Twenty Myths About Unions

By Paul Jay, The Real News, March 23, 2013

Bill Fletcher: I hear from workers that have lower-paid jobs, that they resent union-sector high wages thinking it’s better for the economy if all wages were lower -

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

As most people following The Real News know, unionization rates in the United States are heading towards, well, almost nothing. Private-sector unions are something under 7 percent. With public sector, I think it gets up into the 9 or 10 percent, maybe 11. But the issue of where unions are headed doesn’t look very good. One union leader I heard recently said, oh, well, it’s just cyclical. You know, we’ve lost half our membership. And it occurred to me, yeah, in the next cycle you might lose the other half of your membership, because the unions don’t seem to be doing a very good job at messaging why unorganized workers should be in unions.

And whenever I’ve covered strike struggles and I talk to nonunionized workers watching the picket line, often you hear at least two things said. One, these union workers get paid too much, they’re bankrupting the country, it’s not fair that they get paid that much, and it’s making us uncompetitive. And, of course, the other thing you hear is, oh, the unions are all just corrupt, they don’t really do anything for you. Well, now someone’s come along to try to dispel what he calls myths about unionization.

And now joining us from our studio in D.C. is Bill Fletcher Jr. He’s an immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum. He’s a union organizer, an activist. And he has has a new book out titled “They’re Bankrupting Us!” And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Thanks very much for joining us, Bill.

BILL FLETCHER JR., AUTHOR AND ACTIVIST: Thank you.

JAY: So talk about, first of all, what drove you to write the book.

FLETCHER: Well, actually, two things, Paul. One was simply I was asked. Beacon Press in the beginning of 2011 was taken by the upturn in interest in unions, particularly after what was going on in Wisconsin in response to Governor Scott Walker. So they asked me to write it.

But what made it possible for me to write it was an experience I had when I was on a plane about a year before, flying from San Jose and San Diego. And I was sitting next to this woman, a very nice woman in her 30s, and I was reading a book about global union solidarity. And she asked what the book was about, and I explained to her. And she looked at me and said, “What is a union?”

FLETCHER: Now, at first I thought that she was joking with me. And then I realized she was absolutely serious. She had no idea what a labor union was. So I proceeded to explain it to her. As I was explaining it to her, she was nodding her head, and I realized she was nodding her head in that way that someone does when they have no idea what you’re talking about. So when I wrote this book, I was actually writing the book for her. And each chapter dealing with myths or broadbrush criticisms is really written as a conversation with her or people like her who are not necessarily opposed to unions but often have no clue as to what a union is.

JAY: Well, let’s start with the one that’s the title of the book, they’re bankrupting us, because I hear that a lot from workers that have lower-paid jobs, that they resent union-sector high wages. They particularly resent public-sector wages. And instead of them getting organized and trying to get higher wages, they think what would be better for the economy is if the higher-paid workers got paid less.

FLETCHER: That’s true. That is a very common myth. And there’s a few different things I would say about that. One is that at a certain point in the history of the U.S., when unions were much stronger and they were driving the economy in many ways—not controlling, but driving things—what you’d have is with higher-wage jobs, nonunion competitor companies would also feel compelled to raise their wages because they basically wanted to keep unions out. So they wanted to be competitive. As our percentage of the workforce shrank, the nonunion companies felt less compelled to do that, and this gap widened between what unionized workers were facing and nonunion workers were facing.

Second thing is that it’s very common for people to blame others who are weak or actually scapegoated, rather than to identify the real source of the problem. For those nonunion workers you’re talking about, the problem is not unionized workers. The problem is the wealthy, the problem is those that are controlling the economy, who are basically robbing from people like those nonunion workers who maybe 20 or 30 years ago would have actually been at a union.

A third thing is that in the public sector, this notion that the unions are a problem is completely misplaced, because the problem is revenue. The problem isn’t the unions. The problem is revenue. And there have been decisions made by various governments, largely by Republican, but also by Democrats, that instead of raising taxes on the wealthy, they’d instead go after gouging the workers, and therefore to focus on the paid salary of the workers rather than figure out: how do we get more revenue into the economy?

JAY: Well, part of the argument goes, when you talk to some workers who believe this, is they think there’d be more jobs. If only higher-paid workers were paid less, then there’d be more jobs to go around. I mean, what’s the truth of that?

FLETCHER: Well, the truth of that is [incompr.] what happened over the last 30 years in the southern part of the United States with the textile industry. So you [incompr.] textile industry that went from unionized—the pre-unionized of the United States into the South, into largely nonunion facilities, and then kept going south into the Dominican Republic, into Mexico or China or Vietnam. So the issue wasn’t about the existence of the union. These companies were going, trying to find cheaper and cheaper labor. That’s what’s really going on here there. And to the extent to which you have parts of the United States, large parts of the United States now that have no unions, it becomes easier for these companies to play us off against one another.

So these nonunion workers that you’re talking about, they need to understand that the companies are not running into problems because of the unions. Very often they’re running into problems because of their own market strategies, because they refuse to keep up with the technology. A case in point of that would be the U.S. auto industry up through the 1980s, which was not keeping up with technological developments and ended up being outclassed by the Japanese, by the Germans, by the Swedes. Yet it is easier to blame all of this on the unions.

JAY: Now, one of the other myths you talk about in the book—you say is a myth—which is this issue that unions are corrupt and—. But certainly there has been a lot of problem with corruption in unions. So why do you consider that a myth?

FLETCHER: Because in the United States there’s corruption. See, you know, what’s interesting, and particularly if you watch some of these right-wing television programs, they will focus on an example of corruption in the union as a way of saying that unions are the problems. Yet I don’t remember any of these right-wingers talking about when Bernie Madoff carried out his scandal, that maybe we should get rid of capitalism. I mean, maybe that’s a solution to the Bernie Madoff scandal and other such scandals. You see, it’s very hypocritical, the nature of the attack. It is a corruption in unions. There is corruption in any place where there is money.

The question is not whether there’s corruption. The question is whether the institution is doing anything to limit the corruption and to address it directly. So that’s one thing, that in unions as democratic organizations, the most democratic organizations or most democratic unions are the ones that generally are the least corrupt. But the second thing is that there are certain unions that historically were penetrated by the mob, in part because of the nature of the industry itself.

And that was one of the things that I found very interesting when I was doing some research for this, Paul, that there was a—in the 1985-86, there was a president’s commission on organized crime that had a section on unions. And one of the things that they concluded—they concluded two things. One is: the more democratic the union is, the less likely it is to be corrupt and mobbed up. The second is that there’s certain industries that the mob has penetrated particularly because of the nature of the workforce. Where the workforce is transitory, part-time, temporary employees, they’ve been unable to get in.

Now, the way you deal with this is that you have to have a culture within the organization that really is abhorrent to corruption, is constantly struggling for greater democracy and worker control. So of course there’s corruption and there’s been corruption. But what you can see in the union movement is the constant struggle, usually by rank-and-file members, for real democracy and against corruption. That’s more than you can say about Wall Street.

JAY: Now, one of the things which I find hard to understand is I see little to none campaigns by the unions, in a broader way, explaining why unionization is good for unorganized workers. You know, we know the unions have poured tons of money into funding for Democratic Party election campaigns on television, and I guess when they do specific organizing efforts at a specific plant or hospital or whatever, they put money into that. But in terms of general education of the public and the broad section of unorganized workers, I never see anything that explains why a union’s good and, as you’re doing in your book, trying to dispel myths.

FLETCHER: Yeah. Well, yeah. I mean, it’s interesting, Paul. So, first of all, there actually have been over the years, periodically, certain public relations campaigns by unions to talk with the public about why a union’s a good thing. They have happened.

But you see, what I would argue is that that’s not enough, that if you want to convince the public that unions are good, you need a combination of PR, books like mine. But most importantly, you have to position the unions so that they are perceived as organizations that are fighting for the public, for example the Chicago Teachers Union, right, which has an immense amount of parent support. Why? Because parents see in the union that the union is fighting not just for the teachers but for them. Or back in 1997, when the Teamsters went on strike against the United Parcel Service, they had tremendous support from the public because they had built up a lot of goodwill, because they convinced the public and they framed the issue that they were fighting for is that they were fighting on behalf of the need of workers for full-time jobs. And the public loved this. So I think that winning the public is not by any stretch of the imagination impossible, but you need a combination of good PR, good educational books—.

JAY: Yeah, but, Bill, I’m not talking about winning the public. I’m talking about talking to unorganized workers, who as we know is by far the majority of workers, and talking to them about why they should be in a union. And I don’t see that. I mean, when you’re talking about public campaigns, that’s also an issue, of course. I can’t remember the last time I saw an ad for buy union. When I was a kid, I used to see those ads all the time. I talk to union leaders now: why aren’t you guys pushing buy union? And, you know, occasionally you see buy American. But it could be buy nonunion American, buy—if you follow that campaign, not buy union. They kind of—they’ve become so defensive and almost defeatist about their own image, they don’t even try <=”" i=”"> campaigns. But I’m talking about talking to unorganized workers in a broader way.

FLETCHER: In order to talk to workers, unorganized workers, nonunion workers, and to win them, in addition to organizing campaigns you have to position a union movement so it’s perceived on a regular basis as fighting for more than just union workers, whether that is helping unemployed workers get organized and fight for jobs, whether that’s what the Chicago Teachers Union is doing right now. It’s taking up campaigns and positioning themselves to speak on behalf of the 89 percent or 90 percent of the workers—88 percent of the workers that are not unionized.

We need—that’s what we need. We need union leaders that are in fact labor leaders. And that’s the challenge, Paul, and I think that’s what you’ve run up against, where you have union leaders that treat their responsibility as that of the head of a trade association rather than a trade union.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Bill.

FLETCHER: Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a columnist, activist, author and labor organizer. He is an editorial board member of BlackComentator.com, as well as the chairman of the Retail Justice Alliance. He is also the co-author of “Solidarity Divided”; and the author of the newly released book,”‘They’re Bankrupting Us’ – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions.” He is the a cofounder of the Center for Labor Renewal, has served as President of TransAfrica Forum and was formerly the Education Director and later Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO.

http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=8834#.USOIX6mmDww

The Non Zero-Sum Society: How the Rich Are Destroying the US Economy

by Robert Reich Published on Tuesday, January 29, 2013 by RobertReich.org

Excerpt

And why Walmart, McDonald’s and every hospital in the country should be unionized – As President Obama said in his inaugural address last week, America “cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” Yet that continues to be the direction we’re heading in…the super-rich have done well in the economic recovery while almost everyone else has done badly…Not even the very wealthy can continue to succeed without a broader-based prosperity. That’s because 70 percent of economic activity in America is consumer spending..Almost a quarter of all jobs in America now pay wages below the poverty line for a family of four…It’s not a zero-sum game. Wealthy Americans would do better with smaller shares of a rapidly-growing economy than with the large shares they now possess of an economy that’s barely moving…If they [the wealthy] were rational they’d even support labor unions – which have proven the best means of giving working people a fair share in the nation’s prosperity. But labor unions are almost extinct. The decline of labor unions in America tracks exactly the decline in the bottom 90 percent’s share of total earnings, and shrinkage of the middle class…What’s to blame? Partly globalization and technological change. Globalization sent many unionized manufacturing plants abroad…Unions are almost extinct in America because we’ve chosen to make them extinct…Republicans, in particular, have set out to kill off unions…Don’t blame globalization and technological change for why employees at Walmart, America’s largest employer, still don’t have a union…

Full text

And why Walmart, McDonald’s and every hospital in the country should be unionized

As President Obama said in his inaugural address last week, America “cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.”

Yet that continues to be the direction we’re heading in.

A newly-released analysis by the Economic Policy Institute shows that the super-rich have done well in the economic recovery while almost everyone else has done badly. The top 1 percent of earners’ real wages grew 8.2 percent from 2009 to 2011, yet the real annual wages of Americans in the bottom 90 percent have continued to decline in the recovery, eroding by 1.2 percent between 2009 and 2011.

In other words, we’re back to the widening inequality we had before the debt bubble burst in 2008 and the economy crashed.

But the President is exactly right. Not even the very wealthy can continue to succeed without a broader-based prosperity. That’s because 70 percent of economic activity in America is consumer spending. If the bottom 90 percent of Americans are becoming poorer, they’re less able to spend. Without their spending, the economy can’t get out of first gear.

That’s a big reason why the recovery continues to be anemic, and why the International Monetary Fund just lowered its estimate for U.S. growth in 2013 to just 2 percent.

Almost a quarter of all jobs in America now pay wages below the poverty line for a family of four. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 7 out of 10 growth occupations over the next decade will be low-wage — like serving customers at big-box retailers and fast-food chains.

It’s not a zero-sum game. Wealthy Americans would do better with smaller shares of a rapidly-growing economy than with the large shares they now possess of an economy that’s barely moving.

At this rate, who’s going to buy all the goods and services America is capable of producing? We can’t return to the kind of debt-financed consumption that caused the bubble in the first place.

Get it? It’s not a zero-sum game. Wealthy Americans would do better with smaller shares of a rapidly-growing economy than with the large shares they now possess of an economy that’s barely moving.

If they were rational, the wealthy would support public investments in education and job-training, a world-class infrastructure (transportation, water and sewage, energy, internet), and basic research – all of which would make the American workforce more productive.

If they were rational they’d even support labor unions – which have proven the best means of giving working people a fair share in the nation’s prosperity.

But labor unions are almost extinct.

The decline of labor unions in America tracks exactly the decline in the bottom 90 percent’s share of total earnings, and shrinkage of the middle class.

In the 1950s, when the U.S. economy was growing faster than 3 percent a year, more than a third of all working people belonged to a union. That gave them enough bargaining clout to get wages that allowed them to buy what the economy was capable of producing.

Since the late 1970s, unions have eroded – as has the purchasing power of most Americans, and not coincidentally, the average annual growth of the economy.

Last week the Bureau of Labor Statistics  reported that as of 2012 only 6.6 percent of workers in the private sector were unionized. (That’s down from 6.9 percent in 2011.) That’s the lowest rate of unionization in almost a century.

What’s to blame? Partly globalization and technological change. Globalization sent many unionized manufacturing plants abroad.

Manufacturing is starting to return to America but it’s returning without many jobs. The old assembly line has been replaced by robotics and numerically-controlled machine tools.

Technologies have also replaced many formerly unionized workers in telecommunications (remember telephone operators?) and clerical jobs.

But wait. Other nations subject to the same forces have far higher levels of unionization than America. 28 percent of Canada’s workforce is unionized, as is more than 25 percent of Britain’s, and almost 20 percent of Germany’s.

Unions are almost extinct in America because we’ve chosen to make them extinct.

Unlike other rich nations, our labor laws allow employers to replace striking workers. We’ve also made it exceedingly difficult for workers to organize, and we barely penalized companies that violate labor laws. (A worker who’s illegally fired for trying to organize a union may, if lucky, get the job back along with back pay – after years of legal haggling.)

Republicans, in particular, have set out to kill off unions. Union membership dropped 13 percent last year in Wisconsin, which in 2011 curbed the collective bargaining rights of many public employees. And it fell 18 percent last year in Indiana, which last February enacted a right-to-work law (allowing employees at unionized workplaces to get all the benefits of unionization without paying for them). Last month Michigan enacted a similar law.

Don’t blame globalization and technological change for why employees at Walmart, America’s largest employer, still don’t have a union.

Don’t blame globalization and technological change for why employees at Walmart, America’s largest employer, still don’t have a union. They’re not in global competition and their jobs aren’t directly threatened by technology.

The average pay of a Walmart worker is $8.81 an hour. A third of Walmart’s employees work less than 28 hours per week and don’t qualify for benefits.

Walmart is a microcosm of the American economy. It has brazenly fought off unions. But it could easily afford to pay its workers more. It earned $16 billion last year. Much of that sum went to Walmart’s shareholders, including the family of its founder, Sam Walton.

The wealth of the Walton family now exceeds the wealth of the bottom 40 percent of American families combined, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.

But how can Walmart expect to continue to show fat profits when most of its customers are on a downward economic escalator?

Walmart should be unionized. So should McDonalds. So should every major big-box retailer and fast-food outlet in the nation. So should every hospital in America.

That way, more Americans would have enough money in their pockets to get the economy moving. And everyone – even the very rich – would benefit.

As Obama said, America cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

Robert Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including his latest best-seller, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future; The Work of Nations; Locked in the Cabinet; Supercapitalism; and his newest, Beyond Outrage. His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His widely-read blog can be found at www.robertreich.org.

Article printed from www.CommonDreams.org

Source URL: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/01/29-2

Economic Justice – labor

The Decline of Unions Is Your Problem Too By Eric Liu, Time.com… the share of America’s work­force that’s union­ized hit a 97-year low…It’s a vicious cycle: as unions decline, fewer peo­ple see their fates as bound up with unions, which just accel­er­ates the decline… Inequal­ity and wealth con­cen­tra­tion are at lev­els not seen since just before the Great Depres­sion…a basic assump­tion now shapes most Amer­i­cans’ mind­set about labor: the belief that the death of unions isn’t my prob­lem because I’m not in a union. That assump­tion is wrong in two crit­i­cal ways. First, the fact is that when unions are stronger the econ­omy as a whole does bet­ter…On the flip side, when labor is weak and cap­i­tal uncon­strained, cor­po­ra­tions hoard, hir­ing slows, and inequal­ity deep­ens. Thus we have today both record highs in cor­po­rate prof­its and record lows in wages. Sec­ond, unions lift wages for non-union mem­bers too by cre­at­ing a higher pre­vail­ing wage…The weak­ness of labor is everyone’s prob­lem — and its revival everyone’s opportunity.

Why Americans Need Unions Now More Than Ever by Robert Creamer HuntingtonPost.com, February 23, 2011 — …The central problem facing the American economy — and our society — is the collapse of the American middle class. The incomes of the middle class Americans, and those who aspire to be middle class — 90% of Americans — have been stagnant for almost three decades. This trend, which was briefly interrupted during the Clinton Administration, is the chief defining characteristic of our recent economic history…Virtually all of the increase in our gross domestic product over the ten years before the Great Recession went to the wealthiest 2% of the population. These changes in income distribution are not the result of “natural laws.” They are the result of systems set up by human beings that differentially benefit different groups in the society…

Inequality Rages as Dwindling Wages Lock Millions in Poverty 

Why Don’t We Pay People Enough? 8 Facts About America’s Struggling Working People By Bill Quigley, AlterNet, January 23, 2012

5 Things Unions Have Done for You By Zaid Jilani,Think Progress, posted on Alternet.org, March 6, 2011 1. Unions Gave Us The Weekend. 2. Unions Gave Us Fair Wages And Relative Income Equality 3. Unions Helped End Child Labor 4. Unions Won Widespread Employer-Based Health Coverage 5. Unions Spearheaded The Fight For The Family And Medical Leave Act

It’s All About the Wages — Our Economy Would Be Fine If Everyone Made Their Fair Share by Robert Reich – Robert Reich’s Blog, Posted on Alternet.org, July 13, 2010

Attacking unions: It’s not about the money, it’s about power By David Schultz, MinnPost.com, Feb. 23, 2011 - Efforts to bust collective bargaining rights inMadisonare not about the money. Money and budget deficits are the pretext for a larger battle to attack government and break public-sector unions for political reasons. In many ways, this is the logical continuation of the union-busting battle that began under the Reagan era. What is really going on here is an effort by corporations and the GOP to dismantle one of the few remaining institutions in America that defy their power. It is the battle to restructure labor markets to serve a broader corporate neo-liberal agenda…the Wagner Act — aka the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) — in 1935 recognized the right to collectively bargain and organize in the private sector. Subsequently, similar rights were extended to workers in the public sector. The NLRA was a success. By the early 1950s private-sector unions constituted approximately 38 percent of the private-sector workers. Wages, income and working conditions dramatically increased, economic inequalities decreased, work place safety improved, and features such as the eight-hour/40-hour work week emerged. ‘A countervailing power’ Yet the 1950s was thehigh pointof unions. Corporations hated them. Unions represented what John Kenneth Galbraith called a “countervailing power” on corporations. Yes, in many cases unions sided with management on protectionist practices (think of the car industry) and had corruption problems (Hoffa and the Teamsters), but they also did a lot of good, by raising the American standard of living. The real problem for corporations, and for Republicans, was that unions supported Democrats. They provided dollars, organizing, and votes for Democrats. But the Vietnam War and the dual oil embargos in the 1970s precipitated a major fiscal crisis that produced decreased corporate profits. It was at this point that corporate and Republican interests converged to attack labor unions….beginning and most visible effort to break unions and limit their power was the decision by President Reagan to dismantle PATCO in 1981. He busted the air traffic controllers’ union and that sent a clear signal that it was OK to go after unions. Together the GOP and corporations waged a terrific battle against unions, claiming thatAmerica’s economic decline was rooted in high union wages, inflexible rules, health care and benefits, along with excessive government regulation and taxation. Big government and unions were the cause of American decline. Of course, not all of this is true…Yet blame the unions because they form a great scapegoat for American industrial decline….The war on private-sector unions and government has been a success. Private-sector unions are now relatively weak. They constitute about 8 percent of the private-sector workforce. Their decline correlates with significant increases in economic inequality, declining wealth for the poor and middle class, and the weakening of the Democratic Party. The one stronghold for unions is the public sector. They constitute a larger percentage of the public sector workforce than do unions in the private sector. They generally support Democrats, and in return for lower wages compared to the private sector they have received greater job security and often better benefits. The job security in part was a consequence to prevent the politicization of the government, to protect from political reprisals, and limit patronage and the spoils system. Public-sector unions are now under attack as governments now face their own version of a fiscal crisis. The battle in Wisconsin is part of a broader agenda to demonize public employees and government. …It is just so easy. It is a great wedge issue — play the resentment and divide and conquer cards with taxpayers and private-sector workers…

Labor Unions’ Fight for the 99% Goes Way Beyond Raising Campaign Dollars By Sarah Jaffe, AlterNet, April 22, 2012

History of Labor Unions from shmoop.com, February 24, 2011