Right to Work: A More Perfect Union

When most people think of theses words they think of the U.S. constitution, however the reference for purposes of this article is to address the topic of labor unions and worker’s rights. The united front across organized labor unions has seen a decline in their power and influence over the past few decades as employers render them as more of a relic of the past through government reforms. One of the earliest slogans of the labor movement was “8 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep, 8 hours for what we will” which began in the 1880s during organized labor’s push for the 8 hour work day however its exact origins are unclear but many believe it started during a  Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Union rally in Milwaukee on May 1, 1886. When we think of unions we see picket lines and battle lines pitting employee versus corporations using their ability to strike at any moment as leverage to win better work conditions and better benefits. With the struggle for a living wage and employers cutting more benefits and requiring more work, do we need a more perfect union where more people benefit than suffer from the politics?

The documentary above speaks to what has happened to the labor movement over the last century, but the concept of one union to represents all workers no matter the craft holds a lot of power more power than people think. The fracture labor movement with its many craft unions has gotten away from he original purpose of the what a union should be making it easier for governments and corporations to break the strong bonds between that allow for better wages and working conditions. For those who want to doubt my ability to speak on the topic, I have worked in a craft union and saw so much corruption within a small group and favoritism it made me question the purpose of the union when the power they have they don’t use. As workers we give corporations to much power to decide our own fates and put too much faith in the government to solve the problem. The reason I chose the documentary about the Wobblies or the Industrial Workers of the World is to show people that this group was more powerful than the government at the turn of the century allowing more progress in the labor movement than ever before as a united front. Unfortunately, fractures from within and government sabotage led to a decline in membership yet they still exist today. I don’t condone all their methods, but I do not condone the governments methods either to protect big business.

Labor Unions are legally recognized representatives of workers in many industries in the United States and around the world who use their collective bargaining efforts for wages, benefits, and working conditions even representing member in disputes with management over contract violations. Some labor unions are also involved with lobbying activities and electioneering at the state and federal levels. Most unions fall under two larger organizations the Change to Win Federation and the AFL-CIO which both advocate policies and legislation on behalf of American and Canadian workers. Both take active roles in politics with particular concern for global trade issues. In 2010, union membership was 11.4% in the United States compared to 18.4% in Germany, 27.5% in Canada and 70% in Finland. Union membership in the private sector has fallen under 7%, levels not seen since 1932, due to alleged employer incited opposition with the most prominent unions in the public sector being teachers and police. Unions do average 10-30% higher pay than non-union workers in America after taking into account individual, job, and labor market factors.

Although the number today are much smaller compared to the peak in the 1950s, American unions remain part of the political climate through mobilization of their membership and coalitions of like minded activists around issues of immigration rights, trade policy, health care, and living wage campaigns. In order to deal with employer anti-union programs, unions are currently trying to institute “card check” legislation requiring employers to bargain with unions if more than 50% of workers signed forms stating they wish the union to represent them. The current procedure takes 45 to 90 days in order to have a federally supervised secret ballot employee referendum. The economist Joseph Stiglitz believes, “Strong unions have helped to reduce inequality, whereas weaker unions have made it easier for CEOs, sometimes working with market forces that they have helped shape, to increase it.” The decline in unionization since WWII in the United States has been associated with a pronounced rise in income and wealth inequality.

Unions are not all sunshine and rainbows as with any organization there are pros and cons that must be weighed. A powerful and effective tool for the most part for unions has been the labor strike which essentially stops productivity and created a nightmare for the employer. The down side to using this bargaining chip is the workers has no guarantee that it will produce the benefits wanted and the worker will not be paid for loss wages during a strike. Another problem with labor strikes is there is no guarantee of a job after the strike as the employer is not required to hire the person back and can choose to retain workers he hired to take the place of workers on strike. The only way to retain the position is hope the employer calls back after the position becomes vacant. The pay rate and promotions under union representation  are determine by seniority and leaves little room for the employer to reward hard workers. In fact, unions will even put pressure on employees whose production is more than the rest of the workforce seeing the conduct as detrimental to other members. I was lectured a few times so I know from personal experience how unkind people can be when you do your job and exceed production. If you work in a union establishment, you are required to pay dues which are automatically taken from your paycheck sometimes even when you are not a part of the labor union and everything is decided with majority rules even if you don’t agree.

Labor Unions are protected under the National Labor Relations Act, according to the National Relations Board, preventing employers from discriminating against employees who are in, or who wish to form, labor unions. Statistic continue to show that unionized workers are more likely to earn more, receive employer provided health insurance and received employer provided retirement plans along with more vacation time and more paid leave than non-union workers. The most prominent union as states above is the AFL-CIO a labor federation with 54 member unions and 10 million members and Change to Win with 7 member unions and 6 million workers. Other prominent unions include the United Auto Workers, the Service Employees International Union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The Teamsters are especially famous for their one-time leader Jimmy Hoffa (pictured left), whose son is now the union’s president.

While labor unions have been on the decline in recent years, they still play a major role in protecting and representing the workers of the world. Most Americans believe the sweatshop condition of long ago were banished when labor laws too over, however in recent years these condition have made a resurgence with poor immigrant workers who become victims. Unions have taken it upon themselves to mobilize awareness campaigns, lobby the government for action and talk to clothing companies about whom they contract with. Unions provide a check against employers who attempt to violate the rights of workers and provide a support system to employees should they suffer.

With the decline in the past 50 years of the labor union, it’s become conventional wisdom that the post-industrial world doesn’t need or want unions however the data says otherwise according to Kris Warner of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. The desire to join unions has actually been growing since the 1980s and a majority of nonunion workers would now vote for union representation if given the chance. Of course the question comes up, why are unions in the decline? Experts, analysts, and commentators like to blame the decline on globalization to technology, but actually this is only part of the larger problem. Canada has gone through the same social and economic changes as the U.S. since the 1950s yet Canada has maintained its unions even though both countries followed a similar path from 1920s to the 1960s. The disparity between the two countries comes in the form of labor laws and public policy that is more hospitable to unions where bans on temporary or permanent striker replacement exist, where there is no “right to work” laws enacted like in 24 U.S. states, and where the process itself to unionize is rather quick only taking at most 5 to 10 days compared to the month or years it takes for workers in the U.S. to unionize. The quickness at which issues are dealt with in Canada prevents anti-union campaigns by employers unlike in the U.S.

The differences continue as the two countries deal of union drive obstruction and first contract arbitration quite differently. Canada handles illegal obstruction of union drives rather quickly compared to the U.S. which waits until long after the drive is over which helps to ensure that no coercion and no intimidation can be used. Finally, Canada has a process called first contract arbitration which provides a way to resolve a bargaining impasses between unions and employers during the first contract after a union forms . Once the employer or union applies the first step is mediation and conciliation, however if this fails to result in a voluntary contract then an arbitrator or panel will impose one which rarely happens. In the U.S., card check authorization, quicker handling and increased penalty for illegal obstruction, and first contract arbitration are all included in the Employee Free Choice Act which organized labor hoped President Obama would pass after his 2008 election. Although the president supported it while campaigning, his administration has done little to promote it making the further decline of American unions inevitable. However, Canadian unions see it differently as nothing is irreversible about this process.

Work related injuries and death have become an everyday occurrence around the world as ILO updates the estimates at intervals indicating an increase in accidents and ill health. The ILO estimates that 2.3 million women and men around the world die of a work related accident or disease every year that comes to over 6000 deaths per day. Worldwide, around 340 million occupational accidents and 160 million victims of work related illness each year. The estimates for fatal occupational accidents in CIS countries is over 11,000 cases compared to the 5,850 reported cases. The underreporting of these cases gives a false picture of the problem globally. Some of ILO’s latest finding include: disease related to work cause the most death with hazardous substances alone to cause 651,279 deaths per year, the construction industry has a disproportionately high rate of recorded accidents, and older as well as younger workers are vulnerable as special considerations need to be made for the aging population.

One major influence on how effective labor union can be is the general public’s perception of the two sides. Public opinion affects how much support workers receive when strikes happen and the laws that regulate labor relations. It also affect work morale and attitudes toward their own movements as employees view labor unions with distrust so goes the unions will struggle to gain footing on important issues. The extreme hardship of the early nineteenth century were enough to sway public opinion toward sympathy helping to spur the Progressive Era reforms dealing with child labor, forcing workers to work a twelve to fourteen hour workday, no overtime, dangerous condition leaving workers maimed or dead, and firing injured workers. Meanwhile, “The Gilded Age” as Mark Twain referred to it as was in full swing as Andrew Carnegie and Jay Gould amassed millions while workers languished in poverty. Many people admired the success of these titans of industry, while others resented their wealth and supported the workers’ fight to regain some of it back.

Public opinion depending on the time and place can go either way which is why governments, businessmen, and even unions use this to their advantage. The United States happened because of a revolution to overturn the status quo fight for what’s right, however the idea of introducing a collective or socialist society for some puts the fear of God in people. Groups like the Wobblies offered dreams of a better world which frightened many people as this group and others used radical ideas and tactics to openly campaign. The other factor is early radical unionists were immigrants who learned about labor organizing in Europe which causes many Americans to become suspicious of even build a contempt for foreigners leading to an anti-labor sentiment. With the stock market crash of 1929, many Americans soured on big business as widespread layoffs, bank failures and mortgage foreclosures hurt the middle class. People needed security in what would be called the Great Depression, and many turned to unions who offered security and social change against powerful business. President Roosevelt cemented the idea that Unionism is Americanism during the New Deal swaying public opinion from immigrants and radicals. “Unions,” wrote labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, “would never again enjoy a political environment as favorable as that which transformed American work life during the years between 1934 and 1937.” Unfortunately, after World War II the image took a hit with people associating unions with communism during the beginning of the Cold War in the United States as it became a national attitude of anticommunism and some labor leaders had been socialists or communists previously. In 1949 the CIO threw out nine unions and almost  a million members for refusing to end communist ties as called for in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. By the 1950s, many unions did not allow communists as officers and as members. The radicalism that has fueled the labor movements fight had been removed. Organized crime soon replaced communist agendas especially in the 1950s where mobster extorted money from employers or helped themselves to workers’ pension funds. As the International Brotherhood of Teamsters made headlines along with its president Jinny Hoffa, many politicians and citizens alike felt that Big Labor was too corrupt and need to be stripped of its power by the time the 1960s rolled around. Young people in the 1960s upset with corporations who were exploitative, greedy and soulless also saw the labor movement therefore unions as part of the “establishment.” Unions even sided with government as the War in Vietnam raged and even beat up anti-war demonstrators. Unions at the time were not ready to embrace social change as a result young people looked to other areas to effect change. The years since the 1970s, has seen declines in union memberships for many reasons as the labor movement failed to adapt to a changing world making them almost irrelevant. With the concessions made by organized labor and deregulation under President Carter and President Reagan, many members felt demoralized and the unions appeared weak leading many to want free enterprise with no interference from organized labor.

New challenges are on the horizon for modern labor unions as an economic downturn will provide the unions an opportunity as it did in the 1930s to win back public opinion with job security and decent wages. The problem facing the unions today is the Right to Work law in the United States which prohibits union security agreements, or agreements between unions and employers, that  govern the extent to which an established union can require employee membership, payment of union dues, or fees as a condition of employment. The Right to Work laws do not guarantee employment, but prevent contractual agreements between employers and labor union from excluding non-union workers or pay fees to unions who negotiated the labor contract non-union workers are employed under. The Right to Work provisions exist in 24 states as business interests represented by Chamber of Commerce have lobbied to pass this legislation allowed under the 1947 federal Taft-Hartley Act. After the January 2012 passage of Indiana’s right to work law, Rasmussen Reports found 74% of the U.S. voters support such a law. The right to work states include: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming. However some industries are not protected by these laws such as railway and airline employees as well as some jobs with federal jurisdiction.

One thought on “Right to Work: A More Perfect Union

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