The U.S. labor movement remains in dire straits. Its problem isn't that Americans have turned against unions but that labor's power to better workers' lives through representing them in the workplace or championing them at the ballot box has been diminished by dysfunctional labor laws and procorporate court decisions.
Ironically, the one arena in which unions have made some headway this year is shareholder capitalism: By using the voting power of their pension funds, and by organizing shareholder opposition to excessive executive pay and corporate political donations, unions have begun to restore a modicum of accountability for out-of-control business leaders.
The reasons for this disparity in labor power are straightforward: Over the past 35 years, antiunion businessmen and politicians have waged a successful war against workers' ability to organize on the job, reducing the share of unionized private-sector workers to a scant 7 percent of the workforce. With 2010's Citizens United decision, the conservatives on the Supreme Court enabled corporations to swamp the election process with their money. But the right has yet to devise a way to curtail workers' power as shareholders without curtailing shareholder power generally — though somewhere, I'm confident, some industrious ideologue is working on this even now.
The battles that have been fought at this spring's annual meetings of banks and corporations haven't concerned worker rights as such. Many have focused on the corporations' political donations and their support for the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that drafts and promotes right-wing economic and social legislation in statehouses across the land. In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin killing in Sanford, ALEC's leadership role in promoting "stand your ground" legislation in state after state drew the ire of civil rights groups and others. To date, 18 major corporations have stopped their financial support for ALEC; last week, on the eve of what was sure to be a contentious shareholder meeting, Wal-Mart, which had been one of ALEC's mainstays since 1993, announced that it was dropping out of the organization.
That didn't put an end to Wal-Mart's shareholder uprising. Mobilizing public ire at reports that Wal-Mart had systematically bribed Mexican officials to expedite construction of its stores, some of the largest U.S. pension funds, including California's two mammoth public employee retirement systems and other funds from Florida, Connecticut and New York, opposed the re-election of some board members. When the vote count was announced Monday, more than a quarter of independent shareholders had voted against retaining Wal-Mart chairman Rob Walton, chief executive Mike Duke and former CEO Lee Scott, who'd all been re-elected at last year's meeting with more than 99 percent of the vote.
Coordinating both the shareholder revolt inside the meeting and the demonstrations outside was Making Change at Wal-Mart, a campaign of the United Food and Commercial Workers, whose efforts to organize Wal-Mart's workers have continually been thwarted by the company's antiunion extremism.
The UFCW is just one of a number of unions that have helped put together coalitions of groups like MoveOn.org, Occupy Wall Street and antiforeclosure, civil rights and environmental organizations to demonstrate outside and vote with their shares inside annual meetings. One survey of this year's shareholder resolutions has found that one-third of them have demanded more disclosure of corporate spending on lobbying and political campaigns. The unions played a key role in the shareholder revolt at Citibank, which rejected chief executive Vikram Pandit's pay package, and in the nearly successful campaign to enable shareholders at General Electric to exert more control over company management.
Shareholders enjoy one advantage that workers do not: They cannot be entirely deprived of their right to vote on their company's conduct. In an economy in which ordinary people have less and less power, shareholders' rights — aggregated through the investments of their retirement funds — remain one of the few ways in which popular power can be expressed. It's a largely inadequate way for workers to assert their interests, but at a time when democracy in the workplace and polling place has been diminished, it's what they have left.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect. © 2012 Washington Post