May Day, the international workers day, is just around the corner. But organized labor, here in Rhode Island, is not in a particularly celebratory mood.
When I asked Bob Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association — Rhode Island teachers union, for his take on the state of labor in spring 2012, he said a bit ruefully: "every day feels like Mayday."
He was referring not so much to the holiday, but to the distress call. And little wonder.
Last year, Treasurer Gina Raimondo won legislative approval of sweeping pension reform that raised the retirement age for state workers and suspended annual cost-of-living increases for retirees, among other things.
This year, Governor Chafee is proposing an equally sweeping legislative package, aimed at helping the state's struggling cities and towns. It would, among other things, allow certain municipalities to suspend raises for teachers and cut cost-of-living hikes for pensioners.
And this from a governor who got considerable help from organized labor during his campaign for the office.
The blows of the recent past are only part of the story. Longer term trends are of concern, too. Last year, just 11.8 percent of workers were unionized nationwide — about one-third of the peak unionization rate of 35 percent in the mid-1950s.
And in Rhode Island, 17.4 percent of workers were union members — good enough for sixth in the nation, but still a significant drop-off from 21.5 percent in 1983, the first year for which state-specific data are available.
These problems were hardly lost on the small group of community organizers who gathered around a table at the modest Providence headquarters of advocacy group Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) this week to discuss their plans for a May Day march and celebration.
But the assembled — Fred Ordonez, executive director of DARE, Kathy Lessuck, a DARE member, Martha Yager, program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, and Will Lambek, a member of the Olneyville Neighborhood Association and a central figure in the Occupy Providence movement — also see some reason for optimism.
I ask what will make this year's May Day celebration — a rather obscure holiday in the United States — different from past events. "I think the Occupy energy fuels it," says Yager. "There are people out in the streets about workers' rights and tax equity.
"There's a: 'we don't like the way the world is going and we can change it.'"
Ordonez says the recent failures in the legislature show that a shrunken labor movement can no longer wield the behind-the-scenes, insider clout it once did. "It's going to take people on the ground," he says, to "maintain or grow" the movement. And if the struggles of the last couple of years have made that clear, he suggests, they may serve some useful function after all.
Of course, union officials would say they have never taken their eyes off organizing "people on the ground." And the larger forces conspiring against unionization — the globalization of the economy, the shift to contract work — would be difficult for even the most focused, hard-working labor movement to overcome.