Is it twilight for the labor movement?
Or the dawn of a new day?

There was a time when people sang songs about labor unions:

When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run,
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun.
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?
But the union makes us strong.
–“Solidarity Forever”

There once was a union maid, she never was afraid
Of goons and ginks and the company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raids.
She went to a union hall, when a meeting it was called,
And when the legion boys came round she always stood her ground.
–“Union Maid”

My daddy was a miner, and I’m a miner’s son,
And I’ll stick by the union till every battle’s done
–“Which Side Are You On?”

Today when you hear about unions—which isn’t often, mostly once a year on Labor Day— they’re written and talked about as anachronisms, at best, or annoyances, obstacles to progress, or interest groups  determined to give incompetents higher pay and protection from their just desserts.  Why did unions exact the high wages and benefits from American auto makers that have them on the brink of bankruptcy?  Why do unions stand in the way of performance-based pay systems?  Why don’t unions get with the program, and drop their skepticism about free trade agreements?

Because that’s not their job, and it shouldn’t be their job.  People haven’t been inspired to write and sing songs about unions, haven’t risked—and lost—jobs and lives so that unions could become adjuncts to corporate HR departments or free-trade boosters or school system administrators.  There are already people doing those jobs.

Unions exist to represent workers, to aggregate workers and exert their collective economic and social power, much the way—and as a counterweight to the way—corporations exist to aggregate investors’ capital and exert its collective economic and social power.

Most of the power that trade unions exert is, of course, directed toward their members’ own advantage.  And why not?  We acknowledge the legitimacy of companies managing their businesses to their stockholders’ economic advantage—and just as often to the economic advantage not so much of the stockholders as of the company’s managers.  Surely the workers’ investment of their labor at one company rather than another qualifies them to share in the company’s good times just as investing money with one company rather than another entitles stockholders to a share of profits.

More money, whether in the form of wages or benefits, is not all unions seek for their members.  My father, Jack Barbash, was a prominent labor economist, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and an author, one of whose chief contributions to his field was the idea that labor unions existed not only to change economic conditions, but to bring equity to the workplace and the people employed there.  Workers represented by unions typically have contracts that provide for a transparent promotion process, prohibit termination without just cause, and institute a grievance process through which employees can challenge adverse actions that violate the contract.

It is, in fact, precisely this workplace equity that draws the ire of both employers and associations of employers and high-minded advocates of “reform” in both the public and private sectors.  Private employers balk at the presumptuousness of collections of employees interfering with their operation of the companies they manage,* seeing it as akin to turning prison management over to its inmates.

High-minded reformers see union “interference” as a guarantee of protection for incompetents who reformist managers would like to get rid of, a maze of restrictions on transfers and promotions, and an irresistible upward pressure on wages and benefits that the reformers consider to have been inflated by union power.  What all these attitudes have in common is the touching assumption that if self-interested employees and their labor-boss advocates would just get out of the way, agency heads and school superintendents could usher in an era of merit-based decisions that would benefit both the recipients of government services and the taxpayers who finance them.

If only it were so.  Think of the encounters you’ve had with the policies and actions established by executives in either the private or public sector.  The unappealable decisions by businesses and agencies in their own favor.  The good-enough-to-get-by levels of both quality and service.  The interminable voice-mail queues that separate you from talking to a human being.  Are the people who make and carry out these it’s-our-policies really the people we expect to hire and promote only the best qualified and terminate only those who deserve it?

How many times have you thought that there should be a process by which these mindless actions by businesses and government offices could be challenged and changed?  Does anybody deserve that kind of fair-dealing more than the people who work there and whose livelihoods should depend on the quality and industriousness of their work instead of the whims of mangers?

Does union advocacy ever result in higher salaries, better benefits, or more restrictive work rules that businesses or government entities can afford.  From time to time, without doubt.  But unions don’t give themselves raises or benefits.  Every clause in every labor-management contract is agreed to by the people whose job it is to determine what the company can afford and what it can’t.

Do unions sometimes overreach or abuse their power?  Are employees whose work merits demotion or discharge sometimes kept on due to union advocacy on their behalf?  Of course.

But look around.  Consider the incompetence and worse—FEMA after Katrina, sub-prime mortgages, e coli infection of hamburger sold to the Boy Scouts, to name just a few—perpetrated by people unassociated with unions, and tell me that unions’ occasional abuses inhere in their essence as advocates for workers.

But higher wages and workplace equity, as important and deserved as they are, don’t exhaust the benefits that unions deliver, not only to the workers they represent but to the larger society and economy.  People who recognize that the minimum wage—which currently adds up to a little more than $13,000 a year—is too low; people who understand that technology, trade and immigration are exerting downward pressure on wages; and people who see the imbalance between the wages paid to workers and the sums with which top managers are rewarded, tend to look to the government for action that would help people earn enough to support their families.

They should look to unions as well.

  • Just as the Countrywides, Bear Stearns and Fannie Maes of the world, free from meaningful government regulation, spun out of control, a strong labor movement would provide a counterweight to unchecked corporate discretion.  Executive salaries are not subject to collective bargaining, but employees’ wages are, and while a strong union might not be able to lower the executive side of the equation, it could raise the workers’ side and begin to redress that imbalance.
  • Companies whose employees are represented by unions are far more likely to have health insurance than are companies without unions.  If the costs of health insurance continue to grow beyond companies’ ability to pay, stronger unions would make passage of a national health care policy much more likely.  Labor unions provided a good deal of the political muscle that got Medicare and Medicaid passed in the ‘sixties.
  • People who care about democracy abroad will be able to make common cause with the labor movement.  Unions recognize that totalitarian rule runs counter to their interests; autocrats and dictators have never been able to tolerate free labor movements.**  American unions, for example, kept the Polish union Solidarity alive for a decade after the Soviet Union banned it in 1981.  And just as it does here, strong unions raise wages, reducing the threat to American jobs from low-wage countries.

And all of these benefits would come at a tiny fraction of the cost and risk of government action toward these ends.  In fact, all it would take would be the appointment to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) of members willing to enforce existing federal laws that are supposed to protect workers’ rights to organize but have been gutted by twenty years of anti-union Republican presidents.  The rebalancing of the NLRB won’t take long: three positions are vacant.  Appointing Democrats to two of the three vacancies should do it.

In fact, despite the dirges that are the standard accompaniment to any report on labor, this should be an ideal time for revitalizing the labor movement.  Much attention has been paid to the weakening of organized labor in the shrinking American manufacturing sector.

But labor is gaining strength in sectors in which labor has shown strength.  Service jobs, especially personal services like health care, are much harder to export than manufacturing, and the Service Employees International Union has shown the ability to organize janitors, even in the face of restrictive enforcement of federal labor laws.

Well-educated workers in industries like computer software have resisted union organization.  But a succession of downturns have demonstrated beyond cavil that white-collars have no more security than blue.  And there was a time that teachers resisted being organized—unions were for assembly line workers; they were professionals, they could bargain for themselves.  Today, there is no arena in which unions are stronger than the public schools.

What is sure is that these changes–the increased wages and benefits, the workplace equity, the political muscle for policy changes, the support for free trade unions abroad–are unlikely to happen without unions.  They certainly won’t grow out of the efforts of individuals acting separately.

“For what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?”


  1. Jay
    September 3rd, 2008 | 8:07 am

    I come from a long line of Union family. My father, mother, grandfather, aunts and uncles. I am one of the few in the family who stepped aside unionism and became an entrepreneur, a business owner, an Employer. It didn’t mean very much until the late 1970’s when an organizing effort reached our doors. How opposite this was from my upbringing, how many heated discussions this brought with my parents. So we hired a Labor Consultant, he arrived carrying a book ‘Unions and Telephones: …………’. He informed me that it was required reading as is all books by Jack Barbash. Yes, the same Jack Barbash that was my uncle, Lou’s father.

    This whole thing had become very ironic and a bit surreal.

    Many months, a strike, numerous visits to the NLRB (formerly located in the WTC) passed. We became a union shop, but not a closed shop. We worked this way until the Union lost interest and left, leaving their members high and dry. As Lou writes “a strong labor movement would provide a counterweight to unchecked corporate discretion.”, there is a question that begs it self to be asked: “what would provide a counterweight to unchecked Union discretion.”

  2. November 5th, 2008 | 6:49 pm

    good article

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