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Labor Union Myths

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HandsOffBridges

Moshe Marvit has an op-ed in the Washington Post debunking five myths about labor unions. A couple are particularly notable.

Myth No. 3
Right-to-work laws would bankrupt unions.

For the past year, unions across the country have been terrified by a single word: Friedrichs, referring to Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a Supreme Court case that was all but certain to place public-sector employees in a “right to work” status. That would have meant workers who benefitted from union contracts would not have to pay any union dues. In briefings before the court and in public articles, labor advocates cast the issue in the language of economics, as one of free-ridership: At the Century Foundation, education policy analyst Richard Kahlenberg summarized Friedrichs as a referendum on whether there is a “constitutional right to free ride on public sector unions.”

But right-to-work does not necessarily translate into high levels of covered, “free-riding” workers who don’t pay. For instance, all federal employees, including postal workers, are under right-to-work. In the federal workforce (excluding postal employees), 79 percent of the workers who are covered under a union contract have chosen to join; among postal employees, more than 92 percent covered under a contract have chosen to join. In a brief submitted in the Friedrichs case, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy pointed out that union membership among union-represented workers has remained around 80 percent despite right-to-work policies passed in recent years.

Yet right-to-work laws threaten to expose real weaknesses inside unions: a lack of solidarity and participation among members. Twenty-five years ago, in their study on union membership attitudes and participation, Daniel Gallagher and George Strauss wrote that “compared with European unionists, those in North America look upon unionism more as an insurance policy than an instrument in the class struggle or even as a social movement.” Labor’s approach to its membership has changed little during the intervening years, with unions still presenting themselves as a service to their members. Though it is difficult to gauge levels of solidarity, one way of measuring it is through the use of strikes. Strikes are among labor’s strongest weapons, but they require a great deal of solidarity to ensure that workers don’t cross the picket line or that the union does not face a decertification vote following the strike. Between 1990 and 2015, the number of strikes declined by more than 90 percent, from 801 in 1990 to 72 last year.

A good point. It’s not like Friedrichs meant that public sector unions would have to be decimated. Of course they would in reality because the American labor movement is largely simply not set up to have that level of internal organizing. It takes a lot of work and a lot of committed members. And a lot of workers just don’t care about their union enough to have that level of commitment. Maybe that’s the union’s fault. But Marvit is right: there are examples that could give us hope.

Myth No. 5
Unions are a bulwark against globalization.

From NAFTA to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, labor unions have positioned themselves as the primary critics of, and protectors of workers against, globalization and free trade. The AFL-CIO, for instance, states that the TPP “appears modeled after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a free trade agreement that boosts global corporate profits while leaving working families behind.” Likewise, the SEIU calls the TPP “NAFTA on steroids” and “a secret trade agreement that must be stopped.”

The reason for their opposition is clear: Increased globalization often leads to more competition with countries where workers are paid far less, exploiting those workers while making it difficult to keep American wages high.

But despite the best efforts of labor, including large protests in the 1990s, globalization has largely continued apace, and U.S. workers have paid the price. According to the Economic Policy Institute, while NAFTA promised to create 200,000 new jobs for American workers, since its 1994 inception 682,900 jobs have been lost. Another EPI report found that international trade depressed wages for non-college-educated workers by 5.5 percent, meaning an annual loss of $1,800 for the average worker. Meanwhile, workers overseas often face even worse labor conditions, with fewer protections and lower wages.

I would say that calling them an ineffective bulwark against globalization is more precise because to a greater or lesser extent depending on the union, they have tried to serve that function. But there’s no question that they have been ineffective. They simply don’t have enough power for that. They never have.

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  • among postal employees, more than 92 percent covered under a contract have chosen to join.

    I would like to see a citation for that number. My experience as a steward for the APWU, as an active member of the NALC, and as someone who studies and writes about postal issues is that this number sounds a bit high.
    I’m wondering if he’s using a number that counts associate members which could include retirees but also employees who have elected a union insurance plan in the FEHBP exchange. In the latter instance if a nonmember (which could be someone from another craft or even in management) selects a union administered plan they pay associate member dues.

    I’m not disputing the overall point the writer makes but this number stood out as unlikely.

    • manual

      Yes, these numbers almost always tend to count retiree/associate union members in my experience.

    • advocatethis

      That number sounds about right to me, in my experience, but my experience was limited to the San Francisco Bay area, which I imagine skews higher than many other parts of the country.

  • manual

    Disagree a bit. Moshe Marvit has been stuck on this issue for a while

    1) Friedrichs

    Its not that Right to Work works overnight, or it would result in all free riders. It just makes it much more difficult. I need to look at the Mackinac study (we should be wary anyway). But a few thoughts:

    Many federal employees are concentrated in the DC metro area (raw numbers, not percentage of employed) and tend to be highly educated. When you have bargaining units in the South, for example, its culturally different and can be much harder to get dues checkoff, and spend a lot of trying to achieve it. Marvit has been on a hobby horse about this for a while. I know of no union for whom this is not very troubling. I also think the Mackinac center data is skewed on its face – most employees who are unionized are not in the South and the stat doesnt even factor in what the percentage is for right to work states. Basically, most of that 80 percent stat is probably unionized members in non-right to work states.

    2)Strikes

    This is not right. The death of the strike is because most unionized workers are in the public sector where they are generally handicapped on strikes, and a series of Board decisions and Supreme Court cases have made permanent replacement much easier to do, effectively undermining strikes that are not an unfair labor practice strike. Id like to see more but just saying, ‘hey theyve gone down, unions dont got no solidarity’ is not why we have less strikes now or compared to other countries.

    3) Globalization

    Sort of agree with this one. Globalization obviously outpaces trade deals. But the anti-TPP position that has now effectively ground legislative passage to a halt this Congress, at least for now, is all labor’s doing. They ran a much stronger campaign than they did against Korea/Panama/Colombia and the success is evident in the difficulty the Obama administration is having.

    • Thers

      On strikes: as a NY public employee in a union, we can’t strike, under the Taylor Law.

      We just voted to ratify our new contract. It’s not great in absolute terms, but in terms of what our peers in the SUNY community college system are getting, it’s a pretty good deal. Probably the main reason we got a decent deal is that when we started the process two years ago or so, our lawyer was very upfront us about Friedrichs. So we did a lot of work to ensure that no matter what happened in SCOTUS, we’d create a union culture that people woukd want to be a part of. This meant volunteer work on outreach, upgrading the website, holding frequent comunications meeting with the membership, social events, and so on.

      • manual

        yeah most states do not permit the right to strike. Some do for public employees – but not many and there tend to be a lot of caveats. And keep in mind most unionized workers are public employees.

      • MAJeff

        we’d create a union culture that people woukd want to be a part of. This meant volunteer work on outreach, upgrading the website, holding frequent comunications meeting with the membership, social events, and so on.

        I’m in the process of trying to expand our local’s efforts on this front. We’ve always had over 90% membership from the full-time members of the union, who were, until this summer, the only folks in our unit. We recently negotiated and ratified a contract for and added about 800 adjuncts to our union, and we’re around 27% membership with them. We’ve got a couple folks doing part-time organizing and trying to sign those folks up, but the effort become more difficult when the money from the national federation that was geared toward this effort dries up.

        • DrDick

          All faculty over .5 fte are covered under our CBA and the union has been aggressively working on addressing issues concerning non-tenure track faculty, both of which help a lot.

      • DAS

        Of course, creating a union culture takes a lot of time (for that volunteer work, etc.). So in practice (at least in my local) what that means is that the people most involved in the union are faculty members who are not particularly active in research and certainly not faculty who have to maintain professional licenses in addition to their academic duties (e.g. nursing faculty).

        What this means is that the union is sensitive to the needs of certain faculty but not to the needs of other faculty. In particular, the kinds of faculty that don’t have time on their hands tend to be in health-professional/natural sciences departments. Which leads to the perception that the union only cares about the needs of humanities faculty and not a whit about what we science faculty need. Which of course means that science/health faculty are even less likely to get involved in the union, so you get a vicious cycle of union apathy.

  • Thers

    A bit surprised Erik you haven’t weighed in on the LIU-Brooklyn shitshow. First lockout of an entire American university faculty union, ever.

    https://www.thenation.com/article/classes-start-at-liu-brooklyn-on-september-7-but-faculty-are-locked-out/

    • N__B

      LIU owns some very valuable real estate in downtown Brooklyn, which is also the campus that serves mostly minority students. How many levels of chess are present in the administration’s game?

      • Brett

        Seems pointless to carry it out like this, though. If they really wanted to shut down the Brooklyn campus, couldn’t they just give a WARN notice and do it? Doing a lock-out limits what they can do, since unlike a strike they can’t hire permanent replacements.

        • DAS

          Who says they want to hire permanent replacements?

  • Anna in PDX

    I am a member of AFSCME. Even though non members have to pay “fair share” about a third of the represented employees have chosen not to sign a union card because they are anti-union. Others do practically nothing but complain about the dues even though because of the union we got our COLA for two years when non rep employees’ COLA was frozen due to belt tightening.

    I am also leery of those numbers reported above. Maybe my experience is really atypical but I cannot imagine that my fellow employees are all that less pro union than the general population of union members.

    (Why does autocorrect keep trying to capitalize “union”? Maybe it thinks I’m discussing the Civil War?)

    • Brett

      Perhaps it’s a secret believer in the One Big Union.

  • ggrzw72

    I used to work in federal-sector labor relations. I’m really skeptical of the notion that 92% of federal bargaoning-unit employees are union members.

    • Joseph Slater

      I used to work in the federal sector too, and now I’m an academic studying such things.

      The claim in the cited article was that 92% of *postal workers* covered by union contracts were actual union members. It turns out that’s a higher percentage than that in the rest of the federal sector, where the figure is about 80%. It’s possible the difference is attributable to the fact that Postal Workers, unlike most other federal employees, are permitted to bargain collectively over wages. It also appears that federal sector unions charge less in dues than most other unions.

      For more on this, see Samuel Estreicher, “The Paradox of Federal-Sector Labor Relations,” 19 Employee Rights and Employment Policy Journal 283 (2015).

  • Nick056

    But right-to-work does not necessarily translate into high levels of covered, “free-riding” workers who don’t pay. For instance, all federal employees, including postal workers, are under right-to-work. In the federal workforce (excluding postal employees), 79 percent of the workers who are covered under a union contract have chosen to join; among postal employees, more than 92 percent covered under a contract have chosen to join.

    Concerns about free-riding don’t have the same salience in federal unions as at the state level. Non-postal unions rely on official time to perform representational duties, which effectively side-steps “free-rider” problems by providing taxpayer funding for most basic representational tasks. It’s very hard to predict what would happen to membership in federal unions if, for example, official time were to be eliminated by an amendment to Title V. Talking about “free rider” problems in this context without mentioning the legislative fix for this issue introduced about 35 years ago is a glaring omission. The omission is especially painful given that, per my link above, official time remains as controversial as you might expect.

    • manual

      My god I totally brain farted on that. This! Official time ensures that you are getting the representation. Yeah, there are multiple amendments every year to strip official time. Agreed. Not mentioning it is glaring.

  • King Goat

    Should it be a priority for unions, if the current trend right to work approach persists, to get rid of the laws forcing them to represent all workers? I’m not an expert on the law, so happy to be corrected, but maybe ‘don’t want to join? ok, the CBA provisions we negotiate won’t apply to you, negotiate your own!’ and/or ‘feel like your contract has been violated? you didn’t pay dues so represent yourself in grievance’ is the way to go?

    • Fake Irishman

      Of course, any state pushing RTW will make sure these provisions are in there — so it’s practically a question of political power, as with most things.

      In theory, this could open up a can of worms. We’d probably want to maintain consistent wages and benefits (or the company would simply raise the wages and benefits of the non-union people to kill off the union). But there might be something to a narrowly tailored representation law.

      Also, in states where classes of public employees don’t have collective bargaining, you already have this ability.

    • Brett

      What’s that called again? There’s a term for that type of worker-by-worker organization, but I can’t remember. “[insert here] union”?

      In any case, the danger with that type of piecemeal organization is that an employer might play off non-union workers against unionized ones to undermine the union, increasing benefits and conditions for non-union workers to get the unionized ones to defect. Which . . . would still lead to improved conditions, since in theory it’s still a race-to-the-top situation with that going on.

      That’s assuming, of course, that the employer can’t retaliate against the unionized employees for delegating bargaining over their work conditions to a union, or simply fire unionized employees – a big if historically. Still, a lot of unionizing has happened that way in the past, and it’s how the UAW has been increasing their reach within those Tennessee plants after the vote failed a few years ago.

  • CrunchyFrog

    OT: Today’s Non-Sequitur comic strip needs to be printed, framed and hung on Erik’s office wall.

    http://www.gocomics.com/nonsequitur/2016/09/07

  • DocH

    Erik – semi-OT, but…
    – sometime today, Maine Public Radio will air a documentary on the ’71 paper mill strike in Madawaska. Don’t have an exact time, but I’m hoping they’ll have it ava for streaming by end of day.
    – curr reading The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Have you read it? If not, you may find it interesting.

    • DocH

      Radio doc is on now.

  • Sebastian_h

    “So we did a lot of work to ensure that no matter what happened in SCOTUS, we’d create a union culture that people woukd want to be a part of. This meant volunteer work on outreach, upgrading the website, holding frequent comunications meeting with the membership, social events, and so on.”

    I don’t understand. Is the take away that creating a union culture that workers want to be a part of a bad thing? I almost hesitate to respond because surely I am misinterpreting. Maybe this is one of things about unions that hasn’t resonated well.

    • Morse Code for J

      As stated in the article: “Twenty-five years ago, in their study on union membership attitudes and participation, Daniel Gallagher and George Strauss wrote that “compared with European unionists, those in North America look upon unionism more as an insurance policy than an instrument in the class struggle or even as a social movement.”

      Unions are composed of employees, and they don’t all believe the same things. They’re just willing to suspend those disagreements when it comes to affording workers due process in upholding their contractual rights. I’m a member of the air traffic controllers’ union, and I promise you that very few of our members believe in class struggle, much less the propriety of NATCA participating in it. Many of them dislike the extent to which our PAC contributions go to Democrats, or even that we have a PAC at all. But NATCA has delivered some great CBAs, so a majority of air traffic controllers pay dues. Only a minority of NATCA members ever try to become union representatives or do any kind of union work, because official time is scarce and most of that work has to be done on a break or at home. Belonging to my union is a means to an end for most members, rather than an end in itself.

      • Ronan

        I don’t know about the claim in the first paragraph. There is no singular trade union movement in Europe, and although “an instrument of the class struggle” might describe how it was perceived in some places at some times, the UK (for example)?, in the places where trade unionism is still strongest(Ie northern continental Europe), it isn’t perceived in such a way.

        More just a part of the governing, institutional furniture (which is one of the reasons it has been so relatively successful, because instead of fighting the class war they formed cross class alliances with groups with, supposedly, different interests)

        • manual

          Yeah, specific unions, and even countries, have varied levels of class conscious unionism. But to ascribe this quality to Europe is silly.

          Generally, I see this idea bandied about by American leftists who believe that if only our unions would engage in some kind of radicalism, the sleeping/teeming masses would storm the gate. Unions would be huge and popular if the unions would just destroy their fetters.

          Its romantic. But whether you want a more class focused union or not, I think a lot of romantic lefties would actually be very bored by the day to day grind of running a union, especially on behalf of membership.

          • AdamPShort

            Yes, these leftists would make poor boxing trainers, advising their charges to deliver the knockout punch first and worry about boring stuff like movement, tactics, training, diet etc. later after they’ve SMASHED their opponent with their RADICAL ACTION.

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