Are Unions Regaining Power?


In this morning’s Sunday Boston Globe I read an article which speaks of a recall vote in Wisconsin that seeks to oust Republican Governor Scott Walker because of his role in ending collective bargaining in the state.  The move is being headed up by a union that represented George Pacific paper employees in the state.  Most telling is the comment made by billion dollar industrialist David H. Koch who said, “If the unions win the recall, there will be no stopping union power.” (“Wis. recall effort highlight unions’ election-year push,” Globe, April 29, 2012, p. A10)

Yesterday I attended a conference that celebrated the 100th anniversary of what is call the
“Bread and Roses Strike” of 1912 in Lawrence Massachusetts.  The strike pitted 33,500 mostly non-union textile operatives against the well-monied industrialists and mill owners of the city.  The irony of the situation is the owners then, in the form of William M. Wood, owner of the very large American Woolen Company, expressed the very same sentiment that Koch recently expressed.  It leads me to believe that American industrialists have believed, and probably rightly so, that they have had the upper hand with regard to unions in the corporations.

Last year the Wisconsin legislature outlawed the use of collective bargaining for its unionized public employees.  The idea of collective bargaining started with the Lawrence strike in 1912 when the textile workers refused to make deals on a mill-by-mill basis.  They adamantly stood behind the idea of one deal for all, the collective if you will.  Although strikes were not unusual in the day, they were always settled without any collective bargaining, and in over 75% of the cases, that meant in favor of management.  Even more, industrialists of the era counted on support from the governmental bodies in the cities and states where they existed.  The always got that support.

Between 1950 and about 1975 unions did themselves a huge disservice.  At the time they were at the peak of their power and wielded it with perceived impunity.  The ability of a company to manage its finances had frequently been co-opted by overzealous unions that felt they could win almost any strike they started.  For example, in 1961 a strike by union employees against the Rutland Railroad, a small Vermont railroad, came with a warning from railroad management that a strike would mean the end of the railroad.  The union decided not to believe that and struck anyway.  Within weeks of the strike the railroad closed down forever.  Other industries, steel, auto, textile, who were beginning to see foreign competition also suffered from long strikes and unreasonable solutions.  To be fair, much of American industry had failed to properly retool in the post-WWII era and suffered from the more advanced German and Japanese manufacturing techniques.  But unions of the AFL-CIO, were corrupt and far too powerful.

In the 1980s Ronald Reagan and the Republicans led an anti-union charge that gutted the power of all American unions.  Courts no longer sided with union-busting techniques used by the federal and local governments, most notably was the Air Traffic Controller’s union.  Although the union had the right to strike, Reagan successfully broke the union by having all employees fired, absolutely against the law, but with a public who feared for its safety, a popular move.  Most controllers were rehired but were no longer represented by a union.  Reagan then extended that to include all federal employees who a still unionized, National Association of Government Employees, but who are not allowed to strike even though there are no public safety issues at stake.

But the pendulum of power swung decidedly in favor of today’s corporate management.  The last major strike of any consequence was against Verizon.  Verizon’s response was simply to take all non-union employees and require them to work in the jobs that had been held by union employees.  This quite literally meant that a person who had been a computer database manager could be required to climb a telephone pole to work a wire.  Unsafe, to be sure, but legal.  The public outcry was minimal, and the strike went largely unnoticed.

In the case of Wisconsin, stripping public employees of their right to collective bargaining was simply a way the reduce the power of the union representing them.  For example, a single union may represent the police, firefighters, and building inspectors of a single city.  If the state is trying to double the amount these employees must pay for their insurance, that one union can speak out for those employees collectively rather than the particular local that represents the police having to bargain for their people, the local for the firefighters doing the same, and the building inspectors.  Rather than have three separately locals fighting for the same thing, the overseeing union does it collectively.  That is no longer possible in Wisconsin.  Remember, most public employees do not or cannot strike, police and fire have been banned from strikes for as much as 100 years.  This begs the question, what do state official fear if a strike is unlikely or impossible?

And that takes us back to David Koch and his statement.  Those who head corporate America have enjoyed a prolonged period of employment peace and power.  More often than not, when union contracts have come up for renewal, they have won concessions from the unions.  Union membership feared, rightfully so, that a new contract could lead to layoffs if the perception was they had gotten too much or had not made certain concessions.  But what corporate leadership could not do in 1912, any more than they can do it today, is hide their profits from the general public.  Large American corporations are making huge sums of money, lavishing the board of directors with exorbitant salaries and bonuses, and returning healthy dividends to their stockholders.  The perception, right or wrong, is that this is being done on the backs of workers and to their detriment.

Corportate greed is giving power to the unions once again. And it is being done in exactly the same fashion as happened 100 years ago.  In 1912 there were absolutely no strong unions in America but that changed over the following 10 yeras.  Today’s unions certainly do not have the power they once held but because of actions like those in Wisconsin, they are regaining some of their power and, more importantly, are being seen in a much more favorable light by the general public.

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