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The State of our Unions

Updated on December 16, 2014

Over fifty years since John F. Kennedy gave public sector unions the right to collectively bargain with public agencies, and well over a century since the first organized labor movements in this country, the struggle between corporate interests and organized employees has changed significantly, but the battle rages on. The 2012 recall election of Scott Walker in Wisconsin and the rise of right-to-work legislation in states across the country refocused public attention on this issue for a time, but as protesters worldwide take to the streets to fight against austerity measures and for union rights, has the U.S. electorate taken it's eye off this most important issue?

Opponents of Walker in Wisconsin collected over one million signatures in support of booting him out of office. Most of this energy came from Wisconsin voters from Unions and residents who support the rights of both public and private sector employees to collectively bargain for pay and benefits. Walker's actions in his first year in office had been seen as an attack on those rights, as he worked to cut spending in the state starting with public employees. However, Walker won the recall election with 53% of the vote, and the issue seemed to fade from headlines with that victory for big business.

Recently in other states, including the home of this writer; Indiana, Republicans have passed laws known as right-to-work, which Republicans say give job seekers the ability to work anywhere without being forced to join a union. However, in practice, Democrats and unions believe these laws serve to lower wages, decrease benefits, and worsen working conditions that employees must endure, because they cause great harm to unions generally. There is plenty of information available on everything that has gone on in the past three years related to these events, but the facet of the discussion that I believe would be most troubling to people like Howard Zinn, an important union historian, is the tone of the discussion, and the way unions are being depicted as just another quasi-corporate entity, often as if they are just a bad idea to begin with. The republican point of view, from my perspective, ignores history and denies the true nature of what the struggle for collective bargaining has been, a civil and human rights struggle.

Of course, I don't deny that major problems exist in modern unions, not the least of which has been corruption in union leadership, widely publicized throughout the not-so-distant past. More recently unions were facing the realities of a changing financial outlook worldwide. Benefits to retired employees and salary and benefit packages to current employees were often seen as excessive in light of new financial difficulties for industries once considered the titans of the American industrial landscape, such as the auto industry and the impending collapse it faced from 2008 to 2010. However, as the Obama administration's bail-out of the auto industry proved successful and the big three automakers Chrysler, Ford, and GM retook their place as profitable car builders, the actions of the United Auto Workers seemed to go unnoticed. As a major player in the negotiations that saved the American car industry, the UAW faced the realities of the economic downturn and agreed to employee pay and benefits packages that made sense and made those companies competitive again. Now that the world economic landscape has changed; materials, rather than labor, make up the largest portion of the cost to make cars, and the United States has a built-in advantage over the rest of the world in cost of raw materials. Therefore, where a decade ago many said high labor costs made it impossible for US companies to compete, currently material costs are making it difficult for the rest of the world to compete with Detroit. Obama, the UAW, and the management of the US automakers saw these realities, came together, and GM surpassed Volkswagen and Toyota to become the worlds biggest automotive company once again.

Winston Churchill said "The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see." The history of the struggle for unions in this country is a story of intimidation, abuse, and murder of union activists at the hands of both corporate and government interests, not unlike other civil rights movements. There are few things that have improved the lot of the average worker as much as the rights that were paid for with the blood of those early labor organizers and demonstrators. Right-to-work laws have only been in effect for a few years now, so it is too early to guess what their ultimate effects might be. With that said, using the U.S. auto industry as a model, one can see that weakening unions is not a necessity for broad restructuring. Republicans pulled the wool over the eyes of the public by naming these laws "right-to-work" when they were fundamentally not about workers rights, but instead handed power back to large business owners by limiting union fund-raising.

It is perfectly legitimate to negotiate new terms during hard times, and unions both in Wisconsin and all over the country have shown a willingness to do that. It is also correct to have oversight and regulations on any institution that wields the kind of power that today's large unions wield. Corrupt union officials should be charged with crimes if they break the law, no doubt about it. But when we pass laws to weaken unions in response to bad behavior by union executives, we are punishing the working person; even though corrupt union officials do more harm to their constituencies than arguably anyone. When Republicans or anyone else questions the rights of people to bargain collectively, or the inherent benefits of workers joining together, knowledgeable people should see those attacks as an endorsement for corporate interests in the faces of regular people, or at the very least complete ignorance about the important history of a significant civil rights movement in the history of our country.

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