Watch CBSN Live

Unions Make A Comeback

The head of the AFL-CIO today welcomed the collapse of the WTO talks, saying "no deal is better than a bad deal."

But union leaders hope that the week of protest is a sign that organized labor is moving again. CBS News Richard Schlesinger reports more workers are pushing their way back to the table.

Not far from the shattered glass and stinging gas in Seattle this week, there was another demonstration, not nearly as loud, but probably much more important.

There were thousands of union members in the streets of Seattle, pushing for better wages and working conditions in all countries that belong to the World Trade Organization. It was, according to some, laborÂ's return to the spotlight.

Â"WeÂ're seeing a revitalized labor movement thatÂ's more innovative and more aggressive,Â" labor expert Harley Shaiken says.

The last 40 years have been lean, mean years for labor. During the 1950's, 35 percent of the workforce was unionized. Today itÂ's less than 14 percent.

"The percentage of workers is declining," says Shaikin. "ItÂ's at an all time low.Â" (5)

Now the labor movement is fighting back, becoming more active internationally and organizing new industries.

Ramon Espaillat is one of laborÂ's new recruits. ThatÂ's Ramon Espaillat, M.D., one of potentially tens of thousands of Doctors who could join unions.

Â"That attraction of a union was a chance to finally sit down with management and argue for better patient issues,Â" Espaillat says.

He's not alone. The government has just ruled that all the interns and residents at private hospitals have the right to unionize. It could be a windfall for labor, not just because of how many there are, but also because of who they are.

Â"If we can organize doctors we can organize anybody," says Jay Mazur. "TheyÂ're the most arrogantÂ…Â"

Jay Mazur represents 250 thousand garment workers. He used to represent a lot more before trade swept jobs away to other countries. "WeÂ've probably lost 40 to 50 per cent of our members over the last 20 years," he says.

There might not be much time left. Labor experts say unions have to find a way to stay relevant in the new economy of virtual industries, or run the risk of staying in the streets making very little more than a lot of noise.