Another Labor Day

September 2, 2008


Another Labor Day has come and gone. Every year it seems like the labor struggles of the past two hundred years fall further and further from public knowledge or consciousness.

Union membership in the United States is today at the lowest level since 19011, why is this? There are lots of reasons.

Reason number one is an almost complete ignorance of unions. Most people in this country do not know what a union is, what it is for, or what unions have done for people in the past. Most Americans have a vaguely derogatory view of unions as being bad for business, bad for jobs, criminally connected, and just plain unnecessary. This view comes from what they learned in school, from what they learn in movies and TV entertainment, and how unions are generally covered in the mainstream media.

And why do these diverse sources all conspire to create a less than positive opinion of labor unions? Very simply because all these sources are owned, influenced or operated by big business. In a competitive environment where gains by labor unions are viewed as losses by the business community, why would you expect the business community to present a favorable viewpoint on unions? Historically the business community has banded together to oppose unionization and to create public opinion favorable to business and hostile to labor unions.

If you doubt this, just google "union membership" and you'll see at the top of the results a "sponsored link" to - an anti-union web site. That is sad.

And while all this was going on, what were the labor unions themselves doing? Primarily, they were largely idle. They were idle for three main reasons:

  1. Union management became focused on working for a better deal for their own members, often to the exclusion of other concerns. This is short-sighted and not infrequently counter-productive.
  2. Union management originally came from working class roots, but as the unions grew and matured, this gradually became no longer true. Union management evolved into an elite group of highly trained managers and administrators who by training, association, and interests had much more in common with business management than union labor. They became their own worst enemy.
  3. Union management originally came in two flavors: political and apolitical. Those unions that were political were targets for systematic oppression by both government and business. They were identified, rightly or wrongly, as Communist and their offices were closed and their leaders jailed. Thus the unions were prevented from effective political organizing while the business community conducted all manner of anti-union political activities with impunity.

An excellent example of this kind of activity is the so called "Right to Work" legislation in many states, in which non-union employees (who are bound by the terms of the union contract even though they are not members of the union) benefit from collective bargaining without paying union dues. These laws also prevent free contracts between unions and business owners, and this makes it harder for unions to organize and less attractive for people to join a union.

OK, so what is a union? A union is a representative organization for workers seeking collective bargaining with employers. Unions are democratic organizations - in most unions every position of authority is elected by the membership. As a point of historical fact, the stronger the unions in a country, the stronger the democracy. The countries with the strongest unions also have governments that provide more to their ordinary citizens. The weaker the unions, the less well the governments serve their people and the more they serve the powerful elites (the owners).

This is where all that stuff about class and class interest usually comes in. In a general sense, if you work for a living, you have a strong self-interest in strong and healthy unions, because in every single case in the last 200 years, strong healthy unions mean more prosperity and security for ordinary folk. This is your class interest: the wealthy won't share their wealth with you in an equitable fashion just because they're nice or because it's the right thing to do. The wealthy will do what wealthy people do, they will concentrate wealth among their own - their families and their friends. This is their class interest. In so doing, they will naturally operate in such a way that they have more and you have less. You do not have a shared class interest with the fabulously well-to-do, you and they are in opposition. Unless you have a strong and healthy union, on your side, who will force the wealthy to operate in everyone's best interests. This is how real economies work . This is why those with more despise unions and try to undermine them.

Are unions perfect and without problem or fault? Of course not. Unions are composed of flawed and imperfect people. There have been organized crime connections with unions - as there have been with lots of other organizations, like banks and brokerage houses (to name just two prominent examples). When a union gets criminally connected, then it is just as bad as when a government gets criminally connected - we call both corruption: both entail a betrayal of a public trust. Certainly there are a lot of examples of union officials colluding with business management to engineer a worse deal for the workers - this is another form of corruption. But we don't discard an institution because it can be, or has been at times, corrupt - we fix it, if we can. If a particular union is beyond hope, then we should replace it with another one that is not. This is all part of responsible democracy: if we are the union then its goodness or badness is our responsibility. We need to shoulder t hat burden in expectation of reaping the benefits.

1. (c) 1994-2006 --- Wendell Cox Consultancy (Demographia) --- Permission granted to use with attribution.

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