to keep on.

[PICTURED: Photo illustration from]

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