Included in a front-page Los Angeles Times feature article (February 21, 2012) on AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka was this sobering observation: According to a 2011 Pew poll, only 45 per cent of Americans view labor unions “favorably.”
Disturbing as that figure is, it’s not going to surprise anyone who’s been following organized labor for the last quarter-century or so. Since the salad days of the Reagan administration, America’s unions have been fighting for their lives, clawing and scratching just to stay afloat. While part of that fight has been waged against corporate predators, part of it, unfortunately, has also been directed against negative public opinion.
From an ideological standpoint one can understand why banks, businesses, business associations, and the corporate media trash organized labor. From an ideological perspective, trashing labor makes sense. But it’s demoralizing to hear regular, workaday people doing the same thing. It’s demoralizing and it’s frustrating.
People who freely (or grudgingly) acknowledge that unions were once required to “level the playing field” will now tell you that unions are no longer necessary, that they’ve more or less outlived their usefulness. They’ll tell you that, while unions once upon a time provided a valuable service, they are today not only an embarrassing anachronism, but a dangerous impediment.
It becomes even more frustrating when you expose these people to the hard, cold facts of life. When you show them the correlation between middle-class income and union membership—when you demonstrate, through graphs and charts, that as union membership rolls have dwindled, the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer, and the middle has been dragged inexorably toward the bottom—they look at you blankly or, worse, give you the stink-eye. They refuse to acknowledge that labor unions are a necessary component of a thriving, well-distributed economy. And we’re not talking about rich people here here; we’re talking about regular working people.
As to the silly notion of unions having “outlived” their usefulness, just imagine saying the same thing about the U.S. Constitution. Imagine suggesting that, while it was a noble and well-meaning document that had once been “very helpful in ensuring our rights,” the Constitution has outlived its usefulness and should be put in mothballs. People would go berserk. [No they wouldn’t. We’ve heard progressives denounce the Constitution as an archaic impediment to progress. AC/JSC. ] Yet, when the suggestion is made that maybe it’s time for unions to be phased out, you’ll find many people (gleaned from that 55 per cent who don’t view unions “favorably”) shrugging and more or less agreeing.
The two most common complaints about unions are: (1) They are self-serving and corrupt, and (2) they’ve ruined the American economy by pricing themselves out of the market and forcing employers to relocate overseas.
Given our memories of watching beefy union goons doing the perp walk on TV, and the stories of lurid, on-going criminal activity in some of the East Coast construction and longshore trades, it’s easy to understand why people might view unions as corrupt. But this is cherry-picking at its most primitive. It’s taking the corrupt few and using them to smear the whole group.
Not only are the overwhelming majority of unions honest, but people tend to get confused about what corruption is. When I ask people to give an example of “corruption,” they’ll list occasions where union officers broke promises to them, or failed to show up at a meeting, or where the union forgot to file a grievance in a timely manner, or a union official tried to pass the buck. That’s not corruption, folks—that’s laziness and inefficiency, old-fashioned human frailty. And not to burst anyone’s bubble, but organized labor ain’t the only institution guilty of it.
As to the complaint about unions forcing companies to pull up stakes and relocate overseas, nothing could be further from the truth. That’s not only a pathetic argument, it’s a toxic lie, one that maybe wasn’t invented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but was certainly propagated by it. Companies that move to a Third World or “emerging” country do it NOT to avoid paying a union wage, but to avoid paying an American wage. After all, what American can compete with the $1.85 per hour paid to a Bangladeshi?
Let’s be clear: Unions aren’t merely historical artifacts; they’re the vital social instruments that give workers a fair shot at achieving a semblance of economic equality. Consider this imperfect analogy. The U.S. Constitution is to American liberty what labor unions are to working people’s welfare. Close enough.
DAVID MACARAY, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org