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With the interest shown and questions raised in yesterday's post about labor and YearlyKos, I thought I'd follow up with this adaptation of a series of posts I wrote on my own blog a number of years ago.  It starts with a personal story from my first job as a union organizer in Las Vegas nearly twenty years ago, then talks about what unions do to raise wages, how they help the economy, and why they matter for progressive politics.  It'll be a bit long but it can hopefully give links and references that folks can followup with at their leisure.

Why Unions? Human Dignity

You can start at the AFL-CIO's own site on Why People Join Unions for some basic information.

But I'm going to start today with a more personal story of why I came to be so committed to labor unionism.

Going to Las Vegas: My first job out of college in the late 80s was as a union organizer in the casinos of Las Vegas. This was a time when the union was facing an all-out assault by the new corporate-owned casinos seeking to destroy the union and hoping to open the coming era of mega-theme casinos non-union.

But it was a tough set of union members there, despite being in "right to work for less" Nevada. And as I got to know different folks, often sitting in the employee cafeteria, I found that some of the most militant unionists were the cocktail waitresses who served drinks to the high-rolling gamblers at the gaming tables.

Not exactly your classic stereotype of a Vegas cocktail waitress- a gaggle of Norma Raes?

There was a reason.

If you pay attention, especially in the longer-established casinos like Caesar's Palace, you'll notice that the waitresses at the fanciest tables are pretty but rarely that young. You'll find the young things dishing drinks to the regulars pulling the slots. To handle drinks at the expensive tables, where the tips flow large, you had to have been at the casino for many years.

And that had been a battle to achieve.

Fight for Dignity: Early on in Vegas, the casino owners wanted to stick the youngest waitresses on those tables, so if you aged a few years as a cocktail waitress, you often found yourself consigned to siberia in the casino. Or worse, you had the best positions handed out by supervisors based on who would do "favors" for them.

At least they couldn't be fired just for getting old because of the basic union contract -- and this was true before age discrimination legislation was passed in Congress -- but the indignity of sex discrimination in all its forms was harshly at play for Vegas cocktail waitresses.

So they organized.

They first had to kick the butts of their own then-male labor leaders back in the early 1970s to take the issue seriously, but the union took up the cause and forced changes into the union contract. From that day forward, all "stations" in a casino would be bid on based on seniority. The best spots would go to the waitresses with the longest tenure, no favoritism or age discrimination allowed.

That is what unions get you-- the right not to be told you are too old to be presentable in public. The right not to have a supervisor play favoritism and demand you degrade yourself in order to feed your family.

Not for Sale: In unionized casinos, a rich high-roller can buy himself the fanciest penthouse in the hotel. He can buy the fanciest food. He can buy almost anything.

But when he sits at the craps table, the one thing he can't buy is that the woman serving his drinks be replaced by the youngest girl in the house.

'Cause in a union shop, human dignity is not for sale.

It's a small story but it's repeated millions of times over in many different ways for workers using unions to find a voice at work and escape from arbitrary work conditions. And it's why I'll be a union person til the day I die.


How Unions Increase Pay

The fact that unions increase wages is the most basic fact that most people understand about unions, but it's still worth understanding the details.

Start with this basic AFL-CIO summary and this UAW fact sheet. For a more indepth discussion of the union wage gain, see this new Economic Policy Institute paper.

These are the highlights:

The Union Wage Premium

Here are the basic significant premiums that union members earn over non-union members:

This is true not because unions organize in higher pay industries (although some industries have higher pay because they have been unionized), but this premium applies between workers within the same industry. In fact, the union wage premium is even higher in low-wage occupations: "For example, union cashiers may earn $10.97 per hour, 36 percent more than nonunion workers in the same occupation." Check this graph:

Average Hourly Earnings of Selected Occupations- 2004

Despite the old stereotype of unions being about white guys, the union wage preminum is higher for minority groups and women than for white men. (And a higher percentage of blacksthan whites are union members.)


Unions increase wages for non-union workers

One of the less understood facts is that while unions increase wages for members, they also increase wages for non-union workers. When you stop and think about it, this should not be surprising. In industries where unions push up wages, the non-union companies often have to raise wages to compete for the best workers.

Even where an employer could run a company on low wages, high union density means that a union organizer can show up, flash the higher wages in the contract and threaten to unionize the firm. To stave off that threat, those employers will raise salaries toward the union wage level.

The higher the percentage of unionization -- often called union density -- in an industry or a region, the higher the wages for both union AND non-union workers.

How this works out is illustrated in a case study of the hotel industry in this paper by Laura Dresser and Annette Bernhardt which revealed that:

...union wages were higher than non-union wages, but just slightly so (the premium within any one city ranged from 25 cents per hour to $1.70). Far more important was union density. As a VP of Hotel Operations for a major hotel observed: "In a union town, you pay if you're non-union. In a non-union town, you pay if you're union."

The highest paying hotels in our study, whether unionized or not, were located in high-density cities. In these hotels, housekeepers start at well over $10.00 per hour (and in one city, both union and non-union hotels pay over $13.00). By contrast, the worst paying hotels in our study were located in a low-density city, where housekeeping wages started between $6.00 and $7.00 per hour, regardless of whether the hotel was unionized or not.6 Waddoups (1999) documents this density effect for Las Vegas, finding that nonunion workers there earn wages approximately 19% higher than their nonunion counterparts in other cities, other things being equal. Our case study finding on the important wage effect of union density also echoes more representative studies across industries.

According to such broader research cited in the Economic Policy Institute's study, "the average nonunion worker in an industry with 25% union density had wages 7.5% higher because of unionization's presence." These effects are very strong for workers with less education, although college educated non-union workers seem to benefit less from unionization in their fields.

Strikingly, "because the nonunion sector is large, the union effect on the overall aggregate wage comes almost as much from the impact of unions on nonunion workers as on union workers."

To repeat that-- non-union workers actually gain more income collectively from the presence of unions than union members themselves.

ALL WORKERS benefit from increases in unionization-- some workers are just paying the dues and risking their jobs to advocate their formation, while other workers are passively benefiting from those economic gains. But these basic facts-- often obscured in discussions of unions -- should increase recognition of why unions are so critical to the economic well-being of so many workers across the country. And if the threat of unionization was not there, even workers in less unionized areas would suffer that much more.


Who is in Unions

There is a stereotype that unions organize mostly white, better-off workers.

But here's something that goes against conventional wisdom. The average black worker is more likely to be in a union than a white worker-- in fact, African American men and women have among the highest unionization rates of U.S. workers (18 percent and 16 percent, respectively) compared to lower rates for white women (11 percent) and white men (14 percent). And while unionization rates for white workers has declined since 1983, the rate of unionization has risen by 39 percent among Latinos since the early 1980s. See herefor more.

And the largest new organizing is happening among the lowest paid workers, notably among the hundreds of thousands of home health aides who have organized across the country in recent years. Check out this press release on the 124,000 new workers organized in 2002 by Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of the largest unions due its intensive organizing in recent years.

The idea that unions are obsessed with rigid work rules may be true in a few building trades unions, but is just dead wrong in most of the labor movement where fighting for health care for present members is probably the top priority and fighting for basic rights is the key among new members.


Unions Strengthen the Economy

Before I hear the usual rightwing ramble about unions sinking the economy and driving jobs overseas, note two basic realities. First, look at Sweden, a country where almost all workers are unionized yet it has lower unemployment than the United States, better health care and more leisure for its workers. More dramatically, look at southern states in the US where unions are almost non-existent, yet jobs are hemmoraging overseas.

The myth that unions cost jobs comes from the fact that manufacturing was heavily unionized when the first bout of global competition hit in the 1970s. Today, with large chunks of manufacturing in the right-to-work South, there are still massive job loss despite lack of unions. We are seeing that if the game is who can drive wages down the most, the US can't go low enough to compete with China.

So the only answer is increasing productivity and innovation. And unions drive growth by improving both. Now, it's not as simple as that in all situations, since different employer strategies and industrial environments create varying outcomes, but when structured correctly, unions not only benefit individual workers, they strengthen the overall economy. I'll sketch out the dynamics researchers have noted driving this result, but for more empirical and theoretical detail, check out the classic book on the subject, Richard Freeman and James Medoff's What Do Unions Do. As well, you can work through these studies on the web (pdfs so they sometimes load slowly):

  • Trade Unionism and Growth: A Panel Data Study
  • The Decline or Expansion of Unions: A Bargaining Model With Heterogeneous Labor
  • Unions, Training and Wages: Evidence for British Men
  • Opportunities and Dilemmas: Labour and Regional Innovation
  • Training and Unions
  • Sectoral Strategies of Labour Market Reform

    The commonest metaphor for how unions strengthen the economy is that they force employers on to the "high road" of production-- concentrating on innovation rather than sweating workers, promoting skilled work versus unskilled low-wage labor, and encouraging investment in long-term productivity rather than short-term profits. Especially in a world of global competition, "low road" companies will inevitably lose to firms in developing nations which can always undercut them on price, so forcing companies into long-term investments in "high road" production is the only way US economic growth will sustain itself in the longer term.

    This operates in a few different ways

    Taking wages out of competition : Because unions often operate across multiple firms, they deter employers from seeking to gain advantages purely by who can slash wages and instead forces companies to compete on innovation. In the absence of unions, the availability of low-wage exploitation will encourage misdirection of to less productive firms that just are willing to abuse their workers.

    A Voice in Production: With a union, workers can gain a voice to improve production without worrying that they are merely contributing to their own loss of a job. Without union, workers fear that innovation will lead to speedups and layoffs, so it?s often more in their interest to privately exploit knowledge to ease the workload than share it with the employer. But in the union context of a labor contract, unions can be guaranteed a share in productivity gains so unions encourage more commitment to increasing productivity.

    Lowering turnover and improving skills: A standard conservative argument is that anyone who doesn't like the work conditions is always free to leave. While this is technically true, it's a pretty narrow choice to give someone. Far better is the democratic alternative that unions provide of workers being able to change work conditions through contract negotiations. This option of "voice" versus "exit" options -- as it's often referred to in labor analysis -- encourages less worker turnover and improves skills within a firm.

    Increasing capital investment: While employers don't have to like the higher wages paid to union workers, it forces them to invest in better technology and more capital to make the high wages pay for themselves. Firms can afford to use outdated technology when sweatshop workers make up for low productivity, but when you are paying union wages you rationally have to improve productivity in order to compete. Such higher productivity is key to growth across the economy and encourages new employment in the technology fueling capital investment in the unionized firms.

    Multi-firm cooperation: Partly because wages are taken out of competition, multi-firm unions have pioneered coopration between firms, especially within regions, in cooperation on investments in "public goods" such as worker training and other services improving productivity at all firms. Check out this listof such partnerships across the country. All of them encourage greater productivity and innovation in industries needing to compete in the global marketplace.

    Finally, unions encourage Keynesian growth strategies by raising incomes of workers and thereby raising aggregate demand for goods, fueling a virtuous cycle of growth. This effect is lessened within any single country due to global trade (i.e. higher wages may just lead to higher imports) but it is salient on a global level. As we see wage pressures downward not just in the United States but even some developing nations like Mexico and Turkey, it's easy to see the culprit being low-wage China where labor unions are banned and wages are forced down to the minimum.

    Conservatives spend a lot of propaganda effort trying to convince workers that a union contract raising their wages will somehow make them poorer. It's a nice rhetorical trick but if you read through the labor market literature or just apply common sense, the right's arguments don't make sense.

    Forcing companies to compete based on innovation rather than worker exploitation is the best way to force them to invest in long-term growth. Sweatshops will inevitably go off shore in any case, so the rhetorical lure that we can slash wages as a route to prosperity is just ridiculous. Stronger unions, smarter public investments and more industry cooperation to improve skils is a far better alternative to build economic growth.


    No Progressive Policy w/o Labor

    There is some idea among progressives that labor matters, but they really don't usually understand either the historical extent of labor role in progressive policies.  

    Usually when labor in politics is discussed, it comes down to comparisons of PAC dollars contributed where labor is outspent12-1 by business, and is even outspent by corporate contributions within the Democratic Party.

    More than the PAC Dollars: But these numbers horribly understate the importance of labor in politics and for maintaining a progressive agenda. First, even within the Dems, their spending is the only serious financial counterweight to the corporate interests. And despite various Nader types that want to point to the nominal larger PAC dollars by business as evidence of labor irrelevance, that argument just ignores the far larger dollars spent by labor in educating and mobilizing their members for elections and political work.

    Conservatives sure recognize this fact, even if they may overstate the dollars. See this older essay by the National Right to Work committee or this more recent column by conservative Linda Chavez. Their hobby horse is of course the union members "coerced" to support candidates they might not like, although they never worry about the coerced consumer and shareholder dollars pumped into rightwing coffers without anyone asking permission. (I'll talk a bit about the ridiculousness of Beck and "payroll protection" in some other column).

    The bottom-line is that many liberals and the Nader left often understate the labor dominance in progressive electoral politics, the liberals doing so at times to marginalize labor and ignore their debt and the left to ideologically justify their stupid third party stances. The reality is that without labor money, progressives would be obliterated from political influence by corporate spending.

    Labor Dollars Worth More: But the real key to labor power is not the money they spend per se, but the fact that a dollar spent by labor is worth far more than a dollar spent by business interests. When labor spends a dollar, they can spend it not on a one-off communication, a ephemeral TV ad or whatever, but can instead use it to activate members as volunteers, who can then multiple the message to others for free. It is the money of labor combined with its democratic grass roots that creates any sort of level playing field for progressives in the political world.

    And this has been true from almost the beginning of the Republic. When labor strength has been high, progressive initiatives have been born. And when labor power wanes, conservatives and business interests have taken over. Every major advance in economic justice has depended on labor support over the years.

    19th Century: The first wave of worker organization would help establish in the 1840s the right of public education for children regardless of class in the North. That role for labor is agreed upon by both historians ("widespread demand for schooling from urban workers...Workers supported schools even though they depended on the wages of their children.") and conservative commentators("The primary supporters of Mann's drive [for public education]...included the trade unions, whose members benefited from the removal of children from the labor market.") (See also this accountof Chartism in the same period in Britain, from which many US educational reformers took their inspiration.)

    False Dawn of Progressive Era: Broad-based industrial unionism in the late 19th century, after a brief upsurge under the Knights of Labor, would be crushed by the Robber Barons, leaving largely the limited elite strata of skilled craft unions in the American Federation of Labor. This would limit progressive policy in the US for decades. With the rise of new militant unions like the American Clothing Workers Union (ACWU) and the radical Industrial Workers of the World, combined with the Socialist Party, the Progressive Era of the 1910s promised a false dawn of new progressive labor legislation (see Labor's Great War for one good account of the WWI era for labor.) But the crushing of militant labor unionism by the Red Scare and Palmer Raids -- the post-WWI anti-left crusade that makes McCarthyism look mild -- would usher in the pro-corporate policies of the 1920s.

    Labor and Rise of New Deal: In New York state in the 1920s, because of the survival of a strong labor movement, there would be a partial reshaping of New York statesocial policies that would be a precursor to the changes in the national politics that would come in the 1930s.

    But the crucial change was the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) that led to an upsurge of organizing in the workplaces of America but also to a new broad-based progressive politics led by labor. The vehicle for this change was the first Political Action Committee, the CIO-PAC, which gave labor for the first time a coordinated national structure for involvement in politics. And the result in the 1936 election was a realignment of politics tied to the New Deal. Business substantially shifted its support to the Republicans, leaving the Democrats dependent on labor unions for the core of their political funding and support.

    Post-New Deal Surprise: After World War II and the death of Roosevelt, this New Deal politics seemed to be at an end, as Republicans took control of Congress and passed, over Truman's veto, the Taft-Hartley Act, which attacked the right to organize and largely destroyed left-leaning unions through making them ineligible to stand for elections in workplaces-- allowing more conservative unions to replace them.

    Still, while labor politics would lose some of its militancy, the surprise of 1948 was the establishment that labor-backed politics still could take on this rightwing assault. With the firm support of labor, Truman would pull off his surprise victory. As this chronicle from the Truman Library details:

    In 1948, as well, the labor movement became a more significant factor than it had ever been before in a Presidential election...While the labor effort was helpful in 1944, it was of much greater importance in 1948, when Democratic party organization was weak and defeatist; in many parts of the country the only strong local organization was provided by the labor unions. Labor, of course, had no greater faith in Truman's chances of election than did the party leadership, but it was eager to elect liberal Democrats to the Senate and House of Representatives; its strenuous effort on the part of local candidates inevitably helped the national ticket.
    And along with reelecting Truman, tha year ushered in a whole new generation of progressive labor-backed leaders like Hubert Humphrey who would dominate politics for the next generation. The merger of the AFL with the CIO in 1955 would cement both this broad-based political alignment and the turn to less militant politics.

    Labor and the Great Society: But less militancy still meant that with the 1960s, even as labor would come into opposition with progressive allies on the Vietnam War, it would remain the prime political backer of the Great Society, both electorally and in Congress. And despite the rap that labor looked out only for its own interests, one particular instance highlights how committed labor was to its broad-based social agenda, even at the expense of its own particular institutional needs. Since the passage of Taft-Hartley, labor has sought to reform the labor law, repeatedly facing Republican filibusters over the decades. In particular, labor has sought to repeal the so-called "right to work" 14(b) provisions of the labor code that allowed states to bar union security agreements in labor contracts.

    Yet in 1965, the Republican minority leader Senator Dirksen offered to cease opposition to 14(b) repeal if the AFL-CIO would agree not to resist a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's recent "one person, one vote" reapportionment of state legislatures. AFL-CIO leader George Meany's reply is worth remembering for those who dismiss labor as narrow and self-interested (and Meany is in many ways the emblem of such narrowness):

    As badly as I want 14(b) repealed, I do not want it that badly. And the Senate Minority Leader and all his anti-labor stooges can filibuster until hell freezes over before I will agree to sell the people short for that kind of a deal."
    This story is from Taylor Dark's The Unions and the Democrats: An Enduring Alliance, which details the ongoing core role of unions in the progressive Democratic agenda from the 1960s to today.

    Today: There is a lot to criticize in labor 's political efforts over the years, especially its aimlessness during the Lane Kirkland era of the 1980s, but its central role in preserving progressive social policy throughout this century is undeniable. Especially with a much sharper leadership at the national helm of most unions today, progressive activists need to understand why building the strength of unions institutionally is also a key to gains in the whole realm of progressive politics. Without strong unions, there will be no progressive policy in the long term.


    Labor's Support for Civil Rights

    [Note the following history comes from a number of sources, including Working Class New York by Joshua Freeman, Parting the Watersby Taylor Branch and a number of other sources. Only scattered web links.]

    Unions and Civil Rights: Progressives fall too easily into thinking of unions as a "special interest" while ignoring the core role unions have played in the whole range of progressive social activism and legislation passed this past century. Nowhere is this truer than in the area of civil rights, where unions were the indispensable actors in mobilizing the grassroots and political power to win most civil rights battles in state and national legislatures. As importantly, they were the vehicles for economically and socially empowering millions of black workers to be able to fight for their rights more broadly.

    Yes, many union locals, especially in the building trades, were racist themselves in treatment of black members, but it's too easy to look at the partial failures of unions to live up to their ideals while ignoring the forest of civil rights leadership most unions and union leadership took. It is from the higher ideals unions publicly set for themselves that they failed, since throughout most of this period, they were far more integrated and more actively involved in fighting segregation than almost any major institution in society.

    Early Years While many craft locals of the original American Federation of Labor would exclude blacks from membership, African Americans would become a growing part of the membership of the emerging industrial unions, making up 20% of the United Mine Workers by 1900. And, much as the United Farm Workers would become a vehicle for latino pride in the 1960s and 70s, one union in particular would become the emblem of black empowerment in the early part of this century, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, organized in 1925 and then led by A. Phillip Randolph.

    Randolph is the most important civil rights leader most people have never heard of, despite being arguably more important to civil rights in the 20th century. The first black head of a labor union in the AFL, Randolph in many ways made the civil rights movement possible. He fought to desegregate defense factories in World War II, threatening to mount the first "March on Washington" during WWII. Roosevelt, fearing the political effects, agreed to establish the Fair Employment Practices Commission, the first major federal agency prosecuting discrimination in US industry. Randolph also fought with Truman to desegregate the US military. In 1963, it was Randolph who proposed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

    Rise of the CIO: In the 1930s, the new industrial unions in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), then breaking away from the old conservative AFL leadership, were in practice the the main civil rights institutions of their day. When dockworkers on the West Coast organized the ILWU in 1934, this was a major stepin ending discrimination on the docks, as the CIO unions in general gave black workers and their burgeoning demands for equal treatment new vehicles to organize within the workplace. Within four months of the CIO organizing, Black progressives from around the U.S. joined together in the formation of the National Negro Congress (NNC), which chose A. Phillip Randolph to be its President. The desgregation of many military contractors in WWII and the union wages paid would become the backbone of an emerging black working class that could take on greater civil rights campaigns, backed by the progressive union leadership that would become the strongest advocates available to support new civil rights legislation.

    During WWII, the CIO established a national Committee to Abolish Racial Discrimination to campaign for the end of segregation and after the war launched major organizing drives among the heavily black workforces of the US South-- a drive that was unfortunately stalled and largely defeated by the passage of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act in 1947.

    Unions Lead Post-War Civil Rights Wave: Long before national legislation was passed, unions were campaigning for state-level anti-discrimination laws. When New York State passed the 1945 Quinn-Ives Bill, the first law anywhere in the country to prohibit discrimination in hiring, the state AFL and CIO labor federations supported it. The Chamber of Commerce, the American Bar Association and most of the business community fought the law, but the labor movement lined up to help push it through, despite provisions that explicitly targetted discrimination in unions themselves.

    In 1946, the United Auto Workers (UAW) helped lead a referendum vote in Michigan to pass a fair employment practices law. The same year, the UAW established as well an internal Fair Practices and Anti-Discrimination Department, sometimes too weak on union locals but still a platform within the union always pushing for greater worker equality and part of what made the UAW an outspoken public advocate for civil rights legislation in the nation. In the postwar period, unions were some of the staunchest funders of the Urban League, NAACP and other civil rights groups.

    Fighting Employment Discrimination: The more leftwing unions fought directly with employers to open up hiring to blacks: in the 1930s and after WWII, New York's Retail Drug Employees Union, 1199 (yes, the forefronner of the dominant New York health care union today), despite being largely white at the time, campaigned for black pharmacists to be hired. When an employer rejected a black applicant from the union hiring hall and racism was suspected, the union would ask other members to waive seniority in order to send out another black applicant to force hiring by the employers. The West Coast longshore union practiced affirmative action hiring in the wake of World War II, in order to make sure returning veterans with seniority would not "bump" out recently hired black members annd reverse the wartime gains in racial diversity on the docks.

    In the 1950s, the favorite political star of the labor movement was Minnesota's Hubert Humphrey, who was also the legislative hero of the civil rights establishment in the Senate. Humphrey had as mayor of Minneapolis in 1946 established a fair employment law plus the first permanent commission with enforcement powers in the country to give the law teeth. It was Humphrey, labor's champion, who was also the delegate at the 1948 Democratic Convention who pushed through the touch civil rights planks that led Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats to storm out of the Party.

    Birthing the modern civil rights movement: One product of the union movement who would become one of the most crucial if unsung fathers of the modern civil rights movement was E.D. Nixon, a leader in the Sleeping Car Porters union and a close associate of Philip Randolph. Nixon became president of the Voters League of Montgomery in 1944 and a statewide leader of the NAACP in Alabama. He was the initial organizer in building the Montgomery bus boycottand became chairman of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) which was formed to manage the boycott, even as the young minister Martin Luther King Jr. would be catapulted into fame during the campaign.

    As the 1960s protests took off, unions were in the forefront of supporting public demonstrations, even as they struggled internally with their more recalcitrant discriminatory locals. When the 1960 sit-ins began in southern Woolworth stores, the New York Central Labor Council organized picketing at the NYC Woolworth stores. On one day alone, the ILGWU garment union sent 800 picketers out.

    Funding the Movement: When in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. and the children of Birmingham put 2000 protesters in jail, it was the union movement leadership -- and not just the liberal wing but leaders like AFL-CIO President George Meany often seen as more conservative -- who paid the $160,000 to bail them out so they could march again.

    Bayard Rustin, the chief hands-on organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, was on union payroll in New York and using a union office when he did his organizing for the March. Reverend King himself worked out of the national UAW headquarters himself during planning of the march. Sometimes forgotten in history is the July 1963 Detroit march for civil rights in July proceeding the national march, where 200,000 people marched down the streets of Detroit with UAW head Walter Reuther leading the march with Martin Luther King. In fact, the march's official name was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Unions like the United Auto Workers bussed in large numbers to the crowd that day.

    Crucified on a Picket Line: Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis in 1968, yet many people forget why he was there-- to support a unionization drive of black Memphis garbage workerswho were organizing under the auspices of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which had made the Memphis struggle a national cornerstone of their organizing efforts in southern cities.

    Martin Luther King Jr. knew he was risking his life, but also believed that the risk was worth it, since for workers seeking their civil rights, unionization was a key part of that struggle. As then, as today, the labor movement and the civil rights movement have advanced (and sadly been set back at times) together.

    Now, within labor and progressive circles, there is plenty of criticism for where the labor movement failed at times in its ideals of fighting discrimination, both in society and within its ranks. I recommend reading a few of the following pieces for some of that debate, but it's worth remembering that the labor movement, however haltingly at times, was far ahead of all other groups in leading the charge for civil rights. Without the labor movement, the major civil rights laws would probably never have been passed, or at least it would have taken many more years.
    * See Bayard Rustin's The Blacks and the Unions and this debateon the role of the AFL-CIO and the UAW in pushing civil rights

    Why Unions Have Trouble Organizing Workers

    Many folks ask why unions have so much trouble expanding if they continue to benefit workers with unions so dramatically.

    The simple answer is fear of being fired. Which happens pervasively in union drives. Just to use a source that is not necessarily pro-union, read this article from Business Week looking specifically at Wal-Mart in the broader context of harassment against union activists. Some key excerpts:

    Fully half of all nonunion U.S. workers say they would vote yes if a union election were held at their company today, up from about 40% throughout the 1990s, according to polls by Peter D. Hart Research Associates Inc. Yet unions lose about half of the elections they call.

    One big reason: Over the past two decades, Corporate America has perfected its ability to fend off labor groups...companies facing labor drives routinely employ all the tactics Wal-Mart has used to get workers to change their minds. Many of these actions are perfectly legal, such as holding anti-union meetings or inundating workers with anti-union literature and videos.

    Those that are illegal carry insignificant penalties, such as small fines or posting workplace notices about labor rights. Firing activists--as companies do in fully one-quarter of union drives, according to studies of NLRB cases--is difficult to prove and takes years to work through the courts. That's long after a drive has lost steam. Workers may want unions, "but the question is whether [labor] can overcome the fear generated by an employer's campaign to get them to take the risk," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a Cornell University researcher who did the studies.

    The raw number is 20,000 workers are retaliated against every year for union activity.  20,000 people.  See American Rights at Work for more on the weaknesses of US labor law in protecting the freedom to form a union.  

    Under the Taft-Hartley law passed by Congress in 1947 (and amended slightly a few years later), unions lost most of the tools of solidarity strikes and other tools that allowed them to organize broadly in the 1930s. So workers end up facing off against giant multinational corporations without being able to seek support from other unions. For example, if workers at Wal-Mart are fired illegally, workers at firms doing business with Wal-Mart cannot take strike or picket action in protest against their own companies supporting a union-buster. Non-Wal-mart companies cannot negotiate contracts where their employers refuse to do business with Wal-Mart. Such bans on "secondary boycotts" and "hot cargo" agreements leaves workers isolated against the combined massive power of a corporation like Wal-Mart.

    So, essentially, you have the government issuing meaningless penalties against union-busters, while that same government threatens massive sanctions against unions if they engage in solidarity support themselves for workers facing illegal firings or harassment.

    Here are some more sources on information on union-busting in the United States:
    Labor Research Associates Union Busting info page



    But despite these obstacles, unions continue to organize new workers.  Yes, they are losing some in industries being downsized, but there are still over 15 million union members across the country, a massive number of folks contributing something on the order of $7 billion for new organizing and political struggle.

    The Department of Labor released its report on union membership in 2005 and the labor movement added a net of 200,000 members in 2005. Which meant that even with an increased working population, unions held even as a percentage of the workforce.

    A small comfort possibly given the low percentage that labor has dropped to, but the point of the headline is for progressives to recognize that, when you are talking about the labor movement, small statistical fluxuations mean a hell of a lot of money.

    Adding 200,000 members multipled by a conservative estimate of monthly dues of $30 adds up to $70 million in additional income for unions-- which if used right translates into hiring hundreds of new organizers, researchers and communication specialists to help organize additional workers.

    One reason I'm an optimist on labor's revival -- other than knowing how many times labor was declared dead in this country only to rise again even stronger -- is that labor has this inherent virtuous cycle built into its structure, where a tipping point of success inherently leads to more resources and more success. New workers organized help fund the next round of organizing, so success inherently feeds success.

    I don't know if 2005 is the quiet tipping point where labor kicks starts a new period of rapid expansion, but $70 million of new income doesn't hurt the chances for that to be true.  

    And what folks need to fully understand is that these are critical allies for all progressives.    

    So hopefully this all gives folks a few information tools to educate themselves and others they may talk to about why unions are a critical part of both the progressive revival in this country and for bettering the lives of Americans.

  • Originally posted to NathanNewman on Tue Jun 13, 2006 at 07:35 AM PDT.

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