In 2016, Do Wage Earners Still Want Labor Unions?
Published by Lincoln Journal Star, Monday, September 5, 2016
By John Kretzschmar
The writer is director of the William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Union density in the United States has shrunk from a peak of about 35 percent coming out of World War II to under 11 percent today. Those who oppose unions argue that density is down because wage earners trust employers to have their backs. They trust management to be fair in its dealings with employees. That is not the case, judging by the most recent Gallup polling.
Surprisingly, even with low density, 58 percent of Americans approve of labor unions. That number is lower than the 72 percent in the Great Depression and the 75 percent in 1954.
There are several possible explanations for decreasing density which may be related to only a 58 percent approval rating. Automation; the flight of employers overseas in search of ever cheaper sources of production; an outdated labor law that has no real penalties for significant and repeated violations; and an increase in sources that intentionally misconstrue what unions exist to do all contribute to the difference.
Sadly, on Labor Day 2016 labor unions remain one of the most misunderstood institutions in American society. People are unaware of why unions exist, and what actually goes into a labor contract. If they knew more, the numbers might mirror those of the post-World War II era.
There is yet another factor that goes unmentioned, the inability of unions themselves to tell a compelling story about all the things that the public is missing.
Organized labor is the only institution in American society that exists to introduce meaningful workplace democracy to job sites across the state and nation. Unions are based on the ideas that an injury to one is an injury to all; that collectively we can achieve more than we can individually; and that in our consumer-driven economy, we all do better when we all do better.
Why do unions exist? To bring meaningful democracy into the workplace. Why is that needed? Because in both the private and public sectors there are employers who focus 24/7 on becoming “leaner and meaner” by finding ways for their employees to “do more with less.” That mentality in the private sector drove the massive growth of unions throughout the Great Depression up to the mid-1970s. In the public sector Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way on his last night on Earth: “You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth.”
What goes into a labor contract? Simply put, only the items that both the employer and the union can agree upon. If both don’t agree, it doesn’t make it into the contract. Moreover, the items that fill a contract flow from labor law that in most instances spells out the mandatory items of bargaining: wages, hours, and terms of employment. The contract is legally binding, and both sides need to live up to it for its duration. Due process rights that exist outside the workplace thanks to the Bill of Rights enter it through the “just cause” clause. This little known and under-appreciated clause is part of the mutually negotiated grievance procedure that is used when the contract is violated. This clause says that management must prove that it has good and sufficient reason for any discipline it metes out.
So on this Labor Day as 58 percent of the country approves of unions, maybe expanding meaningful workplace democracy could be the prescription for combatting income inequality, resisting arbitrary and capricious management decisions, and once again putting the American dream within reach of everyday wage earners.
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