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The Decline of Unions

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Not a good day for a labor person.

Labor Department figures released today showed that 11.3% of the American workforce belongs to a labor union.
That is the lowest number since 1936. To put that in context, the National Labor Relations Act was upheld by the Supreme Court and the Congress of Industrial Organizations split from the American Federation of Labor in 1937. This is down from 11.8% in 2011. The sudden drop was two-fold. Continued losses in public sector work was one piece. Bigger was the Wisconsin and Indiana right-to-work laws, which led to major membership declines in union membership in those states. No doubt, the Michigan law (and potentially Pennsylvania) will lead to even lower numbers next year. Business has reversed the entire union gains of the New Deal. And of course their goal is to also reverse the policy changes and social programs labor helped create.

What kind of plans do AFL-CIO leaders have to turn around the labor movement? Not much. And what they have are bad. Take for instance the legendary union puppet Scabby the Rat.

You see Scabby at big labor rallies. It’s a fun way to get the message across. But some in labor don’t like it. Take Sean McGarvey, president of the powerful Building and Construction Trades Department. Today McGarvey tweeted this:

Meeting with our Presidents and state councils. Issued a call to retire the inflatable rat. It does not reflect our new value proposition.

Wow. A few big issues here. First, what the deuce is a “value proposition?” One thing it certainly is: corporate doublespeak. Does McGarvey also support leveraging some holistic change? Engineering some maximum synergies? What on earth is McGarvey doing parroting corporate language? How is that going to motivate people to join unions? Of course it won’t. But it’s also McGarvey’s big strategy, according to Mike Elk :

The AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department did not respond to a request for elaboration. However, McGarvey and many other construction union leaders favor taking a “business-friendly” approach rather than adversarial approach to relationships with management. The council states on its website, “We will prove to contractors and owners that a partnership with North America’s Building Trades Unions is the best investment they will ever make.” Construction union leaders often publicly stress the value that their unions bring to companies, pointing to the fact that union projects are more likely completed on time without cost overruns.

In this context, abandoning Scabby the Rat appears to some union members like a call by such leaders to work out deals with management nicely, quietly and behind-the-scenes, instead of confrontationally, such as by placing giant 16 foot inflatable rats outside of corporate offices.

For rank-and-file dissident construction workers such as Gregory Butler, retiring “Scabby the Rat” symbolizes a turn back to the labor-management cooperation models that often left rank-and-file union members like him behind.

Ugh. Double ugh.

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  • Domino

    “However, McGarvey and many other construction union leaders favor taking a “business-friendly” approach rather than adversarial approach to relationships with management. ”

    Highers ups at a labor union actually think this way?

    • Oh god yes. It’s been a problem for decades.

      • Linnaeus

        Yet labor and its leaders are routinely criticized for being too intransigent. Funny, that.

        • I seem to recall the UMWA getting criticized for being a little too buddy-buddy with Don Blankenship last year or so. I might have the wrong union. Or the wrong feudal baron mining exec.

          In all seriousness, I almost think the two things go together. By continually hammering labor, you eventually cause public opinion to turn against them. Labor eventually does the only thing it can do against that much investment – try to be conciliatory – and then, just to keep them scared, you hammer them again anyway.

    • Bruce Vail

      Indeed they do. This is particularly true in the 24 “right-to-work” states where there is little legal basis for enforcing union rights. Unions in those states must rely on cooperation with employers to remain in operation at all.

    • JoyfulA

      Haven’t Building & Construction Workers been sort of Republican-leaning? I remember their AFL-CIO election yard signs with the Democratic Senate candidate’s name crossed out and “Arlen Spector” added.

  • Johnny Sack

    Depressing news about America always reminds me of what George Carlin said: When you’re born, you get a ticket to the freak show. When you’re born in America, you get a front row seat.

  • So, how is it that unions are destroying the economy if nobody belongs to one? That’s a pretty good trick.

    • Shut up, that’s why.

    • JKTHs

      Union adversaries will always fucking say it. So fuck them.

    • ajay

      So, how is it that unions are destroying the economy if nobody belongs to one?

      They are in league with ACORN.

  • DrDick

    And “business friendly” approaches have worked so well for labor over the past 30 years. Maybe this guy is angling for a seat on a few corporate boards, because he sure as hell is not looking out for the interests of his members.

  • CashandCable

    So I know this blog plugged Jane McAlevey’s labor organizing memoir “Raising Expectations” a while back, but I just wanted to say that book is fucking awesome. McAlevey spends a considerable amount of time talking about how higher-ups at the SEIU undermined local unions by rolling over and playing nice, while she was out there sticking it to the hospital operators. When she had an opportunity, McAlevey would work cordially with management (she has nice things to say about an executive at Catholic Healthcare West) but she understood the obvious – you can only have success by making nice after you’ve proved you’re a force to be reckoned with.

    • Something about talk softly and carry a big stick I imagine.

  • John

    Is there really thought that a right-to-work bill will pass in Pennsylvania? Corbett isn’t pushing it at all, and there’s still a lot of pro-labor Republicans in the legislature. The last time I read up on it, the general sense was that kind of thing was still DOA here. But if they can do it in Michigan, who knows?

  • The half life on post-inaugural glow is about 2 days – back to reality on unions and our dear leaders.

    “Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell are closing in on a dramatically scaled-back deal to reform the filibuster.”

  • Here’s some great data from Matt Bruenig on strike participation rates going back to 1976:

    Consider this: the month with the highest percentage of workers out on strike in the last 20 years was, as mentioned above, August of 1997. The average month between 1976 and 1979 had a higher percentage of workers out on strike than August of 1997. To repeat: the average month from 1976 to 1979 had more striking workers than the largest month of striking in the last 20 years.

    Just in case anyone thinks “too adversarial” is in the same universe as actual problems the labor movement has.

    • Jameson Quinn

      Well, it’s somewhere along the same dimension at least. So if by “universe” you mean “vector space” then yes it is. Opposite things are from the same universe.

      • Well, we had the absolute value of the problem correct. That’s gotta count for something.

    • There are a lot of different ways to be adversarial. A couple months ago, the carpenters union filed a grievance against one of my co-workers.

      It was after hours and water was coming in from the roof and dripping on a rack of high voltage equipment. My co-worker hung some plastic sheeting to protect the equipment and redirect the water into a bucket.

      Even though we called in a union guy to do work and even though he got his four hours emergency call in overtime, he still filed a grievance because…why the fuck not? Free money.

      • Linnaeus

        There are a lot of different ways to be adversarial.

        True, although in my experience “adversarial” tends to mean “the fact that your union exists is wrong and I’d really rather not collectively bargain with you.”

  • commie atheist

    First they came for Scabby the Rat, and I said nothing…

  • robotswillstealyourjobs

    Those who make peaceful change impossible, make violent revolution inevitable. – JFK

    • robotswillstealyourjobs

      Gah, wrong thread.

      • rea

        Works here too, though.

  • Anonymous

    Erik asked what the deuce a value proposition was, and then dismissively answered himself that it was corporate doublespeak.

    Well, if you already know it means nothing, nobody can tell you different, I guess.

    A value proposition is a statement of what affirmatively you’re about. Why should I hire you? Because x. It’s fancy language, suitable for a grown-up, but what it means- the heart of any sales pitch or marketing effort or any (positive) lobbying campaign is the opposite of doublespeak.

    A giant inflatable rat is in fact a very loud communication which has little to do with a positive, desirable, or attractive message or offer. Nobody wants to buy that. It’s pure stick, no carrot.

    Unless you think it’s cute.

    • NonyNony

      Why would you say “value proposition” when you could just say “what we stand for” or “who we are” or any number of other things that aren’t MBA doublespeak code?

      “It does not reflect our new vision for how the union should operate” is a much more informative and readable bit of English than “it does not reflect our new value proposition” is. Unless you’re an MBA immersed in corporate jargon, I suppose.

      Of course saying “it does not reflect our new vision for how the union should operate”, being clear and readable English, is also likely to make people realize that you’re selling them out. Which is why corporate doublespeak jargon exists in the first place (though you’re supposed to use it to dazzle your shareholders with bullshit as you pillage their company via bonuses and huge raises as you drive their company into bankruptcy – I’m not sure it works so well on the kinds of folks who work for a living and have learned how to cut through bullshit quickly when crap affects them directly).

      • Andrew

        First, every field has jargon. Second, “value proposition” can be very easily parsed. It is the value that you propose to give me in exchange for whatever you are offering. If I accept your proposal (to join the union), I get the value (whatever Scabby the Rat is offering … intimidation, I guess?).

        • Cody

          I’ll let someone else handle your second point, I just want to address the first…

          Every field has jargon. Indeed. So why is the LABOR MOVEMENT using the jargon for the CAPITAL. Isn’t this counter-productive? There is only one reason – because you’re one of them. The Union leaders are officially business people. This is the whole problem with the current Union – in my humble opinion. The Union IS NOT A BUSINESS. It’s an organization of labor to counter-act the inherent organization of business. If you’re running a Union to turn a profit, you’re not in it for the right reason.

          It’s kind of like having a McDonalds in your country. You know you’re turning to capitalism once you’ve let this devil in your door.

          • Mike Hess

            The only “right” reason to organize a union is to promote the interests of your membership, whether that means focusing on wages, benefits, or working conditions.

            If you’re running a union to smash capitalism, you’re in it for the wrong reason

            • bradP

              The only “right” reason to organize a union is to promote the interests of your membership, whether that means focusing on wages, benefits, or working conditions.

              Nitpicking you again, but unions are useful for creating an atmosphere where management should expect ramifications for mistreating and disrespecting labor.

              • Linnaeus

                Yes. That’s related to the point I make in my comment downthread about workplace democracy.

                • bradP

                  Yes, I would clarify on your point that the atmosphere is not restricted to the relationship between one employer and one union. Just the expectation of worker antagonism is instrumental in creating respectful norms society wide.

                • Linnaeus

                  Just the expectation of worker antagonism is instrumental in creating respectful norms society wide.

                  Yes. The term for this that I’ve heard is the “threat effect”.

        • Josh G.

          The question is whether the jargon actually serves a useful purpose, or if it’s just a smokescreen to make mundane concepts sound fancier than they really are.

          This Slashdot post offers a great example of the contrast between useful jargon and snake oil.

    • DrDick

      Do you even understand the concept of monopsony? Are you even remotely familiar with modern (from the 18th century on) labor history? Carrots do not work and playing nice will only get you kicked in the teeth by capital.

      • Mike Hess

        Unless you’re talking about a public employee union or some rare situation with a legal cartel like the NFL, employers really don’t have much monopsony power.

        In the absence of monopsony, unions can create social value only by improving the productivity of the workers they represent.

        • Linnaeus

          In the absence of monopsony, unions can create social value only by improving the productivity of the workers they represent.

          It’s more than that. They create social value by (ideally) introducing a measure of democracy in the workplace and hence giving workers more power there, so they’re not dependent on the whims of the employer. A worker may be more productive in that environment, but I’d argue that a more democratic workplace is a good in of itself.

        • bradP

          Unless you’re talking about a public employee union or some rare situation with a legal cartel like the NFL, employers really don’t have much monopsony power.

          In the absence of monopsony, unions can create social value only by improving the productivity of the workers they represent.

          Perhaps you are right if you paint monopsony as black an white, but I don’t think you can deny that, in modern corporate America, that capital owners, employers, and management have decided advantages of negotiation over many individual workers.

        • bradP

          In the absence of monopsony, unions can create social value only by improving the productivity of the workers they represent.

          And I also bet that I have no use for your concept of “social value”.

        • DrDick

          employers really don’t have much monopsony power

          You really want to go there? Given small numbers of employers large numbers of workers, as well as the ability of employers to destroy unions and drive down wages, I want some of what you are smoking.

          • Mike Hess

            The relative numbers of employers to employees isn’t really relevant to the idea of monopsony. What’s relevant is the number of employers in general. There are a few markets where there really is a monopsonist and the bilateral monopoly model is welfare enhancing, but not most.

    • bradP

      1. I think Erik may be a little flippant in dismissing corporate-like speech. There are reasons that they are used.

      2. The problem, however, is that they seem to be proferring this “value proposition” to corporate employers, instead of workers. The value of unions should be collective defense and antagonism on behalf of workers, not convenience for employers. But that whole, convenience for employers angle has getting worse since the mid 30s.

    • spencer

      It’s fancy language, suitable for a grown-up

      No, it’s suitable for someone who wants to sound more erudite and intelligent than they think they actually are.

      In other words, it’s for insecure assholes. Speak directly and clearly. Don’t use words meant to obfuscate. People who do that don’t believe in the power or value of whatever it is they want to say.

  • Sorry if I’ve told this story before.

    I was “deadheading” out to LAX a while back and the guy sitting next to me claimed to be a high end realtor from LA.

    I was in uniform and had my ALPA lanyard with my ID around my neck.

    This guy started into a long rant about unions and how they sap productivity and innovation.

    I mentioned that ALPA had pushed for many of the safety rules that have contributed to airline safety over the years.

    He just kept on going.

    I tried pointing how in my business unions and seniority based systems were pretty much a necessity but he kept going on.

    I’d finally had enough and said:

    “Sir, it’s not about innovation. It’s about me not planting 200,000 pounds of screaming metal and jet fuel in your back yard some night because I’m too damn tired to do my job.”

  • bradP

    Is Scabby the Rat a shot at management or a shot at replacement workers?

    • Mike Hess

      The latter. And given the negative publicity around replacement workers being attacked at construction sites in philidelphia, I can understand the union’s decision to stop using a dehumanizing characture to portray other workers.

      • bradP

        To me, it does seem a little callous in a time of high unemployment.

    • Hogan

      The notion of “replacement workers” doesn’t really apply to construction. If you’re building non-union, you’re starting with non-union labor; there’s no one to replace.

      My sense is that the rat was usually deployed at events targeting employers, not on construction job sites, in situations that didn’t involve replacement workers. But that’s just a sense.

    • jefft452

      “…or a shot at replacement workers”

      Is “replacement workers” MBA speak for “scabs”?

      • anon

        I don’t know, is “scab” union speak for “unemployed”?

  • MIS

    Loomis should be on the phone with that guy trying to secure
    Scabby for the LGM home office. You owe your readers a giant inflatable mascot.

  • Linnaeus

    Here’s a take by Kris Warner of the Center for Economic and Policy Research regarding union decline in the U.S.; shorter version: labor law and public policy inhibit formation of unions, which is made evident when we compare the U.S. to Canada.

  • Anonymous

    Speaking as a union member with some experience both on a picket line and in communications…

    What is the communications goal of “Scabby the Rat”? Who is “Scabby the Rat” supposed to appeal to?

    It strikes me the purpose of Scabby – like a lot of union messaging – is to make current union members feel good about themselves, rather than at non-union members you would like to turn in to union members.

    Is Scabby supposed to deter non-union workers from crossing the picket line? And the workers who cross picket lines – the scabs – aren’t the enemy. They’e usually just poor desperate schmucks. It’s the employer who uses scabs. You want to turn the former into union members. I don’t think calling them rats is convincing.

    • One can certainly argue the efficacy of the rat. But it’s the corporate style union leadership that’s the greater problem.

      • JKTHs

        Indeed. Retiring the rat because you don’t think it serves your purposes is OK. Retiring the rat because you want to play nice and be “business-friendly” and use meaningless MBA terms is not.

    • Linnaeus

      That’s a fair point to make. It’s a difficult balance for a union to strike (no pun intended) when it is on, uh, strike. I agree that on one hand, you want the scabs eventually to be union members, but at the same time, you want to maintain solidarity to keep the strike going enough that the employer’s strategy of using scabs fails. Otherwise, those workers don’t become union members. And, as I’m sure you know, it’s a lot of work to get workers on the line and have them stay there.

      I’m not saying Scabby is the best use of visual rhetoric (ah ha!), but I understand why it’s there.

    • wengler

      I remember passing Scabby every day in front of a hotel in an office park in the O’Hare area of Chicago.

      It told me that a) nobody is powerful enough to remove it and therefore b) don’t fuck with the union. It was a powerful symbol. I love that rat.

    • jefft452

      “… is to make current union members feel good about themselves, rather than at non-union members you would like to turn in to union members.”

      I disagree, who would want to join an organization that doesn’t want to make it’s current members feel good about themselves

  • Anonymous

    I see two things at work behind the shrinkage.

    The biggest’s that we need it less because it’s really only worth it for the underpaid and exploited, and those with complex issues like factories and schools. And our pay and labor conditions are generally getting better, except in crises like today’s, bwahaha..

    The second is a second Gilded Era at work undoing gains places like Wisconsin and Michigan. That’s why they’re down despite the bad pay and conditions too common today.

    • DrDick

      And our pay and labor conditions are generally getting better,

      Not for the last 35 years, as wages have remained stagnant or declined and work has become far more contingent, with fewer benefits.

  • Pingback: The Real Reason for the Decline of American Unions | digger666()

  • Johnni

    Ummmm… while Act 10 certainly hampered public sector unions in Wisconsin, last I had heard we hadn’t yet gone right-to-work. And, living six blocks from the capitol and working on State St. I’m sure I would’ve have noticed the protestors had it happened.

  • lurker

    Am I the only commenter noticing that the resident libertarian is arguing for unions and against management? I apparently need either more or less beer. hmm. I vote more.

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