Workers of the World, Sit Tight

A union resurgence is taking place. Is that enough to save organized labor?

Comments: 31

  1. The best outcome of a private union is that the union isn't too big a drag on productivity. That's it and it's rare. In most cases, unions enrich themselves at the expense of the pay of employees and at their long-term job security. And Mr. Davidson has the gall to call managers "rapacious."

    If you think Union stewards are some kind of Norma Rae-Mother Teresa package, you have never met one. Thug is too kind a description.

    And if you're looking for a place to drop in a few "income inequality" placements, as the NYT always is, I suggest you apply it in the stories about amnesty for 11 million illegal immigrants and the 11 million more immigrants that will follow.

  2. This sort of casual, brazen, loud-mouthed ignorance of American industrial history - how industrial America got where it is today - is a plague on this country. You literally do not know what you are talking about GK.

  3. In an economy that is still reeling from the effects of what can only be called a free market meltdown, the need for new strategies has never been more obvious. Union stewards like Mr. Newcomb and his union, the IAM, represent the cutting edge of enlightened labor relations and deserve credit for remaking their workplace in a way that benefits employee and employer alike. GK's malicious criticism of unions, union stewards, the New York Times and immigrants are outdated, uninformed and worthy only of a right-wing chat room.

  4. It is remarkable that Adam Davidson's article has stirred such passion in we, the readers. As usual he presents a smattering of facts, and at the end of this article makes a vague statement that our economy is basically descending to a dog eat dog status. However dogs have a more stable social structure than some of the tribes we coexist in. That raises the question as to what kind of social structure do we want to build? Mr. Newcomb works hard to make things happen better for all. That ethos is what has allowed the unions and businesses to prosper in Germany and Scandanavia. Even in Spain, the Mondragon cooperative has been successful. Certainly a cooperative spirit which builds a strong sustainable basis for all is what is needed. Otherwise, all we have left is a gekko eat gekko world with each of us functioning at that reptilian level of existence, kill or be killed. That or expand the social consciousness further, realize we can chose what type of world we want, if we but take off our blinders, turn off the TV or the gamestation, and really begin communicating with each other.

  5. If, as appears likely, non-labor income continues to grow as a share of the total, people who do labor should get in on it. This requires saving.

    Building a base of saving is hard initially, but once done it's self-sustaining. Given the pattern of saving we've seen in the past, public programs that encourage this and that protect savings from health crises, creative investment strategies, and consumption binges are probably essential for a big part of the population to accumulate savings and get in on non-labor income.

  6. Think unions don't matter?

    "LBJ’s 1965 Great Society and War on Poverty, which championed government as the great provider, achieved admirable success as a high water mark of 20th century liberalism. But by 1980 the Reagan Revolution swept in. Almost overnight, American positivity and patriotism experienced a resurgence, President Reagan persuading Americans to rethink old attitudes about government as provider.

    "Popular rights asserted themselves on the federal union shop floor. However, statistics showed that as union membership decreased, wealth disparity between rich and poor increased. And so it came as little surprise to some that income inequality has worsened at a time when union membership has fallen to levels not seen since the 1920s."


  7. Most of the union growth is in government employees who are working hard to keep the cities and states bankrupt with ludicrous pension and health care commitments made by union-backed legislators. California, despite what Brown says, is and will remain bankrupt; taxes are through the roof, in addition to the federal hikes, to pay for the union pensions and the faux-jobs maintained by the friends of the Legislature. SF is completely bankrupt as the most expensive city in America (more than Manhattan); it lives on parking fines to have the cash flow to survive. California and SF are governed 100% by the Democratic machines.

  8. State professional workers salaries are radically lower than what the private industry pays. In a kick the can down the road mentality, workers have continually been offered a secure retirement in lieu of salary increases. Now that these workers are retiring, they are told that these benefits are bankrupting the system. Also ignored is the fact that the retirement funds have taken a big hit with the banking collapse. As a non-native of CA, I am continually amused by the mantra taken as truth here, that CA taxes are the highest.

  9. A few anecdotes about Stuart Applebaum and SEIU don't cut it.

    Every statistic shows that union membership is declining quickly in the United States, despite a firebrand AFL-CIO leader, 15 years of focus on organizing, and major internal and external organizing campaigns among unions. The AFT, for example, has hundreds of thousands of non-members covered by its contracts, but a decade-long "internal organizing" campaign costing who-knows-how-much has led to insignificant membership increases.

    SEIU's organizing model is based on the sweatshop: Hire idealistic young people right out of college, make them work 40 hour weeks, burn them out, and let them quit. After all, there are more college kids coming out unemployed every year... And what do these organizers work on? It's not clear. SEIU's organizing strategy is to target big employers, keep organizing, and wait for lighting to strike. (Because the boss is greedy and is always going to do something outrageously stupid.) When it does, sign a year-long card check/neutrality agreement and nail the hot shops. Then stop.

    This is not union resurgence. It's cherry-picking and wasteful of dues.

  10. Two solutions: 1) organize worldwide; 2) redistributive tax policies.

  11. Until recently I thought that the right to organize (and strike) was sacrosanct in this country. What a surprise to find that it isn't so. No doubt unions and unionism are in need of reform. But it's still the best hope for workers.

  12. As Jack Bogle pointed out in "The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism," we have a system in which managers enrich themselves at the expense of shareholders as well as workers. For instance, dividend rates are below historical averages, and middle class wages have stagnated on an inflation adjusted basis since the 1980s - when President Reagan went on a union busting campaign. Unions and healthy businesses are not antithetical. But if you're an executive looking to further line your own pocket, you don't want unions competing for a bigger share of the pie, and you don't want shareholders to have the ready ability to reign you in or cut you. The tail is wagging the dog.

  13. While it is certainly correct that capitalist economic system is no longer capable of satisfying workers' most basic needs, what the author and the experts he cites forget about is that those shafted workers are also citizens and voters, and the less indebted they feel towards the current economic system the less willing they will be to reject out of hand any alternatives to it. The situation looks as a hopeless dead end from the workers' perspective only under assumption of the end-of-history inevitability of capitalism. Once one dispenses with that folly, a redress becomes clear and obvious and it is not for the workers to "sit tight" but to unite instead both at the factories and at the ballot box. Sure, that advice is old, but it is no less valuable and its validity will only improve with time.

  14. This op-ed assumes that the difficulty of paying living wages is structural and driven by technology and globalization. Actually, it is due to policy decisions, where Congress defines middle class at $450,000/year, indexes tax breaks to inflation but not minimum wages, and blocks appointees and funds for government regulators.

    Your assumption that "It’s also hard to find anyone with a convincing explanation of how membership could grow," ignores that representatives could do the right thing instead of blocking the NLRB and card check, with pie shrinking policies like right-to-get-less laws, with Orwellian names like "right to work". Ending taxpayer dollars flowing as incentives to offshore and avoid paying taxes could be helpful, too.

    So, your advice that we should accept that declining unions will increase inequality might be less depressing, if you thought about how we can fix the anti-economic growth policies we have, that could repair problems for both labor and profitability.

  15. Consider eliminating National Labor Relations Act Section 8(a)(2) to allow employee groups to deal with their employer regarding wages, hours, and working conditions. But, require employers to create formal grievance structures with arbitration. This would allow local plants/facilities to have bargaining without compromising employees of a multi-plant employer at other locations and without paying dues to unions too removed from the local interests of employees and so very often extracting monies for activities not benefiting the dues payer.

  16. Labor unions rightly fought against NAFTA, and continue to protest Free Trade agreements to this day. "Free Trade", the very essence of doublespeak, has emptied out the American heartland, placed unendurable downward pressure on US wages, deprived governments of its most effective bargaining chips, and quite predictably destroyed the American Labor movement.

    Why would any manufacturer want to pay an aging american union member a living wage, let alone provide health and pension benefits, when -- at virtually no cost -- it can hire a child worker in an Asian sweatshop to do the same job at a fraction of the cost? Worker retraining and globalized labor standards, promised since those early days of NAFTA, have been nonexistent.

    Corporations have responded by rewarding upper management and especially CEOs for their alleged genius in (taking advantage of this situation and) maintaining the bottom line. The result is that we now live in a country where the wealthiest 400 people own as much as the bottom 50%. Very simply, payments to thousands of workers have been replaced by a single giant check to the CEO. This not rocket science, it is the world we live in.

  17. I have worked in both union and non-union positions, and managed in both. The fundamental issue that unions do not address is:

    That not all individuals are equally motivated or gifted.

    Until they do I will be strongly anti-union. I am Sorry, because a disparity in income between the top and the bottom is a huge issue.

    PS - Adam - you really need to address the issue of the minimum wage being non-scientific, non-economically based, non-mathematical and purely political. This has done much or more to erode the semi-skilled lower middle class standard of living than any other instrument.

  18. I'm surprised that only one comment (so far) has suggested that part of the solution is to organize China ("organize globally"). Sure it's hard to smuggle organizers across the boarder and the Internet is more controlled there. But are the western unions even trying?

  19. Unions are responsible for a lot of things we should be grateful for: child labor laws, occupational health and safety, the eight hour day, health care, the minimum wage, workplace equality, paid vacations, paid sick leave, paid holidays, unemployment insurance, family and medical leave, higher wages.

  20. The final paragraph touches on the essential distillation of the union concept. For those on the left who favor an equality of outcomes, unions are a blessing and a gift: they perfectly normalize wages in accordance with "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." To those on the right who favor an equality of opportunity, unions are a pox that prevent the best and brightest from being rewarded for their ability and contributions, while simultaneously protecting the shiftless and incompetent.

    The private sector has already made a clear choice as to which model is more efficient for operating a productive business. Now consumers of public sector services, most notably parents of public school children, have begun to realize that the quality of workers and services are far more meaningful to them than whether woeful employees are protected by union work rules.

  21. In the Wealth of Nations (see chptr 8), Adam Smith says the master will always try to give as little as possible and the worker will try to get as much. In the battle between master & worker, Smith says the Master will always win because he will use his wealth and power to his advantage with workers, legislators & laws. This explains alot about our inequality. Unions deliver about $200 more per week on avg (see BLS) which explains, in part, mgt's opposition. But the reason why workers don't more readily embrace unions is more troubling. In Canada, Europe, Japan laws treat unions fairly. But here corporations do what Adam Smith predicted -- use their wealth & power to get favorable labor laws so they can kill pro-union workplace votes and National Labor Relations Board rulings. In order to change this, labor must enlist in their cause voters who have never and will never belong to a union. But when was the last time you heard or saw a positive story about labor? Yet we all know that we are more likely to get a positive response to a request (eg, call Congress) we make of someone if she has heard postive stories about us and our goal before we make the request. Ironically, in the nation that invented mass- & now targeted-marketing, the labor movement has failed to tell their story affectingly and memorably where their target audience can be found. American voters won't act for labor without hearing labor's story. Until they fix this, labor will be in this fix.

  22. Instead of "is more troubling", I meant to write "is more complex."

  23. Blame for the anti-union sentiment rests in part with the Unions themselves. During the during the 60's and 70's, Big Labor held enormous control over manufacturing, shipping, and transportation. Big Labor used this power to leverage sweetheart deals from management such as inefficient work rules and in the case of the auto industry full pay for laid off workers. The Unions also were able to bargain for better pension plans and generous healthcare benefits for their members.

  24. I now work in Florida where unions (along with a lot of other things considered mainstream elsewhere) are considered an abomination. I also earn $10.00 an hour less than I did in California, struggling to live comfortably in the poorest county in the state. The unions have problems as do most institutions, but are still the only agency to back the workers of this country. I would gladly pay union dues again if it were possible.

  25. When times were tough & lives were cheap, unions defended the working man & built the middle class in this country. Loyalty not to mammon, or stockholders, but the working man. Bulwark against rapacious, vicious greed.
    You want a decent middle-class, active, involved & with a decent quality of life, you need Unions.

  26. It will be hard for unions to organize on the principle of higher wages because Americans have such a high living standard with respect to the rest of the world. On the other hand, I think there is a lot of opportunity for them to organize in situations where workers have been pressed too hard or have been placed in unsafe working conditions. Low wage workers, temporary/contract workers and the shale-gas-boom hands are possible examples.

    Everyone would benefit from an economy in which the best employers get the best workers – in other words, a free market for goods and services and also employees. Decoupling health insurance from employment would be another step in this direction.

  27. Businesses should all be leading a rallying call for single payer healthcare insurance - Medicare for all, or something akin to it - to eventually unshackle themselves from the health benefits requirement which creates such an non-competitive format in a global economy. If businesses did not have to pay for health insurance for their employees, the price of everything could come down. Automobiles for example: how much of the sales price of a car represents the cost of the automaker's cost of health insurance? The Chamber of Commerce should be leading this rally to unshackle industry from the cost of insurance. We could all cover the entire population for much less, and businesses would be more competitive and more profitable. Do the health insurance companies actually own us? Do they own Congress? Why can't we make this shift. It seems to be such a no-brainer to me. The healthcare insurance industry will eventually bring this country down if we allow them to continue on as they do. No one will be able to afford insurance coverage if they continue to increase premium cost. They will break the bank of commerce! We need to make this shift and give the businesses some breathing room in an economy that is becoming more and more global. Companies cannot afford to operate in America because of the burden of providing healthcare benefits which ought to be the government's responsibility to provide for all.

  28. Union dues and don’ts
    I have spent 39 of the past 41 years working in union dominated industries without becoming a union member (and without being laid off). I am living proof you don’t have to join a union to have a successful career doing the work you love.

    Significant challenges I encountered: limited employment opportunities; cost of continuing education; resisting union recruiters; choosing when to ignore or to report union member harassment; loosing work because of union pressure; obtaining pay commensurate to my abilities.

    I learned from my father and other mentors how to present my value to an employer. My pay and benefits were almost always more than equivalent union scale. Although I’ve worked for about 10 different companies in 39 years, I chose to change jobs in order to increase my compensation and skills.

    1987 I embarked on my third career change which led to starting my own company in 2008. I did not allow my career to be limited by organized labor. Consistently producing high quality work and acting with integrity has brought success and recognition. I believe every American citizen should have the right to work in whatever field they chose without artificial impediments.

    To be fair, I have a good relationship with most union companies and often refer them business.

  29. I am of two minds on Unionization: I agree thet private sector unions need the tools to overcome obstacles to union organization, but at the same time the public sector unions, specifically at the State and Local level need to be reined in.
    Not to pick on Teachers, but their claims that most teachers are undercompensated relative to private sector employment is a broad generalization and does not represent reality, at least, in the southern tier of NYS.
    A review of two MSA's in the lower Hudson Valley demonstrates that Teachers wages are relatively in line with the wages of CPA's, that is until the 90th percentile. My last review of the Poughkeepsie MSA and the White Plains MSA showed that Teachers in the 90th percentile earned approximately 100K to 137K and above for CPA's in the 90th percentile. This seems significant, except for the fact that a tenured teacher is guaranteed access to the 90th percentile, while a CPA is not. Moreover, the comparison was wage based only and did not consider such factors as benefits and workhours.
    I chose CPA's because the educational requirements are similar to the educational requirements for Teachers.
    Another recent development that reinforces my "over compensated" teacher theory is the decline in the number of law school applicants, while at the same time education is listed as number 5 in the top ten college majors.
    IMO the federal sector union and compensation model should be followed by States and localities.

  30. Great summation, I'll paraphrase slightly: "One thing seems fairly clear: where there is no collective bargaining, there is only individual begging."
    Collaboration is important. Joint labor-management partnerships are important. So is education, life-long learning--especially for today's younger workers who are going into a much more competitive future. Don't go for the lower-skilled jobs because those WILL become overcrowded. Keep learning and keep reinventing yourself. That's the key to survival.

  31. Hey gang, you can abuse anything including motherhood and apple pie
    and unions and big biz.

    They are all good but sooner or later they get abused and the other side moves
    in to correct it and then sooner or later they abuse their side.

    Hello!......It's called being human both good and bad.