Unions in America

One of the papers in the panel I participated in today followed media coverage of the recent effort to pass ‘card check’ for union organization.   The presenter, Dr. Glenn Richardson, showed how despite the fact that there were numerous examples of abuse by management, including intimidation of those who favored unionizing, the discourse around the issue tended to be dominated by images of “union thugs” intimidating workers.

However,  while there was a lot of evidence of employer intimidation, there was no evidence of union intimidation, even in card check certifications.   Moreover, the right supported its favorite option, secret ballots, by wrapping it in the guise of fundamental American belief in the secret ballot as essential to democracy.   The problem, of course, is that while employers do lobby employees, often with one on one meetings, threats to shut down if the company unionizes and other forms of intimidation, the union doesn’t get the names of the people who will be voting, and cannot effectively communicate with them.   Therefore, its not truly a free election, it favors the employer.   He noted numerous examples of this happening, even as the ‘union thug’ narrative (for which there was really no evidence) stuck in the media discourse.

Anyone who has lived in or studied European economies will notice two stark differences between Europe and the US.   First, the US has a much larger gap between the wealthy and poor, with workers getting much less vacation time and fewer protections.   They can also much more easily be fired (often for things like supporting unionization).   Second, labor unions are extremely weak and irrelevant in the US compared to Europe.   White collar unions are very rare in the US, but extremely popular in Europe.

The result has  been a massive shift of wealth from workers to business owners and stock holders, including a loss in relative wealth by white collar workers.   Without unions standing up for workers, they are increasingly unable to fight for better pay and working conditions.   In fact, when things go bad, like GM needing a bailout, often the unions get blamed for bad decisions from executives.   Given that so much damage was done by the collapse of the financial sector due to unregulated derivative trading, blaming unions seems obscene.

Why has America turned hostile to unions?   I think it’s a mixture of both discourse dominance by those hostile to unions, and the ability of high debt and cheap imports to keep workers believing unions aren’t needed.

The discourse control is obvious.   To disclose my clear bias, I am campus local President of AFUM, a union affiliated with the NEA (and Maine Education Association).   That means I am part of a rather powerful white collar union.   I do not agree with every position the NEA takes, but recognize that it works hard to protect educators.   Moreover, our dues cannot go to fund NEA political action, to support that we have to make separate contributions.

Because there has been corruption in unions (as in every major organization) and at times union deals have seemed to render extremely high salaries in times of plenty, unions get painted as “thuggish” corrupt organizations whose demands can destroy industries.   Unions are thus considered enemies of capitalism and markets, even though the idea of workers organizing to negotiate with employers is not anti-capitalist in any sense of the world.   These images are created with anecdotes and images of unions being power hungry and greedy.

The reality is far from that.  My union, for instance, just signed a two year contract with no salary increases for the first time ever.   The University system basically showed its books, worked with the union, and convinced us that it was really impossible at this time to afford raises.   Together, the system and the faculty want to show that we are working to keep education costs down and help solve the states’ financial difficulties.  In the airline industry, auto industry and everywhere unions are, there is a long history of even taking very large cuts in salary to protect the long term business.   Unions don’t do that if they don’t believe the cuts are truly necessary — but no one wants the jobs to be lost.

The people with the real power in the relationship are the employers.   Often they convince low paid clerical workers that their interests are with management.   White collar workers want to see themselves as above the grunt on the industry floor, so even though they’re really just doing glorified grunt work with a white collar, they view themselves as superior.   Thus the pay differential between upper management and so called low management is immense.   Without union protection, no one is fighting for better benefits, standing up for employees who have a grievance against management, and working to make sure that when profits are high, a fair share goes to the workers, not just the big shots.

The second point is that this discourse was sustained in part by a massive growth of cheap goods and people living in credit and appreciating home values.  This was an illusion, but it helped reduce dissatisfaction people had with their pay.   With unemployment low, most people had jobs and could be convinced that unionizing would be risky.

But the lack of unionization has contributed to the massive gap between rich and poor, one that makes the US almost seem to be more like a third world nation in the distribution of income than an advanced industrialized state.   I did a good two hour “urban walk” in downtown Chicago this evening, noting the stark differences between the ornate buildings and numerous homeless and poor shuffling around asking for spare change.   The real victims, though, are the working poor who toil with little pay, and often no insurance benefits or guaranteed vacation.

Some justify this by saying that’s what the market result is.  The Europeans are lazy to have five weeks paid vacation.   Bullshit.    You can darn well bet that those who really make out well in our system can get five weeks vacation easily, and spend it traveling and enjoying a fine lifestyle.   The market created this vast maldistribution of wealth only because it could be dominated by and manipulated by those with the wealth and control of both jobs and political messaging.

Stronger unions would be a market friendly way to address this.   It wouldn’t be welfare or socialism, but a way to give workers a stronger voice, to have a chance to really investigate how much a company can afford to pay, and reduce the vast discrepancies between management and worker pay.   It can forge a partnership between management and worker, whose destinies both benefit when a company does well.  Stronger unions would help us get through this time of economic hardship while trying to prevent the worker from bearing too much of the cost.

It’s not going to happen.   The discourse is fully entrenched in the “unions as corrupt thugs wanting to destroy business” narrative.   Unions are easily demonized, and few politicians see a lot of advantage in praising them publicly.    When unions want fair pay for workers, they are accused of class warfare.   Few accuse the big CEOs who get fired and collect tens of millions on the way out of class warfare.   But whose work really earned all that money?   Unions could bring about a fairer negotiation to help capitalism work better, and also show how “free trade” with countries that use virtual slave labor may make it appear we get cheap stuff, but that this is just exploiting foreign workers and weakening the position of American workers.

To be sure, I do prefer the German and Scandinavian notion of unions as partners with business rather than the British and often traditional American idea of them as adversaries.   The goal is to help make markets function justly, not to destroy them or hurt business.   However, I suspect the anti-union rhetoric will not go away any time soon.

  1. #1 by Jeff Lees on April 24, 2010 - 06:01

    It is really strange how union get demonized, while many overpaid executives get millions in bonuses and benefits. Think back to the “populist” response to the fact that the execs of all those huge companies that caused this financial meltdown got huge bonuses. I remember many lambasting them for their egregious paychecks, yet I never heard calls for unions to fight this corruption.

  2. #2 by languagelover on April 25, 2010 - 01:04

    It’s bad unions that get press and that’s what people believe. For example, teacher’s unions in New York and California have news pieces written about how hard and expensive it is to fire a union-protected teacher, no matter how bad he or she is. That makes people believe unions are bad.

    Another example: I worked for a time in a Bobcat factory on the assembly line. I was only part time, so I wasn’t part of the union, but I enjoyed its benefits. When the economy started taking a down swing, the company tried to work with the union, but they refused to budge. So, the company had to close one of the plants. Lots of people lost their jobs. Had the union been willing to bend, it might have gone another way.

    My own union has never done me wrong, and they’ve helped me now and again, so I have no call to complain about them. On the other hand, I’ve talked with administrators who’ve made subtle comments about how impossible it is to do more than scold poor teachers. Union protection.

    On the other hand, without union protection, administrators could run unchecked, just as the corporate big-wigs have done.

    • #3 by Scott Erb on April 26, 2010 - 03:51

      I agree that unions often do things wrong — governments, businesses, unions, all organizations have examples of mistakes. I fight in my union to try to keep us pragmatic — recognize we have a common interest in education and keeping the U Maine system viable. I also know protecting workers sometimes means protecting people we really think don’t deserve the protection. A union is legally obligated to do that. But I think those negatives get magnified, and the positives reduced in the public conscience. Yes, pressure unions and point out times they act poorly — but too often unions are simply demonized.

  3. #4 by Jeff Lees on April 26, 2010 - 01:49

    Here a great example!


    The First line of the subtitle reads: “At a time when the nation’s fastest-growing union is starting to fall victim to its own aggression…” Is that a fair representation of unions? I think this is a classic example of what you are talking about Scott.

  4. #5 by Jay Burns on April 27, 2010 - 20:03

    “It wouldn’t be welfare or socialism, but a way to give workers a stronger voice, to have a chance to really investigate how much a company can afford to pay,…..”

    I guess it is this line of thought gets under my craw. You don’t get to decide how much an employer can “afford” to pay. They do. It’s their business. If you think there are such large profits to be had in the industry, then you should be able to open your own business and undercut their price.

    If the pay doesn’t seem fair for your time. Go work somewhere else. Why should pay not be dictated by the same free-market principles as any other good or service. Your labor is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. Nothing more. Nothing less.

    • #6 by Scott Erb on April 27, 2010 - 20:10

      Jay, that means that the worker can get screwed and pay very little, with the employers making massive amounts of money. That’s what happened before labor unions fought for workers’ rights. The text book story of how the market should work doesn’t play out in real life. That gets under my craw — there is a stark difference between the power of employers and employees, and a wealth of historical evidence on how this leads to abuse.

      Unions can speak with one voice for the workers to negotiate, rather than relying on being divided and conquered, but employers who have the power, more information, and more control. Thus in the US with weak unions, money is highly centralized with the richest folk, who get the best health care, vacation time and the like, while workers get relatively much less. The divide doesn’t have to be that large. And just because the market makes some super wealthy, and many others who work hard barely scrapping by, doesn’t make that fair or the best for society.

      Again, unions are simply workers negotiating from a position of more strength, better information, and more power to stand up to powerful employers.

      • #7 by Jay Burns on April 27, 2010 - 20:38

        Scott, the reason workers were paid very little following the 29 crash was because of the free market system as you know. There were just too many workers, which drives the value of their labor down. Fact is though, that is what their labor was worth. Unions were and can still be a good thing. I’m not denying that.

        What none of the union people I discuss this with never answer is why they don’t open their own business to soak up some of the market share if the owners are making SO much money. No the workers want none of the risk, but they always want a larger percentage of the profit.

  5. #8 by Scott Erb on April 27, 2010 - 20:47

    I guess I don’t buy that the market can correctly value labor since it can be manipulated by those with power. That can lead to class war. Unions can simply help workers negotiate fairly. I suspect most people don’t want to open a business because overhead costs would be hard to get (that’s why it’s hard to move up the ladder sometimes), and they may prefer what they’re doing. Not everyone is an income maximizer. I agree unions need to recognize that they can destroy the company and their workers if they push to far — I can list numerous cases of union miscalculation and greed. Greed is part of any human organization, business, labor, or government! So I guess I want them to help avoid the powerful being to manipulate the labor market to their advantage.

  6. #9 by languagelover on April 27, 2010 - 21:12

    when big companies are making tons of money, it’s hard to fight them. The reason is that they can afford to undercut you and take a huge loss long enough to run you out of business. They might only make 5 million instead of 10 million that year, but how can a small business fight that strategy?

    I think of WalMart. Who can fight against WalMart? They buy in such bulk that the small local companies are simply unable to compete. Some folks decide the better customer service is worth the higher prices, but most people do not. They are willing to wait in long lines, and deal with terrible sales people, because buying milk is cheaper. Goodbye local grocery store.

    Or am I wrong in this?

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