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 By Dick Meister

The future of U.S. unions is looking much brighter than it has for a long time.

Yes, it's still true that less than 15 percent of the country's workers belong to unions. And, yes, unions are under heavy political attack by the notably anti-labor Bush administration.

What may be more important, however, is the decline in general public support for the corporate entities that long have been organized labor's major foes.

The scandals of corporate wrongdoing certainly have reinforced union complaints of corruption. That should generate substantial public support for the reforms unions are demanding and increased support for the unions as well.

"There's no question this is a historic moment," says Bruce Raynor, president of the garment workers union UNITE. "Just a very short time ago, the most admired people in our country were CEOs. Now they are seen as people who cheated the system. The entire perception of business has changed."

That has given labor a great opportunity because, adds Raynor, "it is the only force in society with the independence and the resources to tackle corporate America's power."

The AFL-CIO has begun labor's campaign by demanding that Congress require corporations to report stock options as costs, prohibit CEOs from selling stock while on the job, give a strong voice to workers and their pension funds in choosing corporate directors, ban offshore tax havens, put workers first in bankruptcy proceedings and enact "genuine retirement plan reform."

The labor federation promises as well to "demand accountability among legislators by mounting an aggressive voter information and mobilization campaign based on candidates' corporate accountability records."

Shareholder resolutions that would make corporate boards more accountable and independent and give shareholders a greater voice also have active labor backing.

What's more, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney says the organization "will use the $6 trillion power of workers' pension funds to demand corporate accountability through shareholder, cyber and street actions."

The AFL-CIO already has helped laid-off Enron workers collect $34 million in severance payments, even though none of them are union members, and is working to do the same for the 17,000 workers fired by WorldCom.

Labor is pressing as hard for action aside from the campaign for "corporate responsibility" that also could win unions new support from working people and reform-minded Americans generally.

The action, spelled out in the AFL-CIO's "Agenda for All Americans," calls for opening more jobs for the growing number of unemployed Americans by putting tax dollars into such badly needed projects as building and refurbishing schools, bridges and airports.

Increased government funding also would go into education and job training programs. The woefully inadequate minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, unchanged for five years, finally would be raised. Trade rules would be modified to protect U.S. workers from unfair foreign competition. Quality health care would be made assessable to the millions of Americans who lack it.

As if that highly ambitious agenda wasn't enough, the AFL-CIO is also trying to get Congress to modify the National Labor Relations Act so that it would once more guarantee workers the unfettered right to form and join unions. Unchecked employer interference has denied millions of workers that basic right and is the primary reason that such a relatively small percentage of workers are union members.

President Bush and his Republican allies in Congress, you can be sure, will strive mightily to block the AFL-CIO agenda. But it's also certain that the AFL-CIO will wage major campaigns in this fall's off-year elections to try to give its Democratic allies comfortable majorities in the House and Senate and to elect worker-friendly candidates for the three-dozen governorships to be contested.

Labor has ambitions even beyond that. As President Morton Bahr of the Communications Workers notes, by helping Democrats gain firm control of Congress "we can build the momentum to elect a President who cares about the interests of working families in 2004."

Labor's future, in any case, does indeed look bright. And that could mean a brighter future for many millions of Americans.

Copyright 2002 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based freelance columnist who has covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator.

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