Monday, September 3, 2012

The Cause of the Collapse of American Labor Unions

Whatever happened to Unions?


I've never been a great one for unions, not because I'm opposed to the principle of "In Union There Is Strength," far from it. Too often what I've seen both inside and outside of American unions is a kind of leadership pragmatism that ultimately doesn't serve the interests of workers. It primarily serves the interests of the union leadership. It's that simple.

This problem goes back almost to the origination of labor unions, and we can easily see parallels in the political system. Of course. Those in charge are going to make sure their own nests are feathered first and foremost; everyone else can either wait their turn, or recognize they're going to get little or nothing in the end anyway.

Just like certain Democratic presidents, labor union leaders too often concede the contest before it is even engaged; they dismiss the needs and interests of the rank and file as either "impractical" or "inappropriate." They seem to negotiate on behalf of owners and management, and every time they do, more concessions are demanded from them. A Take It or Leave It contract is then presented to the membership, with the statement from leadership that "this is the best we could do and the best you're going to get, take it or leave it," and nine times out of ten, the members go along because they don't see any viable alternative. "National" has already said they think the contract is a good (enough) one and they won't sanction a strike. And so it goes.

This has been going on it seems like forever. Understandably, workers don't see any point in unions that refuse to lift a finger on behalf of workers. Instead, they are always working out more concessions with management.

That's not what a union is supposed to be for.

So workers abandon unions as useless impediments -- which they often are, though not always.

And always, union leadership doesn't "understand." Those who are invested in unions blame the workers -- always -- for "voting against their own interests" by voting with their feet. Retaliation against recalcitrant workers -- by the unions -- is not uncommon.

It's the same sort of thing that happens with politicians and those who are invested in the political system. They always find ways to blame the electorate for their insufficient enthusiasm when politicians refuse to serve the interests of the People.

They resist any notion that they should actually do what the people want, actually represent the public interest, and actually fulfill their part of the bargain they made with the People when they were put in office.

Unions and politicians have a tendency to "blame it on Reagan," and while Reagan isn't blameless, the fact of the matter is that union leadership isn't blameless either. They conceded when they shouldn't have; they sometimes fought when they shouldn't have. But worse than that, they became complacent and they were far too easily bought off by the Big Money Interests. It was so commonplace to see union leadership in the back pockets of management and owners that workers threw up their hands in despair. With nowhere else to turn, the workers abandoned unions in droves.

Much the same has happened with the political system. It's easy enough to see that politicians of both parties serve their personal and their party's financial interests first, the People often not at all.

The People tend not to like that, surprisingly enough.

It's probably not possible to reform and revive the union movement in this country. It's similar to the problem with the political system. They don't serve the People, and it may be due to Original Sin; something was not right at the outset, and so that flaw carries on throughout the life of the institution -- and ultimately causes its demise.

A very different model is required, and more than likely the model will derive from the collective and cooperative worker-owned and operated enterprises that have long been common abroad and are not unknown in this country. Part of the point, of course, is to integrate workers.

Rebuilding on that model and building a better future through its utilization will take a great deal of time and patience, but I see encouraging signs that it is happening right now, so I am hopeful that this approach to "labor" will become commonplace, indeed, the expected norm.

The current situation is unsustainable.


  1. Back during the Cold War, there was a great purge of truly radical union members. That meant a purge of the most committed, passionate members, probably the best educated with the best ideas. The remaining members were people who believed capitalism could work for the working man (and woman, though let's face it the less radical members probably didn't care as much about them).

    This hasn't worked out. Once Communism was no longer a threat, the bosses saw no need for unions, even patriotic pro-capitalist ones.

  2. Some interesting alternatives can be found here:

    Did you get a chance to read Eric Cantor's Labor Day tweet?

    -- "Today, we celebrate those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built a business and earned their own success."

    To me, this pretty much says it all. In America, we celebrate Labor Day by continuing the deification of business owners.

    Seriously, growing up, I never, ever would have guessed that capitalists would become so popular, and that's without considering economic crises they cause. This has become a truly warped, clueless nation.

  3. I have been getting more and more furious at the blatancy of the the anti-labor bullshit spewing forth today from all over the place, including Cantor's little snark and numerous editorial opinions.

    I'm particularly incensed by the references to the Pullman Strike of 1894, with an emphasis on the "riots" back then, when in fact, troops were shooting strikers down in the streets -- some of those streets within a couple of miles of where I am typing right now.

    "To rebound... unions today... need to do some soul searching.

    Start by reining in excesses. End the hysteria about raising the retirement age to reflect actual working years and life expectancy -- or asking workers to contribute to their retirement. That is not anti-worker," so sez my flagship McClatchy newspaper today.

    Right. The retirement age should have been lowered, not raised, decades ago, and the life expectancy of typical workers at age 60 today is nearly the same as it was 60, 70, and 80 years ago. Life expectancy at age 60 for executives and capitalists, however, has increased almost 15 years. They are the ones who live longer, not ordinary workers.

    Private sector workers mostly don't have pensions any more, and if they have retirement savings, those savings have -- in many cases -- disappeared during the recent unpleasantness, never to return. A friend of mine in fact lost everything she had in her retirement account -- a substantial sum -- and once it was gone, that was it, there was no way to get it back. Public sector workers get pensions, but almost all public workers contribute to their pension funds directly through payroll withholding and indirectly through lower wages during their working years, wages that were negotiated in order to enable governments to fund pensions. Oh, now they don't want to fund pensions; they want workers to take (another) pay cut and to fund their own damn pensions, through hybrid plans like 401(k)s.

    It's a rip off. And everyone should know it.

    The paper also wants unions to stand behind free trade agreements so that "we either raise standard together [globally] or face a race to the bottom."

    The race to the bottom is already under way -- that's the whole point of the policies which have forced so many millions of Americans into poverty, and have forced substantial wage and benefit cuts on workers.

    Incomes for ordinary Americans have been on a sharp decline for years. Middle class "wealth" -- such as it ever was -- has been cut in half. The whole idea that workers must sacrifice more in order to "rebound" is insane. But that's what is being promoted this Labor Day.

    It's disreputable and disgusting.

  4. Recently watched a doc on Howard Zinn. Well done. Thought provoking, etc.

    He reminded me of the obvious. Our school text books never mention labor struggles. They don't include them in our histories. In effect, this gives people the impression that we haven't had any, and that people are crazy to even question the glorious wisdom of the "job creators."

    Since, nothing bad has ever happened in America for workers -- our text books tell us so -- why get all hot and bothered about it?

    In a round about way, and sometimes directly, this makes it easy to demonize movements like Occupy, and people like Zinn and Piven and even Michael Moore. It's beyond DFHs. It's like we're subhumans.

    Basically, we have two wings of the same anti-labor party. The Dems tolerate DFHs and our kin. The GOP viciously attacks us.

    Our schools set the table. And with so many text books coming out of Texas these days, and so many billionaire Randians buying university chairs, I don't think the future looks hopeful on the "enlightenment" front.

    Man, I need a drink.

  5. Dear Che and Cuchulain,

    I haven't left a comment in a long time, although I am reading your articles every day, Che. I guess I am running out of steam. I hope you guys are both well.

    The following is sort of related to your current post, Che, and going ignored pretty much everywhere, although I suspect it is The Plan for America and Europe. This wsws article discusses the "Special Economic Zones" being proposed in Greece. A corporate free-for-all with the workers eating dirt, is pretty much it.

    The way these financial guys have managed to convince the entire world (except Iceland - and good for them!) that the solution to all our problems is to give everything in the world to them is truly astonishing. I read that Congress is signifying their willingness to backstop/guarantee/bailout the derivatives markets. Which are now valued 1.2 quadrillion dollars. Not that any of that is actual, real, tangible product, but if you're going to grift, grift big.

    Best to you both,

  6. Yes, Gar Alperovitz seems to be one of the few who actually gets it and has a more or less comprehensive vision of what to do about it. His ideas have become more and more influential as the cruelty of the present system is seen in all its excesses.

    The absence of Labor History in our schools is of course quite conscious. The point of public education is to induce conformity and submission, not give students "ideas." Labor history is possible to find, and International Publishers maintains an excellent library, but most people are never going to see it.

    With no knowledge of that history, it's hardly surprising people don't quite know what to do now and what can be done to change things. I am constantly struck by the hopelessness of so many of the young. Thank goodness it is countered by many others, though. And the educational activities of so many of the Occupy groups have been one of their most substantial and popular efforts. People want to know.

    It is so strange, teri, that these casino chips -- the derivatives -- have become the actual currency of the highest and the mightiest, even though there is nothing "actual" behind any of it. That governments are so eager to go along is just insane.

    Nice to "see" you again, too!