Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Bleak Prognostication

David Lazarus had some interesting thoughts on the current state of unions and their probably future. Interesting, yes. Depressing, very.

American Airlines has spent the week trying to persuade a bankruptcy judge to allow it to chuck all its labor contracts and put the squeeze on thousands of union employees.

If things go as expected — that is, a victory for management and not for rank-and-file workers — it will be the latest blow to organized labor and yet another indication that, in the workplace of the future, most of us will be fending for ourselves. ...

"It's not the unions' fault we're in bankruptcy," [AMR lawyer, Jack Gallagher] acknowledged. "But it's not about whose fault it is. It's about the facts of our business."

You could say the demise of organized labor is about the facts of all businesses, as well as a changed political climate that, since the Reagan administration in the 1980s, has emboldened employers in standing up to unions.
[Emphasis added]

I would have placed the onset of the decline a little earlier than Reagan, but his move on the Air Traffic Controllers Union was certainly an important line of demarcation in this country's labor movement.

As Lazarus points out, to some extent unions themselves share in the blame: they became complacent, lazy, and in some cases corrupt. They stopped organizing and started lobbying for power, both with Congress and within the ranks. Also, employers began wising up and extending some benefits to their workers (health care) before the unions could get a toe hold. Why pay union dues if the bosses were going to give most of what you wanted anyway? And then, of course, the economy went into the toilet so that right now most employed workers are more concerned with just keeping a paycheck coming in than in decent pay and working conditions.

With all this, Lazarus opines that unions, both public and private sector, will be gone within a generation. I'm not quite that pessimistic, but I can see his point. As part of his conclusion, Lazarus quotes one of the godfathers of the union movement:

"What can labor do for itself?" union leader Eugene V. Debs asked more than a half-century ago. "The answer is not difficult. Labor can organize, it can unify; it can consolidate its forces. This done, it can demand and command."

Yes, but it will take more than twitter and social media flash mobs. It will take the hard work of educating and organizing and mobilizing. Given the state of workers, whether employed, unemployed, and under-employed, there's no time like the present to restart the movement.

May it be so.

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Blogger PurpleGirl said...

From my observations of union members, the one that is needed is to change the mindset of members. They need to stop thinking that they are in the middle class. They are workers with middle incomes. And relearn the lesson that management is not their friend.

(My father was a member of NYC's Local 3, IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers). And too many of the IBEW members began to see themselves as more than working class.

6:08 AM  
Blogger Diane said...

Purple Girl, that is one of the most astute and incisive comments I've ever seen, here or elsewhere.

You've nailed it.

10:16 AM  

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