Q&A with Damon Silvers of the AFL-CIO

As workers’ wages fall, organized labor may experience a resurgence.

By Adam Van Brimmer Jun 23, 2014

May CoverOrganized labor in America is in decline. Unions currently represent less than 7 percent of the private-sector workforce, the lowest percentage in decades. Those numbers trouble Damon Silvers, policy director for the AFL-CIO. Yet Silvers anticipates a resurgence in the labor movement as workers seek to regain bargaining power. Falling real wages coupled with cuts to health and retirement benefits make that push inevitable. A federation of U.S. labor unions, the AFL-CIO represents more than 12 million public- and private-sector union members.

What is the greatest threat to the American worker’s economic security?

It’s not a threat, it’s a reality—and it’s falling wages. There are two big issues at work here. One is essentially a policy decision to push our economy to compete globally on flat, low wages. The other is that plummeting wages create a country that cannot maintain its place in the world, one that is unable to preserve its infrastructure and educate its workforce. That’s a scary situation because if you don’t have infrastructure and educated workers, you go from being an economy that can make choices to one locked into decline, or close to it.

Organized labor has long worked to protect wages only to see its influence wane. What’s holding the labor movement back?

The American labor movement has been badly damaged by the generation-long, societal choice of trying to compete globally through lower wages. Unions are and will continue to be an obstacle to that strategy, as their purpose is to make sure workers get their fair share of the wealth they create. The Great Recession has also hurt, as mass unemployment kills labor unions. Job losses not only diminish our numbers but also damage the average worker’s ability to organize, since being out of work or fearing for one’s job damages self-confidence.

What could lead to labor’s revival?

The issue comes down to rebuilding the collective confidence of the workforce in their own ability to bargain effectively. The labor movement’s success going forward will come from being an effective tool for that effort.

Where does the labor movement stand in terms of its political influence?

The numbers bounce around a little bit, but labor union household membership has remained around a quarter of the electorate.

That’s nothing to sneeze at in terms of political clout. But the reality is it all depends on the ability of labor unions to be a vehicle for working people to bargain for themselves. If we don’t do that, the political power we have will not be sustainable.

How can HR professionals improve their relationships with labor and workers?

The most important thing is to be interested in having a productive relationship. Once a business or an HR director starts from that place, many things become rather simple. In every relationship a company has with the people who provide it with the resources to do business, there is both an element of conflict and an element of collaboration. Whether company leaders are sitting down with a lender, a vendor or a labor representative, everybody wants to get the deal done, but at their own price. It’s normal for there to be some contentiousness in all relationships of this kind.

What advantages do HR departments with in-house labor experts have over those that wholly outsource that role?

Outside firms can be good sources of expertise. Yet if you depend on them for anything really critical, you run the risk that the firm’s own agenda comes into the process. What is the firm’s priority? More business? More fees? With any critical function, it’s wise to have in-house expertise in line with your organization’s interest.

Adam Van Brimmer is a journalist and freelance writer based in Georgia.


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