Unions' Many Mistakes and Opportunities to Mend

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Unions' Many Mistakes and Opportunities to Mend

I will never understand why the people who are jealous of unionized workers who earn $50,000 a year give a pass to the incompetent bank executives who get $5,000,000. Resentment is a terrible thing to waste.

Given how terribly companies have treated workers in recent years—mass layoffs, outsourcing, stagnant wages, piling on the work, while they pay their executives seven-figure salaries—you’d think Americans would be more receptive to unions. But organized labor’s bad rep isn’t surprising. A half-century of smears by big business and their media allies and sleazy laws passed by corrupt anti-worker politicians (c.f. the Taft-Hartley Act) have established today’s image of organized labor as corrupt, selfish and marginal.

As if that propaganda colossus wasn’t enough to contend with, labor unions have responded to these attacks with a series of poorly thought-out strategies that fed into that narrative.

As a result fewer than seven percent of private-sector workers belong to a union. And the last union stronghold, public-sector employees (36 percent represented), is under siege by Republicans in states like Wisconsin and Ohio.

Where did union leaders mess up? They made so many bone-headed decisions that it’s hard to know where to start.

During the 1980s unions forgot what they were and who they represented. They abandoned their traditional oppositionalism to management on the ground that their fates were interlinked: if the plant closed, union members would lose their jobs. Embracing schemes like “quality circles” and the “team concept,” in which workers and shop stewards worked side-by-side with bosses, unions increased efficiency at their own expense, essentially crossing their own non-existing picket lines. Unions took seats on the boards of companies they were supposed to be pressuring for higher wages and benefits.

The results of hobnobbing with corporate executives were predictable: givebacks and concessions to companies so they can pay their executives more and more. In 2009, for example, the United Auto Workers agreed to freeze their salaries to help save the big three Detroit automakers. They also slashed employee benefits, including healthcare.

Did the Big Three use those savings to invest in new plants? Hell no. They continued to outsource jobs overseas. Meanwhile, as UAW members got laid off and struggled through pay freezes, Ford gave president and CEO Alan Mulally a raise in his stratospheric annual salary, to $17.9 million. GM forked over $9 million to CEO Daniel Akerson. Despite having no apparent God-like superpowers—at this pay scale the dude ought to be able to shoot flames out of his mouth—Chysler-Fiat felt it appropriate to pay $7.7 million to its CEO, Sergio Marchionne.

This “please let me sit at the jocks’ table” mentality persists. UAW President Bob King said in January that seats on the boards of each of the big three Detroit automakers are at the top of his wish list. Memo from reality: you don’t hang out with your enemy. You fight them.

What is the point of a union that sells out its members?

The byword of American labor is “solidarity.” Considering that employers have the media and government on their side, sticking together is the only way to win.

Yet all too often unions under siege during the 1980s and 1990s did the opposite. They created two classes of workers—old and grandfathered-in, versus the young and screwed. In return for protecting wages and benefits for their existing (older) membership, unions such as the International Longshoremen’s Association agreed to a drastically lower tier of wages for new hires. By looking out for their narrow short-term interests, the ILA confirmed the perception that they were less interested in workers rights than self-preservation. Ironically it mortgaged its future in the process.

John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO from 1995 to 2009, spearheaded a drive to organize women, minorities and low-paid workers. Though laudable, the new emphasis neglected labor’s traditional base, white males, who also happen to be politically influential “Reagan Democrats,” a.k.a. swing voters. These “angry white males” became today’s right-wing Tea Party.

Big labor’s abusive love affair with the Democratic Party has been bafflingly counterproductive. I don’t have a problem with the “forced” collection of union dues; it’s fair to require everyone who benefits from higher wages and benefits to support the union that makes them possible. But it’s ridiculous to use those dues to support one political party—the Democrats. Between 1990 and 2008 unions made more than $667 million in political campaign contributions, 92 percent to Dems.

Which might be justifiable, if unions got anything in return. NAFTA, GATT and WTO (signed by Clinton and continued by Obama) gutted American manufacturing jobs. The 2009-10 Democratic majority Congress ignored labor’s top priority, the Employee Free Choice Act. Neither Clinton nor Obama even considered repealing Taft-Hartley, which bans wildcat strikes, solidarity strikes, secondary boycotts, union shops and allows courts to break strikes arbitrarily.

A still bigger mistake has been labor’s inexplicable refusal to go after the ersatz “while collar” workplaces.

“There’s something new in the air,” UC Berkeley professor Harley Shaiken, who studies labor issues, told Reuters. “There is a sense that white-collar workers have become the blue-collar workers of the 21st century in terms of job security, wages and benefits. That’s certainly how they’re treated. And if you’re treated like a blue-collar worker, you may respond like a blue-collar worker and seek to protect benefits and maintain some job security.”

The AFL-CIO and other unions talk about organizing the white-collar ghetto. But they aren’t doing much. Few workers in the tech sector or advertising or finance or the media have ever met a union organizer. If labor had its act together, no cubicle farm in America would go a year without an attempt to unionize it.

Without the passage of a “card check” law to reduce employer retaliation, union organizing attempts might fail—but the workers who voted yes would always appreciate that they were trying to help them live better lives.

Labor is on the ropes. With the economy getting worse, however, there has never been a greater need for union leaders to get smarter and more militant—or a better opportunity to reverse their long slide.

Ted Rall

Ted Rall is the author of the new books "Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?," and "The Anti-American Manifesto" . His website is tedrall.com.

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