Why We Need to Revitalize the Union Movement

News at Home

Mr. Honey is Fred and Dorothy Haley Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington, Tacoma, and President of LAWCHA. He can be reached at mhoney@u.washington.edu.

Sixty years ago, in the wake of Nazi genocide and World War Two’s unspeakable atrocities, Eleanor Roosevelt crafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This historic document, adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948, declared that rights adhered to all persons, no matter their place of birth, race, gender, or religion. 

The declaration codified rights Americans considered the birthright of all persons: freedom of speech, assembly, association, belief and worship; freedom from torture or cruel and degrading punishment; rights to be brought before a court of law, protected by due process. The Universal Declaration also declared economic and social rights: meaningful work at decent pay and conditions, no indentured servitude or slavery, and economic security. Article 24 explicitly supports “the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” 

One could not help but notice that our own government has violated or ignored most of these articles during the last eight years.

At home and around the world, people are expressing fervent hopes that the Obama Administration will renew American support for human rights and put the Universal Declaration’s principles into practice. Article 24 will come into play immediately in the next Congress in the form of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). The Obama Administration may or may not push for this, because it will stir a hornet’s nest of business and Republican opposition.

The legislation is desperately needed, however. Re-establishing labor’s rights to organize relates directly to the fix we are currently in. Lack of transparency, flouting the rule of law, attacking unions, extreme free market ideology – all contributed to our current economic train wreck. We need to re-establish a robust culture of human rights and labor rights to undo the wreckage of the Bush years.

Human rights advocates have long decried the collapse of labor protections in the U.S. The National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act of 1935 supposedly guaranteed workers the right to organize without interference, but over the last thirty years employer practices and lack of government enforcement have made the law toothless. Workers who try to organize are often fired or otherwise intimidated. Employers mostly get away with it.

Prior to the Wagner act, many Americans lived in fear because they lacked basic citizenship rights at work. Polls show that millions of Americans would join a union today except they are afraid to do so. Whereas thirty-five percent of American workers once belonged to unions, now only twelve percent do. This will not change until the law once again protects worker rights.

So, what would EFCA do? It would allow workers to organize a union when fifty percent or more sign a union authorization card, as the Wagner Act originally provided (court decisions whittled this right away). EFCA also empowers the National Labor Relations Board to require employers to bargain in good faith and would ratchet up the penalties for employers that interfere with freedom on the job. But this is not a free ride for unions. If thirty percent or more sign a petition to decertify the union, the NLRB holds an election, and if fifty percent go against the union, it is gone.

Congress should pass EFCA because workers rights are a fundamental building block for democracy. The lack of an organized, informed movement to counter the greed and power of big money has impoverished our politics and our democracy. As unions have declined, a vacuum has been created and filled by the organized right and evangelical Christianity, and the range of ideas allowed has shrunk in many quarters. Workers need unions, but American democracy needs them too.

The second reason to pass EFCA is economic. Business economists often claim unions impede economic growth, but historians concur that reality is quite the opposite: union wages make workers into consumers and homeowners. Detroit’s autoworkers compared themselves to slaves before they organized the United Auto Workers, which in turn helped to create equal rights laws, health care, pensions and family-waged jobs.

It is not the fault of auto unionists that the US never adopted national health care or pension systems comparable to other countries, or that America’s financial titans ruined the New Deal’s regulatory controls. Legacy costs are killing U.S. auto companies, but they could reduce labor costs by almost half if we had a national health care system.

Absent unions, soaring worker productivity in the last twenty years has not been matched by increased wages, while CEO profits have shot through the stratosphere. Unionization would increase wages and be a far cheaper way to increase consumption than economic bail-outs.

Sixty years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, citizenship rights on the job remain one key to expanding other democratic rights. In the past, union organizing provided a key mechanism for American workers to right the ship of American capitalism. Strengthening labor rights can help do it again.

Historians are petitioning Congress with this simple sentence: “We, the undersigned historians, support the Employee Free Choice Act.” If you would like to join us, email your name and institution, for identification purposes only, to Joseph Eugene Hower (jeh67@georgetown.edu). For more information, see the Labor and Working-Class History website (LAWCHA.com).

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Robert Lee Gaston - 12/18/2008

Not lazy, but otherwise occupied. Most kids who have part time and summer jobs go into the service sector at near slave wages. It’s too bad.

Many local governments have made it impossible for kids to buy a used pickup and a couple of lawn mowers and start a summer business. That was fairly common when I was a teenager.

These days there are fairly high barriers to starting a teenage enterprise. However, the same cities that will prosecute a kid for mowing lawns or painting a house (It really happens) will look away when properly licensed firms hire illegal help.

When I was a kid (from age 14 until 21), I ran what were, in effect small businesses. I maintained lawns, sheeted roofs and refinished hardwood floors. It taught me how to make a payroll, how to manage people, how labor/capital mixes impact bottom lines and how to provide a value added service to customers. The experience taught me how to be successful.

We generally do not allow young people to do those kinds of things these days. I hate to say it, but about the only real examples of teenage enterprise are kids dealing drugs. If that energy and savvy could be harnessed and redirected we would not have to wonder where our next generation of business leaders is coming from. I have always lived by the rule that when it’s big enough to need an MBA, it’s big enough to sell. MBA’s are not generally business leaders.

As to foreign labor, I am still amazed that there is still a large enough labor shortage that companies will still risk fines to employ people. It not only farm workers. It also includes frame carpenters, masons, meat cutters, office cleaning crews and grocery clerks. That could bring us back to work rules and absenteeism.

Oscar Chamberlain - 12/17/2008

"the last time you saw a suburban Anglo teenager pushing a lawn mower, or bagging groceries to earn a few bucks?

Where I live the latter remains commonplace. So I think your assumption that white kids don't work so hard is unfounded.

However, young farm workers in my region (northern Wisconsin) have declined, resulting in the use of legal and illegal immigrant workers on dairy farms. That's in part demographics-an aging population--and in part a smaller percentage of young people wanting to go into farming at all. The hard work does have something to do with that choice, but not wanting to take care of cows 365 days of the year does not strike me as proof of laziness.

Robert Lee Gaston - 12/16/2008

Involved in Anti-union campaigns? They are called internships. If you want to product a really anti-union MBA have them work in a union shop while working their way through college.

Outsourcing jobs to low-wage countries? Here we have the IT business. Most of the real high skill outsourcing is for tech/professional jobs that have no history of unionization, and for which there is a crying shortage of onshore. The government limits green cards for even highly skilled individuals, and our education system does not train the people to fill these positions. I know this because I have been part of the hiring process for IT people for years.

Hiring immigrants (legal or illegal) to drive down wages? The DNC keeps telling us these are jobs Americans won't do. When is the last time you saw a suburban Anglo teenager pushing a lawn mower, or bagging groceries to earn a few bucks? If that trend would start again we would see fewer illegal immigrants.

Glenn Rodden - 12/15/2008

Point well taken: real world experience is valuable. But shouldn't all students majoring in management be required to work for a company that is involved in anti-union campaigns, outsourcing jobs to low-wage countries or hiring immigrants (legal or illegal) to drive down wages?

Robert Lee Gaston - 12/15/2008

Has the good professor acutally ever worked in a check off union shop?

You know, one of those places where you can have your tires slashed for working too hard, or one of those places where managers can depend on 20% of their work force being absent on any given day.

He really should give it a try for about a year or so. A change of perspective is in order.

That year should be a requirement for college students majoring in anything with "labor" as a prefix; i.e., labor law, labor relations, labor history et al.