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William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies


Published by Omaha World Heard, Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Midlands Voices:

Important Lessons Taught in History of Labor Unions

By John Kretzschmar

The writer is director of the William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Local labor unions and organized labor in general are in the news of late. Judging by letters to the Public Pulse and Midlands Voices commentaries, in the words of an old labor song, “there are no neutrals there.” People either favor or oppose the very idea of a labor union.

Generally, union supporters write from a personal, real-life experience perspective, while most critics echo talking points honed behind the walls of conservative think tanks. Neither side has an understanding of the historical role that organized labor played in “humanizing” the employer-employee relationship as it evolved from its roots in the master-servant and master-slave relationships.

How many of today’s current crop of union supporters or critics learned that industrial employees commonly worked 10 to 14-hour days and had six to seven-day workweeks well into the first half of the 20th century; that it was the 1930s before regulations limiting widespread use of child labor were determined to be unconstitutional; or that until 1963, in nonunion settings, employers regularly paid women and people of color significantly less than white males were paid for identical work?

Union opponents don’t realize that unions introduced limited democracy and due process into the workplace where previously none had existed. Prior to unionization, quitting was the only option for an employee subjected to capricious and arbitrary employer behavior. That is akin to saying if someone does not like the decisions made by a nation’s elected officials, their only option is to move to another country.

Too few detractors appreciate that labor unions were our nation’s first successful anti-poverty programs. They do not appreciate that nonunion wage earners indirectly benefit from unions because negotiated wage and fringe benefit packages become benchmarks that have a “spillover” effect on nonunion employers. Conservative columnist George F. will explain the union impact this way, “I think American labor unions get a large share of the credit for making us a middle-class country.”

Neither union supporters nor adversaries know that state and federal legislatures enacted laws legalizing unions and collective bargaining to enhance the general welfare of employees, employers and the economy.

Most people cannot clearly articulate the decades-old reasoning for enacting union-friendly legislation. They cannot detail the economic realities that led employees to first unite and create limited checks on the employer’s unilateral right to dictate terms and conditions of employment.

In today’s economy, on a daily basis, large publicly traded employers identify efficiencies, evaluate the risk associated with them and make decisions to gain a competitive edge that can increase profit levels and market share. Not all of those decisions have beneficial outcomes for employees, the environment or even stockholders.

For centuries, employers have examined ways to cut employee wages to improve stockholder profits. British political economist David Ricardo put it this way in 1820: “There is no way of keeping profits up but by keeping wages down.”

More recently, Andrew Grove, former Intel Corp. CEO and chairman, put it this way in his book “High Output Management”: “If the world operates as one big market, every employee will compete with every person anywhere in the world who is capable of doing the same job. There are lots of them, and many of them are hungry.”

Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch also has stated why he believes unions are necessary: “There are always going to be (employers) who take advantage of workers. Unions even that out to their credit. We need them to level the field between labor and management. If you didn’t have unions, it would be very difficult for even enlightened employers to not take advantage of workers on wages and working conditions, because of (competition from) rivals.”

Having an accurate understanding of this missing information is important because — for employer and employee alike — the employer-employee relationship directly and indirectly affects the quality of our lives, the communities in which we live and the opportunities our children will have.

There will always be spirited debate about the merits of union organizing. What will benefit the debate in the future is a citizenry educated and knowledgeable about the history of the union movement. Our schools, public and private, must step to the forefront and teach students about the ebb and flow of the union movement; the effect of union organizing on business, industry and the economy; and the effect of unions on the American middle class.

Once that history is understood, the real debate can begin.

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