If you were listening to many of the speakers at the convention in Denver this week, you’d walk away thinking all we need is a Democrat in the White House and presto — unions will make a stunning resurgence in the United States.
Alas, it’s not that easy. Yes, union membership took a nosedive during the Bush years, but the numbers also dropped during the supposed pro-union Clinton years.
Whenever the Labor Day holiday rolls around, you get lots of media writing about unions. It’s a natural I suppose. But the stories are all pretty similar. Either we’re writing about the demise of unions in this country, or we’re writing about how the government has taken the teeth out of union organizing because of anti-union legislation.
But rarely do the stories focus on the responsibilities workers have in helping unionization reemerge.
I’m not disregarding what pro-business politicians do. The latest news from the Bush administration is that the president is contemplating signing an executive order that would knock the feet out from under unions. Bush wants to force unions to use secret ballots when they attempt to unionize a large government contractor, but labor unions prefer an open card-check system so everyone knows who’s saying yes or no to creating a union.
This doesn’t help unions but it’s only a tiny part of what’s keeping organizing down.
Saying that a Democrat in the White House will be union nirvana is simplistic, maintains Gary Chaison, professor of Industrial Relations at Clark University.
“The amount of organizing that needs to be done requires more than changes in rules,” he explains. “Unions have to devote themselves wholeheartedly to organizing and selling the process of collective bargaining.”
Basically, if they can’t convince workers that union representation is a good thing then unions are screwed.
When unions exploded in the 1940s, it was anything but easy to go up against powerful businesses, but a passion among workers helped drive labor’s heyday. It also helped that there were job shortages created by World War II giving workers a bit more bargaining power.
Let’s face it, unions typically thrived during tough times for working stiffs. They were getting so shafted that they needed to turn to someone, something for help.
Indeed, workers face hard times right now. With globalization, shrinking paychecks, loss of pensions, and the increasing price tag for health care, you’d think employees would be eager to sign union cards.
Maybe workers believe government and employers will finally give them a break, so they don’t see the need for unions.
The Democrats have been touting the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation they believe will bolster unionization by making the organizing process easier.
“A key point is that even if the Act was somehow passed by a Senate with at least 60 Democrats and signed by a President Obama, unions would still have to do so much work,” Chaison says. “The Act makes it easier and cheaper and faster to organize, by allowing unions to prove majority support by signed membership cards rather than a secret ballot elections, but unions would have to organize about a half-million new members each year just for the percent of the workforce in unions, presently at around 12 percent, to stand still and not fall further. To increase by one percentage point the unions would have to organize about a million new members each year. The cost of organizing each new member is about $1500, so the cost of organizing would be huge and it is estimated to consume about a third or more of unions’ operating budgets.”
It would all be much easier if workers got so pissed off at their employers that they all just headed over to union halls across the country and asked to sign up.
The question is, would enough Americans ever want to?