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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Unions-Why they’re Worth Fighting For.

Why they’re Worth Fighting For.

In the United States only 16% of all workers belong to a Union.  In Canada 33% of the workers belong to a union.   Stephen Harper our Conservative Prime Minister likes to take credit for the Canadian economy rebounding faster than the American economy.  
First off, if it wasn't for Jack Layton and the NDP making him do a stimulus program which he is now trying to take credit for. (He did this kicking and screaming) He knew this is the only way he could remain in government. 
It is just common sense that when people have a more secure income (union job) like more people do in Canada. They are more likely to buy that television set , computer or car.  If you do not know if you will be working in the immediate future with no security , you will be more likely to be cautious making that bigger purchase.
This is what drives the economy. Not tax cuts to big business and corporations where CEO's and shareholders are the only ones benefiting. 
Even Henry Ford , one of the biggest  free enterprisers of all-time realized that he had to pay a decent wage to his factory workers.  When asked, why do you pay more to your workers than all the other car manufacturers , he retorted " If I don't pay a decent wage, who's going to buy my cars?"
It would be fair to say that it was the Industrial Revolution which energized workers to form labor unions to create not only some standards for work environment, including safety, hours worked and, eventually, a fair
 wage. The Oxford Dictionary of English usage defines a labor union as "an organized association of workers, often in a trade or profession, formed to protect and further their rights and interests`" (Oxford 2006 1). At the end of the 19th and beginning of the Twentieth centuries, the struggle for labor unions to have the rights for workers recognized by large corporations often resulted not only in strikes and lockouts, but serious bloodshed. The Pullman strike, and the Homestead disaster (with U.S. Steel) still remain black marks on American business. The idea of "organized labor" created Samuel Gompers' A F of L, and, later, Philip Murray's CIO. But, the government kept hand s off labor relations, allowing unions and management to fight it out for employee benefits and better working conditions, until the new Deal, in 1933 created the National Labor Relations Board. Now, government had a hand in labor relations that would be equitable to both parties.

"The greatest achievement of trade unions in the economy as a whole has been that they have made possible the government of industry by constitutional means" (Lerner 1956 322). It was the pro-labor New Deal which created Social Security and collective bargaining, which provided a fair means of creating decent working conditions and salaries to which both labor and management could come to an agreement. This was the time of greatest union membership, and the post-World War II era found unions gaining strength in coal mining, auto industry, steel, railroads and, eventually, farm workers.
Yet, today, union power is waning. Perhaps it began with the criminal behavior of Auto Workers' Jimmy Hoffa and Teamsters' president, Dave Beck. Also contributing factors up to the present day, was the
 outsourcing of jobs and the loss of industrial jobs. See what is happening to the Big Three American auto maskers, where hundreds of thousands of jobs are being lost, and the unions have had to agree. There are many companies- Wal Mart may be among the leaders, who have - and continue to resist unionization of their workers. Strikes, in the last several decades have not had the impact they once had- there have been strikes in movie industry unions, grocery and hotel workers. Seldom have unions representing strikers won their objectives in full.

It is interesting to note that departments called "Personnel" are now known as "human resources." These professionals not only do hiring and drug testing, but handle grievances. But, while companies see their workers as such "resources" most unions are leery of continued downsizing, mergers and moving jobs overseas. So, they tread a far lighter activity. Safety, work-related stress and health benefits are perhaps the major problem areas. Yet, today most companies see their employees as vital assets and often prefer to deal with them as individuals, rather than through unions. "Employees represent the largest and most important investment a company can make. Look at a company's list of expenses. Wages and salaries are right up there at the top. Therefore, doesn't it make sense that responsible management should do everything it can to nurture and protect its investment?". However, it is precisely this resource which affects the bottom line of American companies which makes the unions' hold less, and creates layoffs as a priority for remaining profitable.

There are conflicting points of view about the relevancy of unions today. The New York Times claims "Millions of workers,...are ripe for labor's message because of stagnating wages for ordinary workers, declining benefits, growing insecurity on the job, and a sense that the haves are leaving the have-nots further behind. Moreover, workers in the low-wage service sector are disproportionately women, immigrants and members of minority groups that have all been traditionally more open to unionization" .

April 1, 1953, Employees of R.H. Macy stage a demonstration outside the store before their contract
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s effort two weeks ago to end collective bargaining for public employees in his state was the worst thing to happen to the union movement in recent memory—until it unexpectedly became the best thing to happen to the union movement in recent memory. Give the man some credit: in seven days, Walker did what unions have been trying and failing to do for decades. He united the famously fractious movement, reknit its emotional connection with allies ranging from students to national Democratic leaders, and brought the decline of organized labor to the forefront of the national agenda. The question is: will it matter?

At this point, it’s a safe bet that the proposal Walker is pushing in Wisconsin won’t spread far. Ambitious Republican governors in Indiana and Florida have backed away as unions have made it clear that trying to yank away collective-bargaining rights is a lot of pain for modest gain. But therein lies the problem: a “win” for unions here is no win at all, but, at best, the avoidance of a loss. It doesn’t end their seemingly decades-long slide into irrelevance—fewer than 7 percent of private workers are unionized, down from about 25 percent in the 1970s. It doesn’t earn them new members, or make it easier to organize Walmart, or create a new model for labor relations that’s better suited to the modern economy. But it does give them a fleeting instant in which America is willing to ask questions that have been ignored for years: Do we need unions? And, if so, how can we get them back? What we’re about to find out is whether the unions have answers. In recent years they haven’t. “They seem like a legacy institution and not an institution of the future,” says Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union.
But unions still have a crucial role to play in America. First, they give workers a voice within—and, when necessary, leverage against—their employer. That means higher wages, but it also means that workers can go to their managers with safety concerns or ideas to improve efficiency and know that they’ll not only get a hearing, they’ll be protected from possible reprisals. Second, unions are a powerful, sophisticated player concerned with more than just the next quarter’s profit reports—what economist John Kenneth Galbraith called a “countervailing power” in an economy dominated by large corporations. They participate in shareholder meetings, where they’re focused on things like job quality and resisting outsourcing. They push back on business models that they don’t consider sustainable for their workers or, increasingly, for the environment. In an economy with a tendency toward bigness—where big producers are negotiating with big retailers and big distributors—workers need a big advocate of their own. Finally, unions bring some semblance of balance to the political system. A lot of what happens in politics is, unfortunately, the result of moneyed, organized interests who lobby strategically and patiently to get their way. Most of that money is coming from various business interests. One of the few lobbies pushing for the other side is organized labor—and it plays a strikingly broad role. The Civil Rights Act, the weekend, and the Affordable Care Act are all examples of organized labor fighting for laws that benefited not just the unionized. That’s money and political capital it could’ve spent on reforming the nation’s labor laws.
Of course, organized labor is not always at its best. It can be myopic and hidebound. It can fight for rigid work rules that make workplaces less efficient and workers less happy. It can argue for pension and health-care benefits that, in the long run, are simply not sustainable.
But to paraphrase Tolstoy’s insight about families, all institutions are broken in their own unique ways. Corporations and governments have their flaws, too. Like labor, they’re necessary participants in a balanced economy. A world without organized labor is a world where workers have less voice and corporations are even more dominant and unchecked across both the economy and the political system. That isn’t healthy—not for workers and, in the long run, not even for corporations. But to change it, labor has to do more than cheat death. It has to find a new lease on life nationally.

Abbotsford NDP Candidate David Murray with Ed Broadbent at Halifax convention
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