Paul Holmes

Though US unions might be on the way out, they are still effective grassroots mobilizers

Though US unions might be on the way out, they are still effective grassroots mobilizers

The conventional wisdom among the managerial classes in the US is that organized labor is on its last legs, an anachronism at a time when companies can shift most jobs overseas if workers in the US get too uppity.

But if the union movement is less powerful than it was 20 or 30 years ago, it is still capable of a potent death rattle.

The AFL-CIO's top priority these days is protecting its members from the Bush administration's plans to replace Social Security with "private accounts," eliminating the safety net upon which American workers have depended since the New Deal. The labor movement's target is not the President, but rather the financial services companies that have long promoted private accounts.

Those companies have come together in a group called - in marvelously Orwellian fashion - the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, which is lobbying for the administration to turn workers' retirement accounts over to its members. The group boasts 40 members, although I couldn't find a list at its website, for reasons that will soon become obvious.

The AFL-CIO began its campaign by writing to some of the nation's largest financial services companies, suggesting that "the push to privatize social security creates a conflict of interest between America's financial services industry and the investing public it serves." There have been suggestions that the unions, which oversee about $400 billion worth of pension assets, could boycott firms that continue to undermine Social Security.

In February, Edward Jones, which operates 9,000 offices around the US, left the alliance after a series of community actions targeting many of those offices, blaming "the confusion some have expressed about our position on Social Security reform." Shortly before grassroots mobilizations aimed at investment firm Waddell & Reed last month, the company announced it, too, was leaving the alliance.

Now the AFL-CIO is focusing on Charles Schwab and Wachovia, with protests outside Schwab offices a couple of weeks ago putting the company on the defensive. A spokesperson denied that Schwab was in favor of privatizing Social Security and said it belonged to the alliance because it wanted to monitor development relating to the future of the system.

It's easy to see why the anti-privatization crusade is such a high priority. Privatization remains unpopular among American workers, and all the evidence suggests it becomes more unpopular the more they learn about it. At a time when trust in the financial services industry is already at a low ebb, the stigma of being associated with the President's scheme is clearly something many companies would like to avoid.

It's hard to make the case for a broad resurgence of organized labor, but the movement can still exercise impressive grassroots power.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

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