Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why Aren’t There More Union Members in America?


I think a key to rebuilding the middle class is rebuilding union power---which for many unions/locals will include rebuilding the union itself from the inside out.  

As I've pointed out before, collective bargaining in the private sector provides working people the ability to harness market forces to improve wages and working conditions. Any true champion of a free market system believes in freeing workers from the constraints of Government policy ("right to work" laws) which protect a company from market pressures via Government policy.  That is why conservatives hate unions---they empower working people and overthrow the hierarchy that the boss is always right.  

But the fact the the 1% have bought off politicians to pass laws that protect corporations isn't the crux of the problem in my eyes.  

Way too many rank and file members of most unions see the union as an insurance plan rather than a place of solidarity and collective action in which they are able to take back power and gain some control over their own lives.  

If union's were stronger--not only would union members have taken to the streets today but company's like UPS would have been bombarding the phone's of lawmakers for fear of the economic consequences of unauthorized work stoppages/work to rule slow downs on their bottom line.  

But the fact is union's are not at the levels of organization and militancy needed to align such forces to join together stop bill's like the Right to Work bill shoved through in Michigan today.  

The always excellent Corey Robin wrote a post a while back discussing why there are not more union members in the US.  I'd boil it down to fear, intimidation, coercion, and the political power of the 1%.  Prepare for a decade of labor unrest as we work to rebuild that power and better align the political/economic interests of major players with the concerns and quality of life of working people. 

Anyways Corey's post is worth a read:

1.  Polls shows that a majority of non-managerial workers want to be represented by a union.  Richard Freeman, the Harvard economist who’s studied this issue more than anyone else, shows that in 2005, 53 percent of those workers, if given the opportunity, would have voted for union representation in a union election.  That, he argues, would have produced a unionization rate of 58 percent.

So why is the unionization rate more like 12 percent and decreasing everyday?

2.  Employers rely on a highly sophisticated “union-avoidance” industry to make sure those workers don’t get their unions.  Union-busters try to stop elections from being held.  If elections are held, they try to make sure—through threats, intimidation, and other illegal means—workers don’t vote for the union. If workers make it clear that they will vote for the union, they get fired, harassed, demoted, and so on.  Gordon Lafer, the University of Oregon political scientist who is one of the leading experts on union elections, estimates that 1 in 17 of every eligible voter in a union election gets illegally fired or suspended for his or her support for a union.  And, of course, the ramifications of those individual incidents extend far beyond the worker or even the workplace: when they see what happens to one pro-union worker, other workers (or workers in other workplaces) aren’t likely to step up or speak out in support of a union.

3.  Even when employers don’t break the law, election campaigns are overwhelmingly stacked against unions. Union election campaigns that are run according to the letter of the law, Lafer demonstrates, are more like the kinds of elections we used to see in the Soviet Union, and certainly don’t conform to the election standards the United States claims to uphold around the world.

4.  More generally, labor law excludes about a quarter of the American workforce, rendering many workers ineligible for union representation.  As the authors of this report argue:

There are 140.5 million people in the civilian workforce. Our research found that of these employees, 33.5 million, or 23.8%, have no rights under the NLRA or any other labor law: no legally-protected right to join or form a union, no legally-protected right to bargain collectively for their wages and conditions of work, and therefore, effectively no freedom of association in the workplace.

Now, it could be that Americans in their heart of hearts don’t really want unions, that they’re the individualists  everyone from Will Wilkinson to Will Wilkinson thinks they are.  (Okay, that was unfair: lots of smart people, like Louis Hartz, make the same mistake as Wilkinson.)  But until American workers are given an opportunity to register what they think on these matters, in the workplace but absent coercion and intimidation, I’ll take a pass on what Will Wilkinson thinks on these matters.

I don’t mean to be dismissive of Wilkinson; he’s a smart and charming fellow. (Our little Twitter exchange prompted my clearly delighted 3-year-old daughter to run around the apartment shouting, “Why is Will Wilkinson tweeting?  Why is Will Wilkinson tweeting?”) It’s just that there’s a vast body of research out there—and really smart people like Lafer, Freeman, Kate BronfenbrennerDorian Warren, and others—that Wilkinson might want to consult before he speculates any further on the inner recesses of the American mind.

If you’re interested in reading more about all this, check out these sources:








Paul Weiler, Governing the Workplace (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990)

Richard Freeman and Joel Rogers, What Workers Want (Ithaca: ILR Press, 1999) [there may be a later edition of this]

Corey Robin, Fear: The History of a Political Idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), ch. 8

1 comment:

  1. I'll bite.

    The problem with the Unions is their blind partisanship. Instead of being a lobbying group for blue collar workers they are just a mindless wing of the Democratic party and that has made them irrelevant. They'll fight the Republicans when the Republicans push union-busting or free trade agreements but they NEVER hold Democratic feet to the fire.

    When a Democratic politician pushes something that might hurt blue-collar jobs the Unions do nothing. Examples of anti-worker policies would be free trade supporting Democrats, increased immigration, some onerous environmental regulations, lots of White male union workers never stand up against Affirmative action policies pushed by the Left. The Democratic Party run school system doesn't support vocational education anymore