Opinion

Felix Salmon

Can unions become relevant again?

By Felix Salmon
June 7, 2012

Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld* have an impassioned plea in Foreign Affairs for the return of unions as a political and economic force. There’s no doubt of a very strong connection between the decline of unions, on the one hand, and the rise of inequality, on the other — and as inequality slowly tears this country apart, the need for a force that could bring the majority of people together has never been greater.

According to their figures, more unionization might reduce GDP growth by a decimal point or two, but could increase compensation for unionized blue-collar workers by between 10% and 20%, while simultaneously improving wages for similar non-union jobs. That seems like a decent deal to me. After all, the lesson of the current recovery is that GDP growth has little value if it’s not accompanied by more and better jobs.

But as the results of the Wisconsin recall election show, Middle America doesn’t trust unions to represent its interests any more. When Western and Rosenfeld say that unions should “take on the challenge of improving productivity and profitability at the local level”, and embark on a “national campaign against inequality”, I think they’re biting off much more than unions can reasonably chew. There’s really no evidence that unions are good at increasing productivity, and neither is there much evidence that unions or anybody else will ever be able to construct a campaign against inequality which really strikes a chord with most Americans.

Joe Nocera, too, has recently rediscovered a nostalgia for the days of unionization, and is right to say that the country would be better off if more jobs were unionized. But in an age where political discourse on both sides of the aisle is dominated by the influence of capital rather than labor, this kind of wouldn’t-it-be-great-if thinking isn’t going to get anybody very far, especially in a world where the idea of a job for life has long since disappeared. I don’t know what a truly modern labor movement would look like, but I’m pretty sure it won’t take the form of a political campaign against something as abstract as inequality.

The fact is that in a globalized world, American workers need their big multinational employers more than the big multinational employers need American workers. One of the biggest secular forces in the decline of labor has surely been the glut of skilled and unskilled workers coming onto the international labor force in recent decades, particularly in China. As a result, I suspect that any truly important next-generation social movement will be profoundly international in nature, and will have to make big strides in China before it has any real effect in the US. Laborers in Chinese factories aren’t just competing with US workers for jobs: they’re also, in a weird way, the best hope those US workers have for real improvements in how they’re treated and paid.

*For people wanting to link to this article: do not copy-and-paste its URL; copy my link instead. And even that will only work until June 18. Foreign Affairs really needs to understand how people share articles, its current system is a nightmare.

Comments
16 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

You may need to distinguish between public and private sector unions? Private sector unions redistribute wealth from capital to labor. (In the process they might or might not redistribute jobs to non-union shops.) Public sector unions redistribute wealth from taxpayers to labor.

Many of the remaining unions are public-sector unions, and those are the ones that face the greatest public outrage.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive
 

Global worker unions.

Posted by GRRR | Report as abusive
 

For unions to become strong again the US might need to impose tariffs and other measures to equalize the labor costs here vs., say, China. Whether it would be wise to do so, is, I think, unclear. Less free trade might damage world economic growth but it might be helpful to the US and especially US workers. I would not mind trade restrictions being introduced gradually.

Posted by Chris08 | Report as abusive
 

Labor unions in the U.S. should shift from their traditional confrontational mode and become consultants to companies and industries — experts on labor and labor practices, the management of labor, etc. I wrote about this a while back, in the context of the UAW:

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505123_162-4 8740199/the-uaw-and-the-foreign-auto-tra nsplants-its-do-or-die-time/?tag=bnetdom ain

Posted by mattdebord | Report as abusive
 

In the past, unions protected “labor” against “capital.” But today the adversaries of the public employee unions aren’t wicked capitalists, they’re ordinary citizens who want a good teacher in the classroom and a friendly and productive worker at the DMV and the post office. If unions partnered with ordinary Americans, they’s be received with a lot more sympathy. Instead it’s always, “this teacher’s job is guaranteed for life: screw your kids.”

Posted by solotar | Report as abusive
 

Yes to unions shifting from a traditional confrontational stance. No to narrow-minded thinking that unions as they have been constituted in the past century or two are the best way to protect workers from unfair treatment by employers.

Posted by dWj | Report as abusive
 

Amazing!

An article in Foreign Affairs on labor unions, and not once do the authors mention “illegal immigration”!

Oh, excuse me……”undocumented guest workers”!

Posted by Nichols7 | Report as abusive
 

I grew up in a working class union household. It was a normal part of life, even taught in my junior high civics courses as an integral part of our lives.

But even as a youth, I railed against the thought that I was the equal in skills and abilities to hundreds of thousands of others, and that my pay and opportunities should be the same. If I excelled, I should be recognized as an individual. If not, I shouldn’t be protected by the group. My power in the market was derived from my own abilities and motivations, from what I brought to the table of life, not from an artificial membership in a group in which I had little in common.

My experiences with union members is that this is a very foreign way of thinking. I appreciate the sacrifices by the early union organizers, and by the benefits that unions in the 1940s and 1950s brought to those that worked with their hands and their bodies. But I think unions lost their way when they thought that an adversarial relationship in the workplace was the natural way of things.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive
 

I think unions are the only way forward in this diverse country – where interest groups are set against each other and resentment and mistrust rule, to the detriment of the common man and woman. Where do different groups come together with shared goals for hours and hours every week? Nowhere but the work place.

It’s been a neoliberal fantasy that unregulated markets could give us a shiny new kind of prosperity. Really we have unleashed a form of gangsterism and that monster will be extremely hard to cage. It is telling that drug gangs have erupted in Mexico in the same period that financial and corporate elites have undermined American democracy. It is the same impulse: grab what you can and the devil take the hindmost.

It is sad that the best and brightest of your generation are so alienated from the union cause. It began with the youth rebellions in the 60′s and 70′s, the rise of identity politics, and the like. The result has been successes for gay rights and feminism and AfAm professionals, but the impoverishment of a whole class of Americans, regardless of race. Civil rights won’t feed and house a family.

What your alienation from the union cause is symptomatic of, in the larger sense, is how far we will have to fall, before we rediscover the necessity of economic justice.

Posted by nyet | Report as abusive
 

Gang, it’s about money. And corporations will not give it up without a nasty, brutal fight. That’s why in many Latin American countries – and in the US before 1960, companies hired killers to kill union leaders.

Unions can only be collaborative when the government laws give them the upper hand. When employees have their union rights protected, then they can sit down at the table.

Finally, the business about “public sector unions are different” is just ALEC/right wing talking points. Public sector unions are an incredibly valuable extension of the civil service ideal, where employees can enforce laws and regulations against powerful private interests without fear of being fired for doing their jobs. They are key to preventing corruption. They do not have to be wildly out of control – they can be subject to binding arbitration, for example. But pure at will employment in the public sector is exactly what produces corruption.

Posted by Dollared | Report as abusive
 

I suspect the idea of turning labor unions into “consultants” or “advisors” would simply be a way to co-opt them and defang them, in short a business strategy to weaken them. Average wages in the US have been stagnant for quite some time. We need organizations that will aggressively work to change that. Some confrontation may well be necessary.

Posted by Chris08 | Report as abusive
 

Couple of inanities here, buddy. First: “But as the results of the Wisconsin recall election show, Middle America doesn’t trust unions to represent its interests any more.”

It may be more accurate to say that the Wisconsin result illustrates the weakness of the public sector unions–which have barely lifted a finger over the past 25 years in solidarity with their drowning private sector union brothers–and of the Democratic Party, which is, to borrow a phrase, a confederacy of dunces.

In part because of a vicious propaganda campaign by the right, and in part because of bitter experience, Middle America sees a difference between public and (the late, lamented) private sector unions.

Second: Inequality is abstract? Only because people like you, Mr. Salmon, do not do enough to make it clear. Allow me (and Prof. Richard Freeman) to help: If we bring the top tenth of the top one percent of the wealthy down to the level they were in 1937, and you can give a 10 percent raise to everyone else. Everyone. Else.

http://www2.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/video AndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvent s/player.aspx?id=1457

Or do this: Google + “The L Curve.”

Campaign for a maximum wage–defined as max annual income. Make it $6 or $8 million.

Posted by Eericsonjr | Report as abusive
 

As a previous poster noted, I think it is very important to differentiate from public attitudes towards public sector unions, as opposed to private sector unions.

The original purpose of unions was to protect workers from rapacious capitalists, who imposed horrible and dangerous work conditions and kept wages to a minimum. And I think that most people would agree that private sector unions are still needed to protect workers from abuses, since there are few other checks and balances in the private sector.

However, public sector unions are quite a different story. Public sector employees generally do not need a lot of “protecting”, since their employers, i.e. the taxpayers, are not seeking to profit from their labor, and plenty of checks and balances already exist (i.e. elections) to protect them should politicians try to impose unfair working conditions. Pretty much the only thing that public sector employees need protecting from is political pressure, and that indeed was one of the reasons civil service laws were put in place.

However, nowadays, when the public hears about public sector unions, what they hear about is bloated pensions, hugely costly overtime rules, ridiculously early retirement ages, and work rules that make it impossible to discipline employees. All from workers who do not actually need much protecting. So is it any wonder that people are starting to question the need for public sector unions?

I grew up in San Francisco, probably one of the most liberal cities in America, and I can tell you that pretty much every public sector union in the city has a negative reputation. The police and firefighters are best known for their ridiculous overtime, and the bus drivers union has made MUNI probably the least popular public institution in the city due to work rules which make it impossible to discpline or fire poorly performing drivers. Only the teachers union has anything vaguely resembling even a neutral reputation.

Posted by mfw13 | Report as abusive
 

This is what it must have felt like reading Pravda.

“The fact is that one of the biggest secular forces in the decline of labor has surely been the glut of skilled and unskilled workers coming onto the international labor force in recent decades, particularly in China. As a result, I suspect that any truly important next-generation social movement will be profoundly international in nature, and will have to make big strides in China before it has any real effect in the US. Laborers in Chinese factories aren’t just competing with US workers for jobs: they’re also, in a weird way, the best hope those US workers have for real improvements in how they’re treated and paid.

Posted by billyjoerob | Report as abusive
 

One more time, sorry for double post.

“One of the biggest secular forces in the decline of labor has surely been the glut of skilled and unskilled workers coming onto the US labor market from abroad via immigration. As a result, I suspect that any truly important next-generation social movement will be profoundly national in nature, and will have to make big strides in reducing immigration before it has any real effect. Laborers in US factories aren’t just competing with US workers for jobs: they’re also competing with immigrants.”

FIFY

Salmon’s version is a) paradoxical and b) so roundabout as to invite the suspicion that he’s trying to avoid the simple truth.

Fact: 120,000 legal immigrants per month
69,000 jobs created last month

Posted by billyjoerob | Report as abusive
 

“But pure at will employment in the public sector is exactly what produces corruption.”

Excellent point, Dollared. And true. You hear countless stories from the 70s around here of selectmen receiving favorable treatment for their kids in school (or making hell for the teacher who dared give their daughter a C). Unions protect against corrupt politicians.

“Public sector employees generally do not need a lot of “protecting”, since their employers, i.e. the taxpayers, are not seeking to profit from their labor,”

@mfw, that is reversed. Most taxpayers don’t have a horse in the race at all. Their ONLY motivation is to get the job done cheaply. At least in the private sector, there is a profit motive. If you cut support and increase workload beyond what is manageable, then your better employees will leave and your business will fail. Because the taxpaying public has no interest in the quality of the product, there is nothing to halt the downward slide.

Unfortunately many public unions have focused more on compensation than on working conditions. They accept an impossible workload in impossible conditions, as long as they get paid well for it. This is again a place where the adversarial approach has broken down.

There are definitely differences between public-sector and private-sector unions, especially in the perception of such by the public. But it is hard to imagine a quality result in education when the ONLY organized group at the table is the board of selectmen.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive
 

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