March 20, 2011- Labor is roaring again, like in the old days. But it's a wounded sound now.
In the bitter aftermath of a showdown with Wisconsin's governor, and as other states move to weaken public employee bargaining rights, unions and their allies dare to hope they can turn rage into revival. This could be a make-or-break moment for a movement that brought the nation the 40-hour week, overtime pay, upward mobility, a storied century of brawls, progressivism and corruption – and now a struggle to stay relevant in the modern age.
Not so many answer to the call anymore when labor demands, as it did in the bloody strife of Kentucky coal country generations ago, "Which side are you on?"
One way or another, the Wisconsin Waterloo and the forces it set loose will fill a chapter in organized labor's history. The dispute mobilized masses, attracted public support on the side of workers and set up a political donnybrook to play out in the months ahead as labor leaders seek voters' vengeance against the Republicans who eviscerated union rights.
But it was, at the core, a defeat for labor in the one place where it has stayed strong: the public sector.
Suddenly this redoubt looks like a fat target.
"I think Republicans smell blood in the water," said Leon Fink, a labor historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Politics is a highly organized game of money ball and this could set back both the unions and Democratic Party power for years."
Since the heyday of organized labor's influence in the 1950s, when union membership reached its peak at about one of every three workers, unions have fought a losing battle against the steady erosion of membership and clout.
Last year union membership fell to 11.9 percent of all workers, and just 6.9 percent of the private sector. The number of major strikes in 2009 and 2010 was the lowest on record.
If you're a labor sympathizer wondering why unions got weak, pick your poison.
The decline of unions in the private sector mirrored the push to globalization, especially the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs to other countries and the shift of other factories from the longtime industrial heartland to states less hospitable to organized labor.
Companies took an increasingly aggressive stance against union organizers, emboldened by the Reagan administration's firing of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981. That act was taken as a wink to the corporate world that the long-established order was upended and that business, too, could play rough.
"Labor now gives off an almost animal sense of weakness," Chicago union lawyer Thomas Geoghegan wrote in his Reagan-era ode to the movement – something of an obituary for it.
In the mid-1970s, when miners pulled off one of their multiple massive strikes, they choked coal production, idled steel plants that were starved of fuel and caused rolling brownouts in New York City. Americans far removed from strikes sharply felt their effects.