Labor Day or Arbor Day: Who Cares?

It's Labor Day as I write this and ponder wistfully the state of organized labor in the United States. I've always been pro-labor, partly out of sheer genetics. My grandfather was a member of the International Brotherhood of Machinists for more than 50 years, and I'm an associate member of the United Steelworkers.

Despite my beliefs, however, I can't manage much enthusiasm about the current state of the labor movement. Organized labor, partly by its own doing but largely because big business and government long ago joined forces against it, is approaching the point of irrelevance in American society.

Historians tend to date the birth of the labor movement with the Pullman strike of 1894, although I might go back a little further, at least to the unrest in the Pennsylvania coal fields in the 1870s. On the other end of the timeline, the collapse of labor's reign as counterweight to big business is most frequently pegged to President Ronald Reagan's crushing of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1981. But I think labor started to die sooner — in 1947, years before it reached the pinnacle of its strength, with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act.

Taft-Hartley, authored by Senator Robert “Mr. Republican” Taft and Congressman Fred A. Hartley, invalidated a host of worker protections included in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Among its most insidious provisions, Taft-Hartley allowed “right to work” measures that have outlawed organized labor for all practical purposes in (so far) 23 states. Taft-Hartley, passed by the GOP-majority “do-nothing Congress” over Harry Truman's veto, tipped the labor-management balance irrevocably in favor of what Franklin Delano Roosevelt aptly referred to as “organized money.”

There is no law parallel to Taft-Hartley that allows unions to frustrate and invalidate the rights of corporations to organize. For every fast-shrinking labor union today, there are a dozen burgeoning organized-money groups — The National Association of Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute, the National Mining Association — free to operate in every state, but especially in Washington, D.C.

The impact of Taft-Hartley can't be understated. It ensured that every labor-management dispute after 1947 was a cruel mismatch — the equivalent of a football game between the New York Giants and Yale, with the Giants spotted two or three touchdowns before the kickoff.

As I've noted, the erosion of labor's political power wasn't immediately evident. But it was steady. And it became crystal clear when Reagan took on PATCO, fired its entire membership, replaced them with scabs and got away with it, more popular than ever. By then, organized money had spent three decades demonizing “union bosses,” depicting union members as lazy, selfish, and unpatriotic, and sowing deep, corrosive divisions among public unions, private-sector unions, and non-union workers.

Since Taft-Hartley, the most important factor in the triumph of organized money over organized labor has been, well… money . After all, every big-business lobby — the US Chamber of Commerce, for example — includes dozens of millionaires and billionaires. By comparison, the highest annual dues paid by any union member in America is a little over $800. The average is closer to $500.

This isn't even the Giants vs. Yale. It's the Giants vs. the Sisters of Mercy.

In the 2010 mid-term election, before the Supreme Court's pro-lobbyist Citizens United decision could be fully exploited, the big spenders among organized money groups — like the Chamber of Commerce, American Crossroads, the Club for Growth, etc. — outspent the richest labor unions by roughly $145 million to $39 million.

But that margin — less than 4-to-1 — was a pretty close game. More typical of the Giants vs. Yale syndrome was this year's attempted recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. In that election, the winning team from organized money outspent organized labor, 7-to-1. Even more significantly, exit polls show that 38 percent of union members voted to keep the governor. These masochistic union members voted for Walker despite his proud leadership of a national movement, funded by organized money, whose purpose is to eliminate every right that workers had literally died for in the years leading up to 1935, including the fundamental right to collective bargaining.

When union leaders can't trust the loyalty of almost two-fifths of their members, it's pretty safe to conclude that organized labor ain't organized any more.

15 comments on “Labor Day or Arbor Day: Who Cares?

    September 4, 2012

    In 1980s UK our illustrious PM Margaret Thatcher destroyed many of our unions.  It is perhaps no cooincidence she was “best friends” with Ronald Reagan.  These days in the UK unions are no where near as prevalent or powerful as they used to be and are mostly assiciated with public service workers.

  2. Ariella
    September 5, 2012

    When union leaders can't trust the loyalty of almost two-fifths of their members, it's pretty safe to conclude that organized labor ain't organized any more.

    @David Who betrayed trust first here? Didn't members grow disillusioned with their leaders? Haven't there been major breaches of trust on their part?

  3. hash.era
    September 5, 2012

    Ariella: Dont you think both parties are responsible for this ? I feel its a 50 – 50 battle. Trade Unions do have their points stacked up and so s the employers. Ultimately there should be some sort of an agreement where the problems should be equally sorted. So I feel its a 50 – 50 battle all over again.

  4. RocketGlen
    September 5, 2012

    And what percentage of union revenues have been spent on building/enhancing public image.  The dems/unions always seem to think that people should agree with them because they are “right”.  I suspect the union reputation problem is of their own making.  And I must say my personal experience with union shops is that they are much less productive.  Case in point, the auto industry in Britan during the 70's/80's that was referenced in another post.  Efficiency was incredibly low and the product was laughable.  Busting unions might the best thing to happen to this country.

  5. stochastic excursion
    September 5, 2012

    People fought long and hard to raise their social condition above what was, in the early industrial period, not much different from slavery.  Today's workers have seen the benefits that come with their trade as some kind of birthright, but people will always have the privelege of forfeiting hard-won rights.  Human nature being what it is, there will always be people willing to facilitate the forfeiture process.

    People who are able to approach collective bargaining who are gifted with a certain degree of sophistication have a certain duty to act for the greater good–the sustaining of a stable society–should the opportunity present itself.  Leaving the sheep to the wolves, and saying that's the way it is, is not always the safest stance.

  6. bolaji ojo
    September 5, 2012

    Ariella, I suppose workers now put their trust in employers whose priority is to enrich employees?

    As a society, we've become mercenary in our actions. We each vote for whatever benefits us directly and individually. The collective is long gone. All about me and mine.

  7. Ariella
    September 5, 2012

    @Bolaji, I agree, cynic that I am. But the same dynamics dictate union negotations, and many leaders have sold out the newer members to maximize the benefits and pay for the more senior ones.  

    Now, I majored in Labor Studies and was taught by professors who tended to be pro-union. They were also de facto union members, as all faculty is within the City University of New York system. However, the union didn't deliver much to its members, and even adjuncts were supposed to be covered, for our pay was garnished for dues. The fact of the matter is that a couple of universities I've worked at that didn't take union dues off our pay actually paid better than CUNY. And in another state univeristy I worked at, the head of the department admitted that most adjuncts did not want the dubious benefits offered, and some would even avoid consecutive semesters of work just to not be opted into it against their will. 

  8. bolaji ojo
    September 5, 2012

    I am amazed at the extent to which organized business has managed to make the individual worker believe they could go all alone. We cast all unions as being against companies and the rest of society; as organizations bent on squeezing employers and government and making sure their members do the least amount of work for the highest pay and; as being by nature bad for the larger society.

    I reject that view. I don't belong to any workers' union today but I once on another continent belonged to a journalists' union that did not do collective bargaining but hosted workshops about my work, paid the tuitiion for my post graduate degree in journalism and was instrumental to my first trip outside of my country as part of a group of journalists learning about another nation.

    My union helped widows of journalists killed in the Liberian war. Three of them were my friends. My union paid attorney fees when a dictatorial government charged journalists with violating laws that were retroactively promulgated to punish offences and violations that weren't in existence at the time of the violation.

    I gladly paid my union dues and would today pay union dues if my contributions would help another person advance themselves professionally. Unions arent' all about just collective bargaining or whatever other negative notions we have attached to them.

    Even in the area of collective bargaining, is unionization wrong for our society at large? CEOs and top executives at companies get paid hundreds of millions of dollars (Apple's current CEO Tim Cook received over $300 million in his first year in office after Steve Jobs passed) while line workers can consider themselves lucky if they get paid anything above $100,000 — these are the lucky ones.

    Workers have supported the shift in allegiance from unions to companies as if corporations have a fiduciary duty to workers. They don't.

    If busting unions were the best thing to happen to Great Britain, I wish you then all joy in opening your next Made in China package.

  9. bolaji ojo
    September 5, 2012

    Ariella, Why have unions become so toxic and why do we pretend they are what's wrong with our society. David Benjamin points out unions aren't as strong today as they once were; their membership numbers are falling and; their financial strength is waning. Yet, workers continue to believe they would succeed and become richer individually — if they only could get a break, take a second job, get another degree, become more specialized or even work extra four hours per day or over the weekend.

    Unions aren't perfect. Companies aren't either but I marvel at the number of times I have received work-related emails from colleagues that are supposedly on vacation. They attend phone conference calls during their vacations and crank out project suggestions during their off hours. All because of the fears that if they didn't they might be seen as slacking or not dedicated enough or because they want to prove to their supervisors they are conscientious. I am equally guilty.

    Unions ensured their is someone around to replace you while on vacation so you don't quiver with trepidation throughout your holiday knowing the pile of work that awaits your resumption. They fought for us to have 5-day work week, paid holidays and sabbatical (aaah!) but corporations fought back and told us they were bad for us and the union bosses became the new criminals.

    How's that working out?

  10. Ariella
    September 5, 2012

    @Bolaji It's a very complex issue. Most workers in the US are not unionized. They do not get annual raises when the economy is in a downturn. In fact, they more likely to be told to either take a cut in hours or salary or both if they don't want to lose their jobs altogether. But unions usually take a line that ignores economic reality and demands that companies continue giving annual raises, no matter what happens to everyone else. As a result, unionized school teachers are now earning more than experienced, degreed, and highly skilled IT workers whose pay took a dip of 25% to 50% after 2008. 

    I discuss this with someone who declares himself anti-union. He has a relative who worked for the MTA. The relative retired with his full pension and full health care benefits several years ago. No one in private industry gets a deal like that now. Certainly, it's a boon to this person who is in rather poor health and requires regular medical care. But, obviously, the costs get passed on to the MTA that then sucks it out commuters with increased fares and decreased service. Trust me, they are not taking it out of the bonuses they pay their top level executives who always cry poverty to get approval on increases and then find a surplus when it comes to bonus time.

    Unions definitely improved working conditions for factory workers. But they don't improve the situation of all workers, and one has to question what really would work best for all — including keeping commuting expenses affordable for workers who do not get overtime pay even when putting in 10 hour days.

  11. bolaji ojo
    September 5, 2012

    Ariella, Sorry, but I don't buy the argument. So, the MTA worker gets full retirement benefits, including health care and we think he is spoilt? Your friend is anti-union because of this? I have in the past written about Jack Welch, the legendary CEO and chairman of GE, who for his retirement got perks you can only dream of, including an office at GE that came with a secretary for life, life time use of the corporate jet (he later gave this back, I believe), use of an apartment in Manhattan, New York, a Macy's card that allows him and his wife to “buy” for free whatever they wanted from the store but which his then wife fought hard to keep for herself when they divorced and other stuff no mid-level manager or assembly line worker would ever get. Yet, we attack this MTA worker for basic health care benefits. How dare he? Who does he think he is? Obviously, what we want him to do is get a second job at Walmart on retirement to help pay for all this. Of course, don't let's forget to remind him Social Security won't be around anymore if he happens to live another 20 years!

    Members of Congress get great health care coverage and pension paid by American tax payers, yet we give them a hearing when they want to scuttle Medicare and replace it with vouchers because (wait for the tittering to stop) . . . it's too expensive!

    You talked about private sector companies that don't offer certain benefits anymore. Please don't remind me. I know this from personal experience. We replaced company paid retirement packages with 401K, which you must invest in stocks mainly and by law wait until a certain age to access, otherwise you are slapped with a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty. Meanwhile, the same companies still have retirement packages for senior executives! I've always known all animals are equal, I just wasn't aware of the extent to which some are more equal than others.

  12. Ariella
    September 5, 2012

    @Bolaji Given how few people in the US are represented by unions, they don't really represent workers in general. According to “labor unions represented 7.6 percent of private-sector employees in 2011. … 40.7 percent of public-sector employees were represented by unions. The percentage of government workers actually in unions was 37 percent.

    All told, the U.S. union membership rate was 11.8 percent of the total workforce in 2011…Overall, the number of workers covered by union representation stayed constant at 16.3 million.”


    Wikipedia gives figures for 2010: “the percentage of workers belonging to a union in the United States (or total labor union “density”) was 11.4%, compared to 18.6% in Germany, 27.5% in Canada, and 70% in Finland.” Though, historically, labor unions dominated the manufacturing sector, that reversed in more recent times. In any case, they never reached anything like the percentage for Finland: “At the apex of union density in the 1940s, only about 9.8% of public employees were represented by unions, while 33.9% of private, non-agricultural workers had such representation. In this decade, those proportions have essentially reversed, with 36% of public workers being represented by unions while private sector union density had plummeted to around 7%.”

    What's more relevant to our discussion is the attitude toward the effectiveness of unions:

    Public approval of unions climbed during the 1980s much as it did in other industrialized nations,[18] but declined to below 50% for the first time in 2009 during the Great Recession. It's not clear if this is a long term trend or a function of a high unemployment rate with historically correlates with lower public approval of labor unions.[19] One explanation for loss of public support is simply the lack of union power or critical mass. No longer do a sizable percentage of American workers belong to unions, or have family members who do. Unions no longer carry the “threat effect”: the power of unions to raise wages of non-union shops by virtue of the threat of unions to organize those shop

    And to refer back to the original source cited, “the average weekly earnings of union workers last year was $938, compared to an average of $729 for non-union workers.” So you're talking about nearly $110 more in earnings just due to unions. Is it any wonder that the ones who are not unionized may feel a tad resentful of those who take home over $5K more a year for no more work or skill? If unions were raising the bar for everyone, there would not be that much of a disparity.


  13. bolaji ojo
    September 6, 2012

    Ariella, Point taken that a majority of Americans are not union members. So, the majority resents the minority. A former supervisor narrated a story once about his experience at work. He complained (whined?) to his dad when he found out that the compensation of a colleague at the same level was higher than his. According to him, his father said: “Don't resent people who were able to negotiate a better package for themselves. Improve your own position.”

    The private sector workers are mad that union workers make $5,000 on average more than they do and they want to drag them down into the pits and not pull themselves up? Makes perfect sense.

    You still didn't address the key point I was making, though. How about corporate executives whose compensations significantly dwarf those of line workers by several hundred percent today? Are workers resentful of these people too or they hope by some miracle to join the group in future while in the meantime driving down union workers' compensation to their own level?

  14. Ariella
    September 7, 2012


    Are workers resentful of these people too or they hope by some miracle to join the group in future while in the meantime driving down union workers' compensation to their own level?

     Now that you mention it, I'll share my own experience in seeing this. Among the benefits that Verizon's union negotiated for its members was paid time and paid tuition for classes at CUNY colleges. I taught one of those classes. Remember, the students were there on company time, so their attendance was required both as a point of work and as a college requirement. But they viewed this as a perk that was meant to be only for what they wanted out of it. Not only did one say, they were entitled to a break from class every hour, but he declared his intention to leave early to coach a game. And there was another student who missed more than classes than was allowed by the program, yet he would not accept that he was responsible for his own actions there either.

    Anyway, one student literally stood out of the group. I don't mean that he was markedly brighter but that he wanted to go on another track– that of management. The other members thought that he was actually going to be worse off because he would not get overtime like they do, and, of course, they had an “us versus them” perspective on workers and management (or union members and everyone else, for that matter). So he was ostracized. 

    Now if the unions were really all about self-actualization for each individual, their attitude would not have been what they are. 

    Another thing I learned from teaching those students is that they really only care for their own situations. They didn't care that next batch of workers would be denied the education benefit as part of the new round of negotiations. They were only intent on milking it as much as possible for their own benefit — and learning was not what they were after. They were completely cynical about the whole thing. They saw it as a “win” over the company simply because they were getting paid as if at work when they were at class. And to make it a better “win,” they were intend on minimizing the time actually spent, so that they can feel they got paid even more.

    They also knew that the schools wanted to keep the programs going and so winked at their bending the rules because CUNY funding is based on enrollment. (The tuition paid by the company for the students actually does not cover costs, but the government would make up the difference, as it does for every student.)


    One further note about workers' concern for each other. I've heard commercials complaining that Verizon is moving jobs across the ocean. If the unions truly cared about maintaining jobs here, they should have looked at the larger picture. That entails not taking a strong line of yield nothing. When the company can't get an inch, it simply takes miles by eliminating jobs altogether. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the managers are saints, but that is economic reality.

    Businesses are in business to make money. So if they find that local worker demands cuts to much into their bottom line, they will find alternatives that will not make the same union demands, which are not just about wages but also costs that continue ever after. Verizon, like the NYC union, used to continue medical insurance coverage for retired workers. That has been cut, as well. Again, the union didn't mind selling out for the newer members, so long as the senior ones got to retain whatever they had before. 


  15. Ariella
    September 11, 2012

    Unions are in the news now because of the teachers' strike in Chicago.  In fact, the New York Times included an article entitled “In Standoff, Latest Sign of Unions Under Siege.”  The point I was making about how people generally feel about union hard lines is well expressed by this comment:


    CPBrownBaltimore, MD
    While talking about how besieged the teachers unions are, it might be helpful to note how besieged the taxpayers are, who are the ones being forced to support the union's school employees. We have mainly heard only continuous excuses about the lack of progress in student achievement, but have been made to continuously reward the public schools with more money.

    A teacher may not make a lot of money, but neither do most of the taxpayers. And those taxpayers have had to make their own retrenchments to the new global realitiesover many years.

    When I hear complaints about “concessions” they are being asked to make, I think “Welcome to the real world”.

    The Times   article   the strike itself drew over 1000 comments. There are a couple from people who are themselves union members and so feel they msut support the teachers' union positions, but most do not appear to be sympathetic at all:

     For example:

    I am probably as liberal as they come on most issues but I have no patience with teachers going on strike and refusing to conduct themselves in a professional manner. The educational system in this country is generally in decline. While not all teachers are poor performers, too many of them are, and the results are reflected everyday in the work force and in our colleges and universities. Too many young adults are unable to effectively read, write and perform basic math. School systems need to have the tools to be able to dismiss those teachers who are poor performers and to reward those teachers who do effectively educate our children.
    Sept. 11, 2012 at 7:36 a.m

    Yet another painful example of how the President (by extension here through Emanuel) on many issues is not the progressive that Romney and his far right and reactionary supporters paint him as, but is well right of center. I would prefer the progressive Obama, but I guess the President believes those of us who are more liberal are safe votes.

    Public education is a hallmark of American culture and respect. Destroying public education through privatization is not good for America whether its led by Romney or Obama. Support stronger education. Support the teachers.
    Sept. 11, 2012 at 7:26

    Gareth AndrewsNew York, NY
    This is beyond stupid.

    The Mayor is proposing facile ways to measure teachers' performance, and the teachers won't admit that there's a problem, that there needs to be a way to measure performance.

    Rather than simply react the way they are, wouldn't it be refreshing if the teachers' union responded by conceding what the Mayor is trying to achieve…and then proposing a realistic alternative or at least propose working toward such an alternative.


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