There can be no vibrant American democracy without a vibrant labor union movement. Unions enable working people to band together to enliven our modest political democracy and they are by far the most important institution working to infuse at least a modicum of the nation’s democratic values into the economic sphere. Whatever their limitations and imperfections, there should be no dispute that our nation is far stronger than it would be in the absence of a labor movement.
That makes the latest figures on unionization rates a matter of serious concern not just for union leaders or even all union members, but for all Americans. Despite an increased investment in union organizing in recent years, the number of unionized Americans declined last year, not just as a percentage of the workforce, but in absolute numbers.
Over the last two decades, Corporate America has waged a sustained campaign to weaken unions in the United States.
Employing union-busting consultants and motivated by an anything-goes anti-union animus, employers regularly confront union organizing campaigns with threats to close plants, harassment, intimidation and firings of key union supporters, captive meetings, supervisor one-on-one meetings with fearful employees, threatening literature, use of surveillance technologies and much more. Strike-breaking techniques, including the use of scab replacement workers and armed guards is now so evolved that unions are fearful of using what at least once was their most powerful tactic, the strike.
The two-party duopoly, featuring one party that too often takes labor unions for granted, and another that wants to take them outaltogether, has aided and abetted Corporate America. Lawmakers and the executive branch have let stand a legal regime that tremendously disempowers workers and have worked hard for passage of key policies further undermining worker power.
Much of U.S. labor law, on the books and even worse in practice, is a disgrace.
Although it is illegal for employers to fire striking workers, it is legal to “permanently replace” them — a distinction without difference to any worker or employer, but one the Supreme Court has embedded in the law and which Congress has not seen fit to remedy.
Although it is illegal for employers to fire workers for supporting a union, approximately one in 10 union supporters in union organizing drives are in fact fired. The chilling effect from such practices is obvious and the insignificant penalties for illegal firings are little deterrent whatsoever to employers.
And then there is Taft-Hartley, the labor law deform which remains on the books 50 years after passage. Taft-Hartley’s sweeping anti-union provisions deprive workers of many of their most important tactics — including calling boycotts of those who continue doing business with boycotted companies.
Corporate globalization, with rules fixed in the corporate-managed trade agreements that go by names like GATT/WTO and NAFTA, has tilted the labor-management playing field further in corporations’ direction.
New technologies and ways of organizing business did not inevitably lead to an international system of laws and regulations that leave workers ever more defenseless; that result has come from the business manipulation of the emerging norms and rules.
The rules of the World Trade Organization are so skewed that theymake it illegal for the United States to ban the import of goods made with brutalized child labor.
Most serious for U.S. workers, NAFTA and the WTO have ensured that U.S. employers can pull up stakes and move operations without restraint. The well-documented record of U.S. employers closing plants and moving Mexico, China and other low-wage havens casts a pall over most U.S. contract negotiations –American workers must always deal with the threat that, if they ask for too much, they will lose their jobs. Even worse, U.S. employees seeking to exercise their rights to unionize routinely find themselves facing threats that their employers will close heir plant and move. Cornell researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner has found in her pathbreaking research that employers issue such threats in more than half of all union-organizing drives.
As yet another blow, U.S. unions are now forced to devote resources to addressing extraordinarily aggressive investigations and Congressional saber-rattling. There can be no tolerance for corruption in the labor movement, of course. But one cannot but help question the motivation of tough-talking Members of Congress who focus their rhetorical salvos and investigative authority at some of the most aggressive members of organized labor’s leadership, while regularly ignoring massive defrauding of shareholders and consumers and a broad corporate crime epidemic — not to mention the massive corruption in their legislative/lobbying midst.
Organized labor — and all who understand the importance of labor unions to American democracy — needs the Members of Congress to stand up on behalf of working Americans, and their representative unions.