Posts Tagged ‘Decline of Labor Unions’

The future of labor unions

September 3, 2013

I think workers will always need to organize to protect their own interests.  Labor unions are a structure that exists for that purpose, but it is nothing more than a structure, just as a corporation, a government agency, a charitable organization or a church is a structure.  The people within the structure may or may not be faithful to carrying out the organization’s purpose.

Labor unions are much more democratic and much less corrupt than other institutions in American society, partly because corruption is much less tolerated in unions than in other institutions.  Corrupt labor leaders go to prison; corrupt bankers retire to enjoy their ill-gotten gains.  Under law, the government can, and has, appointed trustees to take over corrupt labor unions and clean house.  Nothing of the sort exists for labor unions.

I think there always will be a need for labor unions, but future labor unions may not be like those of the present day.  In the 1930s, the American Federation of Labor, consisting predominantly of skilled workers organized by craft, did not respond to the discontent of workers in great industries.  Workers acted on their own, and the CIO (Committee for Industrial Organization, later Congress of Industrial Organizations) was formed in response.

The Wagner Act of 1935 recognized the right of unions to exist and to make contracts through collective bargaining, but imposed on them the obligation not to strike for the duration of the contract.  Further restrictions on labor unions were imposed by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959.

The one-day work stoppages by Wal-Mart and fast-food workers remind me of what I read about the history of the 1930s, with workers taking their fate into their own hands and the recognized labor unions rushing to keep up with them.  These actions could represent a new direction for American workers.  I hope they do.

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The purpose of labor unions

September 3, 2013

I linked to this article by David Macaray in a previous post, but I like it so much I want to highlight it.

A union official I correspond with (the International Vice-President of a West Coast labor union) recently shared an interesting anecdote. He said that whenever he meets someone for the first time and they casually ask what he does for a living, he answers by saying he’s a “workers’ rights activist.”

Because people are, typically, intrigued by his reply and want to hear more, he goes on to explain that his job consists of doing things like making sure retired workers get their pensions, meeting with management to clear up wage or hours disputes, helping laid-off employees get unemployment benefits, representing employees who feel they’ve been unfairly reprimanded, and discussing with company officials such on-the-job issues as bullying and sexual harassment.

Almost invariably, people express their approval of what he does for a living. They respond by saying things like, “Wow, what a cool job,” or “I didn’t even know jobs like that existed,” or “Hey, we need more people doing stuff like that.” But when he ends the conversation by telling them he works for a labor union, he gets a totally different response.

People are stunned.  They appear shocked or confused.  According to this fellow, some people actually exhibit hostility at hearing he’s a union officer, believing they’ve been unfairly tricked into momentarily respecting a person they would otherwise have nothing but contempt for.  Such is the warped perception of labor unions.

When I was a rep, I used a slightly different approach with union-haters.  After listening to their tiresome litany of complaints (i.e., unions are corrupt, they go on strike too much, their economic gains are eaten up by monthly dues, they’re undemocratic, etc.), I would respond with this: “Say what you will about unions, but name another institution that’s solely dedicated to the welfare of working people. Name me one.  Just one.”  Of course, no one could name any because there aren’t any.

Not the President of the United States, not the Congress, not the Church, not the Chamber of Commerce, not Facebook, not the American Legion, the Elks or the Moose, not charities or philanthropic groups. Only us. The only institution solely dedicated to the welfare of working people are labor unions.  And if you can’t understand that, you can’t understand anything.

via CounterPunch.

Click on Our Sad, Misunderstood Labor Unions for David Macaray’s full article.

The decline of American labor unions

June 12, 2012

I was a member of Local 17 of the Newspaper Guild for 24 years, but even when I was not a union member, I benefited from the strength of American labor unions.  My union local had little clout, truth be told; there was too high a turnover among us reporters, and we were too easily replaced.  But the International Typographers Union had a lot of clout, and we journalists benefited from that, because it didn’t look right that we college graduates be paid less than skilled blue-collar workers.

There was a time when the labor movement as a whole had clout, as Richard Yeselson observed in The New Republic.

When union membership peaked in the mid 1950s at about 35 percent, it was disproportionately weighted to the Northeast, the Midwest, and California. But that meant that in those regions—the most populous in the country—either a worker was in a union himself/herself, had a family member in a union, or, at least, had a friend or neighbor in a union. People, for better or worse, knew what unions did and understood them to be an almost ordinary part of the workings of democratic capitalism.

Most important, they knew, for better or worse, that unions had power.  Sixty years ago, the UAW or the Mineworkers or the Steelworkers, not only deeply affected crucial sectors of an industrial economy, they also demanded respect from broader society—demands made manifest in the “political strikes” they organized, whether legally or not, to protest the issues of the day.  Millions supported these strikes, millions despised them—but nobody could ignore them.  The charismatic leaders of these unions, men like Walter Reuther and John L. Lewis, were household names to most Americans. … …

A MEMORY FROM my slothful days as a graduate student some 30 years ago: I’m sitting around my apartment watching day-time television, The Phil Donahue Show, on a day when the guest was the head of the machinist’s union, William Winpisinger. Already, labor was in decline, but the machinists were a million member union at the time and they patrolled key military and commercial companies like General Dynamics and Boeing. And Winpisinger was a piece of work: a blustery, belligerent, union militant.

As always, the conflict formula for talk shows eventually took hold, and Winpisinger received a barrage of hostile questions from Donahue’s audience.  So, he stood up—a big, bald headed guy—and went to the front of the stage to take the attacks head on.  It was great television, and “Wimpy,” as he was known in the movement, was anything but.  One guy stood up and said something like, “Why should I care about your membership? They’re making more money than I am, they have better benefits than I do. Who needs you or them?”

Wimpy’s response was to turn on the guy—again, this is from memory, but it’s of a piece with his career—and bellow, “What are you yelling at me for, you jerk. Rather than attack workers who have organized themselves into a union and are doing better than you because of it, why don’t you organize a union yourself?! Then you can get better pay and benefits, too!”  Somewhere in West Philadelphia, a lazy grad student cheered.

via Not With a Bang, But a Whimper.

Today a small but shrinking majority of the American people approve of labor unions, but to many people, especially young people, the idea of labor unions as a powerful force in American society seems like science fiction.

Derek Thompson, writing in The Atlantic, suggested that the rise and fall of American unions was based on technology.  Factory workers in mass production industries were easy to organize, he wrote; workers in today’s high tech and service industries were harder to organize.  But in fact the unskilled manufacturing workers were very difficult to organize before the 1930s—that is, hard to organize for the skilled craft unions of the American Federation of Labor—because they were easy to replace.  The rise of industrial unions was the result of workers organizing themselves, and the CIO (Committee for Industrial Organization, later Congress of Industrial Organizations) following the workers’ lead.

Could this happen again?  Maybe.  The problem is that many Americans see the AFL-CIO and especially the public sector unions as part of the problem, not part of the solution. They see unions as part of the system, not as fighters to change the system.  Unions are on the defensive, fighting to preserve the wages and benefits of their own members, and not seen as advocating for the interests of American working people.  The AFL-CIO is wedded to the Democratic Party, whose leaders offer no solutions for unemployment, falling wages, foreclosures and the other problems of American working people.  For public support of labor unions to change, unions themselves will have to change.  I don’t have a good answer.

Click on Not With a Bang, But a Whimper: The Long, Slow Decline of America’s Labor Movement for Richard Yeselson’s full article.

Click on Who Killed American Labor Unions? for Derek Thompson’s article, from which the charts above were taken.

Click on The Decline and Fall of Organized Labor for an article by Bruce Bartlett in the online Fiscal Times.

Click on Why Is the Public Suddenly Down on Unions? for analysis of the decline of American public esteem for unions.

Click on U.S. Approval of Labor Unions Near Record Low for details about the Gallup poll.

Click on Unions Seen As Good for Workers, Not for U.S. Competitiveness for details about the Pew Research poll.