By GREGORY N. HEIRES
As unions come under harsh attack nationwide, they need to do a better job mobilizing members, working together, building community alliances and strengthening their political operations.
Around the country, labor unions are fighting back as state politicians gut public employees’ collective bargaining rights, right-wing interests use the courts to undermine unions financially, and the American Dream collapses after decades of assaults on public services and working families’ pay and benefits.
Stanley Aronowitz, a professor of sociology and at the City University of New York Graduate Center in New York City, said unions today are “on the defensive” and “intimidated” in the face of well-funded attacks by conservatives. Unions can longer count on the support of the Democratic Party, which is controlled by center- and center-right people, he said.
Aronowitz’s most recent book is “The Death and Life of American Labor,” which charts a path for a new labor movement. He was a leader in a group of insurgents who took over the Professional Staff Congress in New York City in 2000. PSC represents the faculty at the City College of New York, in 2000.
The labor movement became too insular over the years, Aronowitz said. “And because of that, we have come to be regarded as an interest group, not a class movement.”
Unions need to be the voice of all workers, not merely members, he said. To accomplish that, they must be more aggressive and willing to take risks, such as striking even if it is illegal.
“The law is not on our side,” Aronowitz said, noting that most of the movement’s significant growth occurred when unions challenged the country’s legal framework.
Ultimately, a labor revival will require unions to change the way they operate by switching from the service model that Aronowitz likened to “an insurance company masquerading as a movement” to a more membership-based unionism that encourages greater activism.
Rebuilding the Labor Movement
“If labor unions are going to be catalysts for change, we need to look at ourselves,” said Henry Garrido, an associate director at District Council 37, an affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in New York City. At the end of the year, Garrido will become the first Latino to head DC 37, the largest union of municipal workers in the city.
Garrido jokingly — but tellingly — observed that unions often act like Ghostbusters, with union reps sweeping into the workplace when troubles erupt, putting out the fire and then disappearing. The practice in which “a staff rep flies in and then leaves has to stop,” he said. Unions need to restructure themselves to encourage more rank-and-file participation, he said.
“Unions have been reactive and on the defensive for too long,” said Garrido, who described the current attack on labor in the courts, governor’s mansions and legislatures as a wake-up call for organized labor. “We need to take advantage of the crisis we face to rebuild the union movement,” he said.
Today, only 6.7 percent of workers in the private sector are represented. The strongest unions are now concentrated in the public sector, where 35.3 percent of workers enjoy union representation. The country’s union membership rate was 11.3 percent in 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“There is only one way to win and that is if we all fight together,” said Carol Pittman, associate director of political and community organizing at the New York State Nurses Association.
Pittman said that alliances with the community are critical as unions counter the anti-labor and anti-government agenda of right-wing interests like the billionaire Koch brothers, who bankroll organizations that work against Medicaid, support such environmentally harmful projects as the Keystone pipeline, aim to weaken women’s reproductive rights and seek to privatize medical services.
The Koch brothers are spending $16 billion to try to stop Medicaid from being expanded under the Affordable Care Act, according to Pittman. They have succeeded in several states where Republican governors have refused to accept federal aid for Medicaid, leaving millions of poor people without health care.
The top 10 unions spent $153,473,251 million during the 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Koch brothers spent $412,670,666 on the 2012 elections dwarfed that.
CUNY Law School Professor Frank Deale said the Professional Staff Congress, which represents faculty at the New York City’s public universities and colleges, needs to shed its image as the representative of privileged workers as it reaches out to lower-paid part-time adjunct professors. His observation points to the challenge the labor movement faces of uniting workers of differing backgrounds and economic conditions. Many labor analysts believe that the revitalization of the union movement will hinge upon its success of forging alliances with such groups as fast-food workers, independent workers’ centers and immigrants.
Deale, Pittman, Garrido and Aronowitz spoke Oct. 16 in New York City at a forum called “The War on Labor in the Courts and State Legislatures.” The Metro NY Labor Communications Council, which represents communications workers of labor unions and labor-allied organizations, and the New York Chapter of the National Writers Union, sponsored the forum.
The Attack in the Courts
Garrido discussed the response of DC 37 and its parent union, AFSCME, to the assault on unions in the courts. If successful, current court cases will deeply weaken public service unions.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Harris v. Quinn case in June stopped short of declaring unconstitutional the “fair share” practice that lets unions collect fees from non-members for the cost of legally mandated collective bargaining services. But other lawsuits now headed toward the Supreme Court could wipe out this right, crippling the unions financially, Garrido noted.
The National Right to Work Committee has a war chest of $75 million to support anti-union lawsuits, an effort that includes enticing workers to sue unions to escape from their dues obligations, Garrido noted.
Earlier this year, DC 37 joined AFSCME’s campaign to sign up agency-fee payers, workers who receive services but haven’t joined as members. After signing up thousands and cutting the number of agency-fee payers in half, DC 37’s goal is now to make its worksites wall-to-wall union, Garrido said.
Part of the challenge of fighting back is to educate the public and members about the benefit of unionism. Over the years, the relentless attack on unions as special interest groups and leaches on taxpayers has deeply scared their image, and the union movement’s key role in the creation of the country’s middle class has become all but lost.
The Union Advantage
Though deeply battered, unions still significantly improve the living standards of working families. In many ways, they are the last barrier standing up to the political and economic forces that have worked together during the last four decades to carry out a race to the bottom that has included stagnant and falling wages, the loss of traditional pensions and employer-provided health care, the destruction of the manufacturing base and a lack of good jobs.
Eighty-eight percent of workers in unions participate in pension plans versus 49 percent of nonunion workers, according to the AFL-CIO. Seventy-seven percent of union workers have guaranteed pensions, compared with 17 percent of nonunion workers. About 84 percent of workers in unions have paid sick leave, compared with 62 percent of workers who aren’t in unions.
Union workers continue to enjoy a significant pay advantage.
The median weekly pay of union workers is $950, while that of nonunion workers is $750. Among African American workers, the union advantage is $791 versus $606 a week; for women, it is $898 as opposed to $676; for Latinos, it is $838 compared to $547. For Asian Americans, the union advantage is $961 over $937.
A Big Electoral Setback
The 2014 elections were a big setback for unions, as Thomas B. Edsall noted in “Republicans Sure Love to Hate Unions,” a Nov. 18 article in The New York Times. It was an especially big blow to public employee unions.
“The anti-union alliance between the Republican Party and movement conservatives got a big boost on Nov. 4,” Edsall wrote. “The heroes of this anti-union drive, Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, and Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan, were re-elected in states with a long history of strong labor movements. Prospects for the enactment of additional anti-labor legislation also improved as Republicans made substantial gains in legislatures and governor’s races across the country.”
What’s more, despite organized labor’s support for Democratic candidates with millions of dollars in campaign contributions and an army of grassroots activists, the Democratic Party has supported public policies that have weakened unions and harmed working families. Free-trade agreements, the erosion of the minimum wage, the failure to pass labor law reform to encourage organizing, deregulation, charter schools and the bailing out of the banks following the financial crisis without a corresponding support for mortgage holders have all favored the country’s financial elite over the poor and middle class.
“The unions basically have become an A.T.M. for Democrats,” Steve Rosenthal, a former political director of the AFL-CIO, told Edsall. “There is a sense of taking unions for granted, no place else to go, don’t need to do much for them.”
At the public employees union’s legislative conference in 2013, AFSCME President Lee Saunders voiced the frustration of unions with politicians who take them for granted.
“I am sick and tired of the fair-weather Democrats,” Saunders said. “They date us, take us to the prom, marry us, and then divorce us right after the honeymoon. I am sick and tired of the so-called friends who commend us when they’re running for election, but condemn us after they’ve won. I am sick and tired of the politicians who stand with us behind closed doors, but kick us to the curb in front of the cameras.”
The results of the 2014 elections suggest that unions are likely to be under more pressure than before. And the betrayal of the Democratic Party is one reason causing unions to look inward to chart their path to a labor revival.
“The attacks on labor have been widespread,” said the moderator of the panel on the crisis facing labor, Timothy Sheard, New York Chapter chair of the National Writers Union. “They have been persistent and they are growing.”