March 19, 2014
By Neal Tepel
The modern labor-union movement was born in the Great Depression, in organized uprisings like the New York dressmakers’ strike of 1933 and the United Auto Workers’ occupation of the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, in 1936-37. In the last six years, the worst economic crisis since then, organized labor has suffered defeat after defeat, from Michigan and Indiana banning the union shop to workers at Volkswagen’s Tennessee plant voting to reject the UAW.
Only 11% of American workers are now union members, down from 20% in 1970 and 35% in 1955. The number would be even lower without the gains unions have made in the public sector since the 1960s: More than one-third of public employees are now members, while less than 7% of private-sector workers are. In 2012, workers got only 42.6% of U.S. domestic income, their lowest share in the century records have been maintained. The richest 1% had taken 95% of the income gained in the so-called “recovery.”
This also impairs organized labor’s power even where workers are organized. Public employees in New York City have been working without contracts for years, and those in Los Angeles and Philadelphia only recently won raises after years of wage freezes. Governments in Detroit, Rhode Island, and San Jose, California are cutting pensions for workers who have already retired.
Economic, cultural, and political changes have now weakened unions and labor strength. Globalization has enabled employers to ship once-union jobs to countries with cheaper labor. Companies can threaten to move when workers try to organize or win raises. Employers have redefined work and job titles to cut wages, eliminate job security, and decrease benefits. The franchise model enables McDonald’s to evade responsibility and pay low wages. Amazon has a third party hiring temps to staff its shipping sweatshops. FedEx insists that the people who drive its logoed delivery vans are “independent contractors.” Airlines outsource security and cleaning jobs to subcontractors who can be underbid if they give workers a raise. Companies now hire personnel working from home or remote locations, who have limited contact with other employees. ‘Right to work’ legislation has also created huge obstacles, particularly in the South. Obviously organizing strategy and tools must change.
Since Ronald Reagan broke the air-traffic controllers’ strike in 1981, employers have much more openly opposed union organizing. Republicans, who once accepted unions, are now actively working to destroy them. Democrats, who rely on unions for campaign ground troops, often ignore labor issues. President Barack Obama’s quickly abandoned his 2008 promise to push for a card-check bill, was absent when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker declared war on public-sector unions, and hasn’t responded to organized labor’s concerns about the Affordable Care Act undermining their health plans.
As unions have declined, they have also lost their cultural reach. Fewer members are available to spread the word about why they are important, and many younger people are now two generations removed from being in a union household. In addition, right-wing anti-union forces continue to gain strength.
Unions’ recent organizing campaigns are an encouraging sign. The SEIU, RWDSU, UAW, IAM, and others have moved into workplaces once considered too small or too difficult to organize. They are using tactics like building alliances with community groups, using social-media technology to organize, law suits against wage thefts, one-day strikes that send a message and build solidarity but end before they can be broken, and “metropolitan” and “market” campaigns, which try to organize all the employers in a local field so nonunion employers can’t underbid union jobs. Aggressive campaigns have won recognition for unions of carwash workers in the Bronx and Los Angeles; contract workers at SeaTac, LaGuardia, and JFK airports; adjunct professors in Boston and Washington; private security workers in Philadelphia and car-service drivers in Long Island City. Unions are also beginning to take on titans like Walmart and the fast-food industry.
Organizing is a tough business but necessary in spite of the obstacles. If labor unions are to survive in this country aggressive organizing must take place. As jobs and industries change, unions need to be following close behind. The battle for workers today needs the utilization of the latest technology as well as the tools of the past. While strategy may vary there continues to be the critical role of a union: Win better wages and benefits for members and organize new members.