Commentary: Labor unions and America

The Charlotte ObserverDecember 22, 2012 

I worked once at a union newspaper up North. It was a comfortable place, with good pay for the size of the paper. I knew that didn’t happen by accident.

At the time, I was young with no children, which left me plenty of hours to feed my ambition. So I worked a lot, well past the time my paycheck demanded. One day, a newsroom union leader pulled me aside. Pleasantly but pointedly, he asked about my hours. It was the amount of time I needed to do my job the way I wanted to, I said, maybe a little too proudly. He frowned.

What was good for me wasn’t necessarily good for my coworkers, he said. To put a point on it: “You’re making the rest of us look bad,” he said.

This week brings news in Michigan about “Right to Work” legislation – laws that weaken unions in the cradle of the U.S. labor movement. The bills were rushed through the legislature and signed Tuesday by Gov. Rick Snyder. Some believe it’s a blow from which labor will not recover.

But if you think, based on my short union story, that you’ll find joy at that prospect here – no. We owe a great gratitude to unions, not only for the labor standards they bled for and won, but for the quality of life those victories helped provide for even non-union Americans. We should be careful, especially in this profits-first culture, to wish for labor’s decline.

But how long do we need to say thank you?

It’s a difficult question to navigate. We take for granted much of what labor won – reasonable work days and weeks, respectable conditions. But as the victories of the labor movement became encoded into American law, the focus of individual unions shifted. The battles became less about rising up against the worst impulses of employers, and more about getting the best possible deal for union members.

Certainly, unions continued to fight worthy fights against greedy bosses, but they also battled for some extraordinary wage and pension benefits, then clung to them in a changing global economy. They ignored greater goods by resisting reasonable work reforms and defending the jobs of employees who didn’t belong at work, on patrol, in the classroom.

Just three months ago, the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike for the first time in 25 years. Back then, the union admirably fought for financial and social justice, particularly for women, but in September the union decided to leave kids without teachers for seven school days in part because it wanted a four-year raise of more than 16 percent – and because it didn’t want principals and administrators to have more say over the quality of teachers in the classroom.

All of which is perfectly within unions’ rights to negotiate. But the consequences are clear: Organized labor is at its most unpopular point in history, hovering near 50 percent approval – in part because of demonization by conservatives, yes, but also from its own doing. Membership has shrunk to less than 12 percent of workers nationwide. A Democratic National Convention was held in a non-union state, North Carolina, a politically unthinkable proposition not long ago.

Perhaps the biggest slap came this year in Wisconsin, where union advocates were sure they could overturn anti-union legislation and recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who signed it into law. That didn’t happen, and it probably won’t happen in Michigan, because this is about more than Republicans leaping at opportunities to weaken labor. It’s about voters allowing it to happen. It’s about finding reasons not to say thank you anymore.

But let’s be careful not to overstate what was lost this week in Michigan. “Right to Work” legislation merely gives workers the right to decide if a union best represents their interests at work. Unions are by no means dead, and in fact they may be more necessary than they’ve been in decades. The gulf between labor income and capital income is at its largest point since the New Deal, and only the most fervent capitalists would argue that business and industry cares about anything other than business and industry.

But unions have trouble claiming otherwise, too. Once, they could. Labor could assert it was fighting for everyone, that America prospered when all its workers earned decent wages in decent conditions. But now, unions are too often about union members only. And Americans are increasingly leaving them on their own.

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