Hinge of Labor
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
One of the moments we’ll never forget is the national meeting of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1995. It took place at the Hilton Hotel in New York, where John Sweeney of the Service Employees ousted from the presidency of Big Labor Lane Kirkland’s long-time deputy, Tom Donahue. Sweeney’s accession ended the era of leadership of the faction that had foreseen the importance for labor of the long struggle against Soviet communism. It also ended the era when private sector unions were in the leadership and brought public sector unions into a commanding position.
A generation later it looks like labor is at another hinge. That may be wishful thinking, but it is certainly invited by the defeat of the public service unions at Wisconsin. It’s an enormous achievement for Governor Walker and the Republicans. Last month at a reception in New York, Governor Christie — just back from Wisconsin — predicted that if Mr. Walker repulsed the bid to recall him he would instantly become the most powerful governor in America, in part by virtue of the fact that he is now nearly assured of re-election and thus is looking at a six-year term in which to follow through on his reforms. But we’d like to think it’s a turning point for organized labor.
Though we have disagreed with Big Labor on most public policy issues of the past generation, it happens that we don’t think of ourselves as anti-labor. We watched the central role that the AFL-CIO and other anti-communist labor unions played in the defeat of the Soviet Union. It was a huge thing. It led us to the conclusion that a free and democratic labor movement, invested in the riches that only human intelligence and work can create, is less a fifth column than a pillar of strength in a free society. But for the same reason that communism didn’t work, public sector unionism is a zero-sum game that pits labor against everyone else. It’s a fight that labor, like the communists, can only lose.
In this respect, Wisconsin can be a teaching moment. It puts at a premium politicians who, like Mr. Walker, have the grit for the fight. It also puts at a premium leaders with ability to reach out to labor and make this argument. This is one of the reasons we’ve been savoring the strategy of Sarah Palin, who stepped onto the national stage by announcing that her husband, Todd, was a “proud member of the United Steel workers” and who herself is a one-time union member from her days as a telephone company dispatcher. She is the only Republican who has pointedly reached out to labor and bid its rank and file to join the commonsense, conservative, constitutional cause.
We don’t mean to suggest this struggle is about Mrs. Palin, only that this is a moment to think about where the true interests of labor lie and about the possibilities of the labor movement. The Cold War taught that there can be hinges in our history when free labor and free enterprise are on the same side. Government is a zero sum game for organized labor, as for the rest of us, while in the private sector the possibilities are wide open. There is no natural limit to growth in private enterprise, in the creation of wealth by human ingenuity and effort. One of the things to watch for after the victory in Wisconsin is the one who can make that case to labor itself.
This editorial has been corrected for the first name of Mr. Sweeney.