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Labor Rights: If Unions Won’t Fight for Them, Then What Good are Unions?


On December 10th, International Human Rights Day, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney pointed out that, “For all practical purposes, Americans have lost the freedom to form unions.” Accordingly, the AFL-CIO and its allies engaged in a series of protests and rallies in over 100 cities across the country (as well as in eight countries around the world) in the days up to and including December 10, arguing that “Workers Rights Are Human Rights!” (www.laborradio.org/IHRDay05 .)  Sweeney argues, “Our legal rights are so weak and so feebly enforced….”

Long-time labor writer Dick Meister, writing in Znet (www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?sectionID=19&itemID=9298 ) concurs.  “The lack of firm legal rights is a main reason only about 13 percent of the country’s workers belong to unions, compared to a high of 35 percent in the 1950s.”

I want to argue a different perspective.  Yes, I agree, workers’ rights in this country have been terribly undermined, so much that it is extremely difficult to form a union (www.americanrightsatwork.org ).  I agree that this hurts unions, undermines popular democracy, and threatens the economic well-being of American workers and their families. And I agree that this is a violation of international human rights in general, and a specific violation of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But I don’t buy Meister’s claim-and Sweeney’s as well-that lack of legal rights is a main reason why workers aren’t joining unions. I think this focusing on the lack of human rights by the AFL-CIO is, in reality, a diversion from the real problem, a way of acting like a problem is being addressed when it is not. I think workers aren’t joining unions because they don’t trust union leadership-and especially at the national level, I think workers are right.  (See several of my previous articles for MRZine:  http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/scipes080805.html, scipes140905.html, and scipes311005.html.)

Let’s step back and look at the attack on unions to see if this might help us understand what is going on.

Most of the anti-union rhetoric we get presented ad nauseum is that unions force wages too high, supposedly killing the US’s ability to compete with foreign-based competition. Yet recently, the New York Times ran an article on the downsizing of General Motors (GM) and its affects on autoworkers (Danny Hakim, “For a GM Family, the American Dream Vanishes,” November 19, 2005:  A-1, B-7). The article discussed how General Motors was going to make massive layoffs and initiate plant closures: “GM plans to cut its blue-collar work force … to 86,000 Americans nationwide by the end of 2008, about the same number of people it once employed in Flint alone in the 1970s.  At its peak, GM employed more than 600,000 Americans.” 

 This obviously means that affected union workers will lose their “middle class” standards of living:  “They [two autoworkers] are both aware that the good life that auto work has afforded their family for four generations and for hundreds of thousands of other families in Michigan and elsewhere across the country, is ending.” 

Interestingly, however, was a listing of UAW hourly wage rates over the years included in the article, with these wages being among the highest hourly wage levels for industrial workers in the country. The Times had converted all the wages into 2004 dollars, so one could easily compare real wage rates over time (i.e., without inflation). In this graphic, they showed that UAW wage in 1980 was $30.58 an hour-and in 2004, the estimated top rate was $36 an hour: in a 24-year period, wages had grown an incredible $5.42 an hour per worker.  (That’s a Compound Annual Growth Rate of .68% per year!)  How could GM survive such massive increases?!?

The reality is that while unions can force undesired wage increases upon employers, the main reason employers do not like unions is because a union has the collective power to hobble if not reverse corporate decisions through being able to disrupt production. In other words, a union can act as a “governor” over corporate activities, at least as far as the workforce goes. Now, obviously, the union leadership must gain and maintain the support of its members to make real that power, but a union is the one organization in our society that has both the potential power to counteract corporate management power and is run by working people. And when unions work together, especially as they pull in allies, they have the ability to transcend the power of an individual corporation to affect entire industries and can, at times, even affect government policies.

It is from this power that unions have the ability to ensure labor rights, and to gain higher wages, better working conditions, increased benefits, etc.  And it is from this power that they have the ability to protect their activists (informal leaders) as well as the members who follow these activists. Without this power, wages, etc., can only improve with management acquiescence-and protection for activists is basically non-existent.

I would argue that a main reason workers aren’t joining unions is because national- and international-level union leadership does all it can to keep workers from making that collective power real. Leaders don’t want to fight-no matter how important it is to their organization to fight-because it means that the worker/members might go beyond the limits imposed by leadership and might even replace the current leaders. Like our gutless representatives and senators-are you listening Hillary Clinton and John Kerry?-labor leaders would rather lose than risk fighting.

Now, let’s be clear: there aren’t all these class conscious workers out there, straining at the bit, ready to strike upon command. Anyone who believes that is living in a fool’s paradise, in my humble opinion.

That being said, there are increasing numbers of working people who know something is terribly wrong, that the American “dream” is turning into the American “nightmare,” if it hasn’t already done so for them.  Many-if not most-already have figured out that their sons and daughters will more than likely have a worse economic future than workers today: and that scares them. And despite this, fewer and fewer workers are joining unions.

Why? Why in these times of increasing income inequality and worsening economic situations, aren’t workers joining unions?  First, and this goes back to my agreement with labor leaders: there IS a risk that any worker seeking to join a union, or to build one, could lose their job. No question about this.

However, while there is an increasing risk, why are so few workers taking that risk? I believe that the reason is that there is so little to gain from it: most union leaders provide no leadership, no vision, no determination to fight for their members or to gain new ones.

Partly, that is not the union’s fault. Companies do have to “live” within their particular industry, and wage levels cannot be terribly out of line with these competitors or the company will possibly go under.

But what IS the union’s fault is that most union leaders will not directly confront these problematic situations. First, many unions simply are not democratic: the leadership gets installed, and a nuclear bomb couldn’t blast them out. Their interest is to do enough possible to keep their jobs, and if there’s a choice between leading the members in a fight or keeping their jobs, the latter will win almost every time.  And they will run over anyone who tries to get a democratic discussion of the issues and situations. Union politics are not for the weak at heart, and democracy is often quickly forgotten when a union leader’s job is at stake.

Secondly, it is quite often the case that union leaders have no trust in their members, even where the union is democratic. “No matter what we do, those bastards won’t back us,” is a common leader lament.  But the question I would ask is WHY should members back union leaders automatically? Union leaders in general are no smarter nor dumber than most of their members. What have union leaders done to educate their members? I’m not talking about some top-down “here’s what we’re going to do” type of “education,” but education that is democratic, that involves all members who want to get involved, and which can be wide-ranging and critical, both of the union itself as well as employers. Workers can be won to militant campaigns if they have been presented with the situation in all of its complexity, if they can democratically decide how to proceed, and if they are treated with respect.

And finally, workers need to know that before they stick their necks out that if they do so, the union will do everything in its power to defend and protect them. And I’m not talking about just filing grievances or even taking cases to court. I mean that the union will do everything possible to force the company to reinstate immediately any targeted union member, including working-to-rule (most workplaces are dependent upon workers voluntarily using their knowledge to get things done and withdrawing to the minimum is extremely disruptive), wildcat striking, or just generally disrupting production in any manner possible.

Ask the workers at Delphi about the support they’ve gotten from their union. Ask the workers at Northwest Airlines about union solidarity with their own union. Continual compromise with corporate management only leads to future compromise. Yes, subservience can be justified in almost any situation. But subservience and compromise simply does not offer workers anything that they can’t generally get on their own.

So, to pull this back to the issue of legal rights, which I started with:  we don’t have legal rights for workers in this country because unions will not educate, mobilize and fight for legal rights.  I’m not talking about mobilizing supporters and allies: I’m talking about educating and mobilizing rank and file union members and those who want to join unions. If unions won’t do it for their own interests-and while legal rights are important for individual workers, they are essential for union well-being-then why should workers trust that they’ll fight for anything else? And if they won’t fight for anything, what good are they?

Complaining about our lack of labor rights without a program to confront this problem is no more than begging: “please, master, if you just give us our legal rights, we’ll be good little boys and girls, and will be ever so grateful.” And that’s why we’re losing what little we still have. 

Frederick Douglass said it best over 100 years ago: “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.” 

We will get our labor rights restored when we develop the power and determination to grab them. And all the sniveling in the world won’t move us one step toward building that power.

Kim  Scipes is a member of the National Writers Union and a long-time global labor activist in the US. He currently teaches sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Indiana. His on-line bibliography on “Contemporary Labor Issues” can be accessed at http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/LaborBib.htm . He can be contacted at < kscipes@pnc.edu >.

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