Archive for March, 2011

Power in a Union

March 7th, 2011

Have you even wondered why we have the 8-hour work day or the 40-hour work week? Why we have weekends? Why employers frequently provide benefits to employees? And why we have employment insurance, workers compensation, a minimum wage, and worker health & safety laws? We have all of these benefits—which increase the quality of our lives—because of the work of labor unions. Labor unions have been a essential force for democracy in the U.S. for over 100 years. In many cases, members of labor union members were killed by the police as they protested for labor rights. It is not an exaggeration to say they died so you and I could have our weekends off.

“We can thank organized labor for rest rooms and smoke breaks and clean places to eat lunch; for safety laws, paid vacations, sick leave, pension and insurance plans — policies and procedures that most of us take for granted…The labor movement also helped bring us social reforms, such as child-labor regulation, free public education and the concept of equal pay for equal work. We enjoy these gifts whether or not we belong to unions…But one of the biggest contributions from organized labor that we don’t appreciate, because it’s so very close to us, is our middle class way of life. In large measure, organized labor’s efforts over decades established the American middle class. Decent wages and job security allowed workers to buy homes and cars and send their kids to college, which fueled our economy and what we now so easily disdain as middle-class life.” (source)

The essential value that unions provide to workers is that they collectively bargain with employers on behalf of all or part of the organization’s workers, with the threat of a strike. This creates an equal partnership between management and workers; something individual workers don’t have on their own (an individual worker could never walk into management and demand more pay, better benefits, and increased safety procedures). This kind of management-worker partnership is an accepted part of business throughout most of the European Union (see Steven Hill’s book, “Europe’s Promise”), and has led to a much better quality of life across the board, and an even a stronger economy! They have an excellent safety net in place during times of high unemployment, allowing workers to receive job training and placement counseling. It is an excellent way to mitigate market downturns (yes, the European Union is a capitalist economy!), and create quick recoveries.

A friend of mine, who is a professional speaker, calls the corporation “the last monarchy.” He begins his keynote presentation by asking his American business audience if they would rather have a Queen instead of an elected President (my friend is British, by the way). The answer is 100% “no.” He then asks if they would rather have a centrally-planned economy (like totalitarian communism) rather than a free market economy. Again, “no” is the consensus. Then he asks, “If you don’t want these things for your nation, why in the world do you put up with them in your workplace?” (And yes…he does this with management in the room!) He goes on and gives examples of companies that practice democracy in the workplace; for example, companies that allow their workers to elect their management teams and select their own supervisors. His ideas are inspiring and would undoubtedly engage the full capacity of workers in ways that lead to incredible results. However, I don’t think most management teams are willing to make such concessions. In the absence of a massive change of thinking by CEOs across the country, we need a powerful institution like labor unions to bring a sense of democracy and voice to workers, to counter the power differential that exists in the workplace. Down with “the Last Monarchies”! As we will see below, this is not just important for workers in unions, but it is essential to preserving democracy and economic freedom and security.

When Governor Walker of Wisconsin decided to go after public worker unions under the guise of “balancing the budget,” he started a battle against middle-class America (part of a larger war that has been going on ever since the New Deal). After three weeks, the people of Wisconsin are still protesting this outrageous course of action. The governor gave breaks to corporations earlier this year, and now he needs to close the budget gap by taking it out of the last union stronghold: Workers in the public sector.

Unions have been a key institution for creating a thriving middle class in America for the past 100 years (source). Currently, inequality is at nearly a 100-year high in the U.S., and it is highly correlated with the steady decrease in union membership and influence over the past 30 years. (More jaw-dropping data on U.S. inequality.) After its high water mark in the 1950s, union membership started to decrease as the economy shifted to service-based jobs, and manufacturing jobs were sent overseas. The decline of unions accelerated after President Reagan took a hard stand against unions early in his presidency. Big business followed his lead in union busting. As a result, wages have stagnated and wealth has been redistributed upward to the superrich.

For every American citizen who values freedom, equality of opportunity, and hard work, they should support labor unions. Like any institution, labor unions are not perfect, and there are certainly areas that need to be reformed (one improvement would be giving employers options to replace poor performing employees, which is difficult under some union contgracts), but overall, unions serve a very important function that needs to be upheld and strengthened.

In his new book, Joshua Holland writes an excellent chapter on why unions still matter. He says,

“There’s a substantial body of research that shows a crystal-clear relationship between unionization rates, stagnating wages, and increased inequality and poverty. That’s true in all countries…[and they] perform no worse in terms of creating jobs.” Yet there has been a concerted effort by the Corporate Right to turn the American people against unions; to make them believe that, “unions are corrupt, perhaps even mobbed up, and their work helps only union bosses and their political patrons, while screwing over workers.”

More from Joshua Holland’s book:

  • Union members make almost 30 percent more than non-union workers when wages and benefits are combined
  • Union members are more likely to vote their economic interests
  • Gaps between higher-paid and lower-paid workers are lowest where union density is high
  • High union density also narrows the pay gap between women and men, and between younger and older workers
  • Unions counter poverty and make family incomes much more equal than would otherwise be
  • No country has seen such as precipitous decline in its labor movement as he United States has in the past three decades
  • The U.S. now has the lowest rate of workers covered by collective bargain anywhere in the industrial world, which has let to economic stagnation for all but the top 1%
  • In the midst of declining union numbers, a 2005 study found that more U.S. workers wanted to join a union than even before—53%
  • While there is a 30-year trend toward deregulation of corporations, union activity is very closely regulated by the government (making corruption and exploitation by union bosses extremely unlikely)
  • Union busting has become a multibillion dollar industry encompassing more than 2,500 lawyers and consultants offering their services (Source: pages 230-244)

I just finished Philip Dray’s captivating history of American unions, “There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America” (see link below). This 700+ page book details amazing stories of courage, the power of organizing for greater rights, and the challenges that come with taking on the powerful. Sometimes the government has supported unions, and helped support workplace democracy; at other times it has supported the big business assault on the working class, often by harsh action taken by the police of the National Guard. The only hope that unions have today is that Obama will strengthen unions, and reform them to increase their benefits to dues-paying workers (including teachers, firefighters, police officers, construction workers, manufacturing, etc.).

When I compare this history and the data with what the Right-wing says (indeed, what most managers in U.S. business say) about labor unions, there is a massive gap between the two realities. Fundamentally, it comes down to the question of whose freedom is more important in our society. Should America’s executives and business owners have the “freedom” to exploit workers? Or, should workers have the “freedom” to counter balance power in the workplace? » Read more: Power in a Union