For over a century since the advent of industrialization, unions have shaped American workers lives and industry in profound ways. The Clayton Act of 1914 paved the way for unions by exempting human labor from being considered a commodity or article of commerce and thus allowing for collective bargaining. While union membership has been in decline since the 1960s, it is still widely prevalent in representing many industries in our economy such as auto workers, teachers, nurses, and the police.
Unions have succeeded in making many reforms at the workplace, such as the 40-hour workweek, overtime pay, sick leave, unemployment insurance, workplace safety and hazard protections and ending child labor, that have benefitted all workers in America, not just those that belong to a union.
Wisconsin Republicans, led by Governor Scott Walker, stripped that state’s public employees of any collective bargaining rights in March 2011. That assault on the employee unions now stands poised to spread nationwide, fanned by the Republican Party.
While some may argue that unions have lost their purpose and do not benefit the workers they represent, the truth is far from that. In this age of rapid globalization, outsourcing, off-shoring, and unfettered pursuit of profits and savings by both corporations and the public sector, often at any cost to the workers, unions remain the last bastion of support and defense for many American workers. At the same time, I would acknowledge that the unions need to focus on their basic function and renew their partnership with the employers rather than have an adversarial unyielding stance. An example of a positive cooperative union-employer endeavor is a proposed labor agreement that General Motors and the United Auto Workers union reached in September 2011—with win-win provisions that would re-employ about 570 GM previously laid off workers, revive a now-idled assembly plant in Tennessee and pay one-time bonuses of about $5,000 for each current worker, and yet allow GM’s cost structure to remain within their goal. Such cooperation benefits both workers and allows employers to add jobs.
Another opportunity for such cooperation is the proposal to address the San Jose City budget shortfall—Mayor Reed has a pension reform plan that is expected to save $67 M in the next year. The employee union should consider reasonable compromises that will preserve city jobs while still providing for a fair pension.
The answer to our country’s economic woes is not the destruction of the unions but rather their reform to partner with employers, including the public sector. Unions and employers must work together to grow the competitiveness and profitability of the employers while still ensuring that the employees’ legitimate interests are protected.
We need employee unions now more than ever in this global economy to step up and advocate for the American worker.
Rameysh Ramdas, an SF Bay Area professional, writes as a hobby.
Unions have outlived their usefulness
The union movement in the United States peaked in the 70s, when they represented about one quarter of the workforce. Unions have been in a steady decline since and make up about 12.4% of the entire workforce and only 7% of the private workforce today. While unions in the past helped maintain wages and the standard of living for the middle class, this trend is unsustainable. Economists have proved that unionization frequently produces higher wages at the expense of fewer jobs, and given the current economic climate, we should not be advocating for policies that depress jobs.
Also, the future of our workforce is changing. As of 2009, a third of the workforce participated in freelance or independent activities. Money magazine estimates the number to grow to 40% over the next decade. A study by the University of Maryland suggests that the social media “app economy” is responsible for 182,000 jobs. Then there is the example of a new company called Task Rabbit which uses an online tool to connect people with time to spare with “employers” to run errands. Collective bargaining, pension benefits, improving working conditions etc., become irrelevant in a free and flexible workplace. We need a new safety net for these employees when they trapeze between contracts and employers. A new social contract, perhaps a Medicare part P(private) which would cover anyone under certain conditions. We ought to be thinking regulated, defined benefit pension plans similar to social security, funded and owned by employees. Instead our attention has been diverted by the attempt of Republicans to demolish these archaic institutions that have not evolved in step with the dramatic changes to the way people live and work.
That public support for unions is low can be demonstrated by the reaction of voters after the egregious union busting in Wisconsin. Despite protests by unions and substantial press coverage of these events, Democrats failed to win sufficient seats in the recall elections to gain majority in the state legislature.
Such apathy is understandable. The few remaining unions often take intransigent positions in negotiations, such as the one taken by postal employees unions, which will not give up the “no layoff” clause, or the San Jose public sector unions’ refusal to negotiate pension benefits. In the latter case the city had to let go of 10% of the police force so that the remaining 90% would have comfortable pensions. Teachers unions have weird rules protecting bad teachers and dispensing with newer, better ones on the basis of seniority.
Union managements often become bureaucracies that lose touch with rank and file members, thus defeating their objective of representing them fairly. We have all heard of overpaid employees in every branch of the public sector who fight tooth and nail to keep their cushy retirement benefits continuing. It is this attitude that alienates trade unions for most people.
Mani Subramani works in the semi-conductor industry in Silicon Valley.