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The Decline of Unions — Why?

I wrote this about 4 years ago while I was working as a Staff Representative for a local union in the Los Angeles area, for publication in the local’s newsletter. I ended up getting laid off before the next issue of the newsletter was published. Since then, I’ve made a few small changes to update it, but it’s mostly as originally written.

We can see all around us how unions have less and less impact on the country we live in. This, in turn, gives union members less and less strength when negotiating with employers. It’s important to understand why this has happened if we want to do something about it.

Unions Attacked by Industry and Government

From the earliest labor unions in this country in the 1700s into the 1920s, the law made it difficult for unions to exist and function. Unions grew or died based upon the power and sacrifice their members were willing to make at the time, up to and including risking their lives against company gun thugs, the police and sometimes the Army. With the passage of a few federal laws, especially the Wagner Act (National Labor Relations Act or NLRA) in 1935, unions were on a much better footing. This was during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and it was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plan, the “New Deal,” to help bring about an economic recovery to put more money in workers’ pockets so they could spend more. Therefore, unions could send organizers across the land saying, “the President wants you to join a union!”

The other much-needed key to union progress came about the same time, after United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis punched Carpenters Union President Bill Hutcheson in the nose at the American Federation of Labor (AFL) Convention in 1935. That incident brought on a split in the AFL and the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The AFL had historically been unwilling to organize industrial workers. The CIO changed all of that. A massive union organizing drive began across the U.S. and Canada. By the end of World War II, nearly 36% of U.S. workers were represented by unions.

John L. Lewis speaks out against the “slave labor” Taft Hartley Act at the 1947 AFL convention.

It’s been downhill from then. In 1947, Congress passed a set of large changes to the National Labor Relations Act, commonly called the “Taft-Hartley Act,” at the behest of employers. President Harry Truman vetoed it, but a Republican Congress overrode his veto. Initially, the NLRA viewed unionization as solely a matter for workers to decide for themselves; companies were to remain neutral. The government had already started to let companies state their opposition to unions, but Taft-Hartley opened the floodgates to what employers were allowed to do. Some of the changes Taft-Hartley made were:

  1. It permits states to prohibit “union shop” contracts, but still allows non-members to get the benefits of unions, and still leaves unions responsible for protecting the non-members who don’t help pay the bills.
  2. It outlawed the “closed shop,” in which a person must be a union member in order to get a job at a certain place, with some very narrow exceptions, such as for longshore hiring halls.
  3. It permits employees to file decertification petitions and employers to file election petitions, for their own purposes, of course.
  4. It prohibits unions from using one of their strongest weapons, the “secondary boycott,” which is where a union boycotts an employer’s customers during a strike, as well as the employer itself. It was very effective for unions.
  5. It permits the President of the U.S. to declare a strike a national emergency and invoke an 80-day injunction against a union’s strike.
  6. It prohibited strikes by federal employees.
  7. It protects employers’ “free speech,” allowing companies to hold “captive audience” meetings of employees trying to organize, and berate the union in circumstances where the union cannot be present to respond to the company’s statements.

“The Taft-Hartley act is not designed to immediately destroy organized labor in America. It was devised, first, to impede the normal growth of the organization of labor by making it difficult for them to gain new membership, and it has succeeded.”
John L. Lewis, 1953

Lewis was absolutely right. This terrible law has slowly and surely made it difficult for unions to organize new members and grow.

Bad Leadership, No Vision

When industrial unions were organized in the early decades of the 20th century, thousands of the most dedicated and active members and organizers were people who called themselves socialists and communists. Without their efforts, the great industrial unions wouldn’t exist. However, starting during World War II and greatly accelerating afterwards, U.S. unions started purging their local and international leaderships of these dedicated unionists, during what has come to be called “McCarthyism.” What happened when the people with the greatest energy and vision were removed? Most unions were left with leaderships that had less energy, less contact with the working members, and less vision for the future.

A result of this dreadful period in American history were unions based on what’s called the  “service model” of unionism. This means that union leaderships try to serve the needs of the members, much like an insurance company would. The result has caused members to forget that a union is really a self-help organization in which an active membership provides volunteer efforts to take care of the union’s needs. Activity and democracy go hand in hand to provide the power of the organization. The “service model” practice undermined this and allowed union functionaries to entrench themselves in the leadership and undermine the democracy of unions.

The leaderships (in general; some unions were worse than others) paid themselves fat salaries, were very protective of their jobs and afraid of real democracy, and focused on making deals with management. Instead they should have realized that the real power of a union is in an active and aware membership. Worst of all, they forgot that corporate management and its partners on the political right, are the lifelong enemies of unions. Instead, they tried to treat management as partners. In 1963, United Autoworkers Union president Walter Reuther said “Instead of waging a struggle to divide up scarcity, we ought to find ways of cooperating [with management] to create an abundance, and then cooperate intelligently to share in that abundance.”

Today we can see around us the result of that attitude. The businesses founded in this country, and built by American workers, no longer view themselves as American at all, but as global, with loyalty to no country. They view the fruits of the labor of their employees as theirs alone, to spend and invest where and how they want, with no regard to the welfare of the rest of us. If the leadership of unions hadn’t lulled themselves and their members to sleep for decades, relying on the Democratic Party instead of on our own strength, we could have been planning and challenging management. Our goal would have been to be sure that all of the political decisions that affect society at large are made democratically, not by small groups of corporate managers and owners. That’s what living in a democracy is supposed to be about!

Changes in U.S. Economy

The slumbering unions didn’t see what was coming, how big business was taking the money American workers made for it and investing it abroad, providing jobs in other countries where it didn’t have to pay workers much. This country has been substantially deindustrialized in an effort to generate higher business profits in the short term, and in the longer term, to turn the American working class into a poor, defenseless, Third World-type working class that will be glad to work any job for any pay. Then, perhaps when wages and unions rise in other countries, the companies will disinvest there and bring jobs back here where people will work for less. This is what legislation and treaties like NAFTA are trying to do.

It’s very hard to expand unions when there are fewer and fewer good-paying jobs. Unions have been losing members at a fantastic rate. The problem can’t be solved by individual unions dealing with large, monopolistic, global businesses. Unions must stick together and work in the political arena to elect government officials who realize that the country is here for us, the people, not for business.

Inactive Membership

Too many union members have, for too long, been concerned with how they are going to spend their money, rather than with how they are going to take part in the struggle to fix a very broken system. Worrying about getting a new SUV or a boat, or taking a cruise, etc., is living with blinders on. Those things are going to disappear, right along with the unions that helped workers earn those luxuries if people don’t get angry and get active to try to change things.

Saying “What is the Union going to do about this?” won’t accomplish anything. A Union isn’t the staff. There isn’t enough staff to do all of the workaday stuff that a Union needs from day to day, never mind fix the country. The Union is the members. Unions have always relied upon dedicated, voluntary activity by the members to function. If the members don’t wake up to this and realize that fixing the country is what matters most, and not be side-tracked by war propaganda and such, unions will die. Despite their faults, unions are some of the only real democratic institutions left. They needed to be tended and nurtured by their members if they are to grow and return to health and strength.

The Future

The future is very hazy. Unions have, in general, finally realized the need to organize and grow. Unfortunately, the economy has changed so much that the real backbone of union strength, the industrial union, is greatly weakened by the loss of American industry and by automation in what is left. When industry was vibrant, unions could accomplish much just by dealing with employers. Now, we have to rely much more on political activity. This, too, is difficult. With such a small part of the workforce in the country represented by unions, speaking of important issues to the public at large means talking to non-members of unions who view us as a special interest, not as the organizations who have for so long operated in the general interest. Moreover, with the decline of industry, a very large portion of the union movement is comprised of public-sector unions. Since workers in the public sector are paid out of tax revenue and not from corporate earnings, the public views requests for raises as attacks on their own pocketbooks, and they aren’t as sympathetic as they would be if private companies were involved.

Over twenty years ago, when unions’ outlook wasn’t as bleak as it is now, Tony Mazzocchi, a long-time leader in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union and a man of great vision, said that if unions are to reverse their slide, the members are going to have to make a crusade of it. That statement is even truer today. Members and their whole families will have to be the crusaders if we are to succeed, and the crusade must start soon!

July 9, 2007


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