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Only Aggressive Action Will Save the American Labor Movement

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In a previous post I offer strong views on the need to reorganize and redirect the American Federation of Teachers and the National Educational Association if these unions are to survive as a meaningful force for and ally of public education. But teachers' unions are not the only ones being threatened. Right-wing anti-union groups have mobilized enormous sums of money to challenge the right of workers to unionize in the courts, state legislatures, and in the marketplace.

Law is being used to defeat unions. Strikes are banned, boycotts are illegal, and organizing is made difficult. Public and private employers simply refuse to negotiate with workers and their organizations. Traditionally labor union leadership, faced with decertification, costly fines, and imprisonment, has been hesitant to break anti-union laws. They fear unions will be destroyed. But the unions are already being destroyed. Aggressive, illegal, actions may be the only way to save the labor movement in the United States. As Martin Luther King Jr. advised social activists in a "Letter from Birmingham Jail": "One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."

The entire organized labor movement is in a prolonged state of decline, especially in the private sector as industrial jobs are shipped overseas and retail employers like Walmart and McDonalds remain staunchly anti-union.

Everywhere you look, unions are in retreat. In Wisconsin, the Governor and state legislature passed legislation severely restricting collective bargaining for public employees leading to a sharp decline in union membership. Idaho passed a law that cut back bargaining rights for public school teachers. In Ohio, only a statewide referendum prevented the Governor and State Legislature from curbing collective bargaining for state employees. Michigan and Indiana are currently trying to undercut private-sector unions by banning requirements that workers pay union dues or fees. In Tennessee, right-wing money and threats by the Republican controlled state government to end subsidies to unionized factories defeated an effort by the United Autoworkers Union to organize workers in a Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, even though the company expressed no opposition to unionization.

After failing to end teacher tenure in California through contract negotiations and in legislative battles in California, anti-union groups are financing a lawsuit ostensibly initiated by minority students and their families that claims that teacher tenure violates student civil rights. However, the key player in this battle is a telecommunications entrepreneur who spent millions of dollars to create Students Matter, the organization behind the lawsuit. The suit is supported by Michelle Rhee, leader of another anti-teachers union group, John Deasy, the superintendent of the Los Angeles School District, the solicitor general under President George W. Bush, a lawyer from Apple.

The United States Supreme Court is now considering a case, Harris v. Quinn, where the decision could seriously weaken, if not destroy, all public employee unions. Appearing before the court, William Messenger of the rightwing National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, argued that the Supreme Court should reverse the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision and declare government workers cannot be required to pay dues to unions that represent them in collective bargaining negotiations. In the private sector, new manufacturing jobs in the United States and efforts to preserve old jobs have often hinged on the willingness of workers to accept below union standard wages, benefits, and safety regulations.

A number of factors are at work in the eclipse of the American labor movement.

1. The biggest problems today are the wealth and economic and political power of richest Americans and corporations, right-wing court decisions that have made it harder for unions to organize and protect workers such as Knox v. SEIU (2012), so-called "right-to-work" laws in 24 states that are designed to block unionization, and the globalization of production that has shifted jobs from the United States overseas to low wage regions of the world.

2. In 2012, the top ten percent of earners in the United States grabbed more than half of the country's total income, the highest level since the government began collecting data in 1913. Meanwhile, the top one percent grabbed more than 20% of the income earned by Americans, also one of the highest levels on record. In the second decade of the 21st century income inequality in the United States is at least as large as during the 1920s in the years leading up to the Great Depression and those with wealth and power do not want to lessen their control.

3. Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, in The Price of Inequality (2102), argues that the current economic situation is not only unjust, but it is economically inefficient and places the entire nation at-risk. Those with wealth and power argue that markets are somehow governed by natural laws. Stiglitz counters that they are regulated by rules created by governments and people and these rules can change to produce a more equal distribution of wealth and a more equal society. Globalization in the exploitative form it has taken is the result of concentrated unregulated economic power combined with political influence and does not have to be so destructive. Stiglitz wants government to support labor union organization as a counterweight to the power of big business, a proposal that I support, but that is not likely to happen given the enormous political influence of the wealthy in the United States.

4. Large corporations and smaller businesses have used a number of devices to undermine worker rights and labor unions. Not only are jobs outsourced overseas, but workers are continually "redefined" to make it harder to organize. Walmart has associates rather than employees. The average Walmart Associate makes just $8.81 so a full-time associate makes just $15,500 a year. Hundreds of thousands of full-time Walmart associates live below the poverty line. Microsoft hires "freelancers" rather than employees to avoid paying fringe benefits and to make it easier to fire them. It requires workers to sign agreements stating that they were independent contractors not entitled to participate in Microsoft's employee benefit plans. Microsoft got into legal trouble because it did not withhold or pay any Social Security or other payroll taxes for its contractors. According to the United States Department of Labor and Treasury Department millions of American workers are "misclassified" as independent contractors as companies seek to avoid paying taxes and benefits.

5. The union movement is weak and it will be difficult to turn around the downward trajectory. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, "in 2012, the union membership rate - the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union - was 11.3 percent, down from 11.8 percent in 2011." From 1983 to 2012, union membership declined from 17.1 million workers to 14.4 million. Public-sector workers or government employees, which includes teachers, had a union membership rate of 36%, five times higher than workers employed in private industry (6.6%). A result of this disparity is that private industry workers are susceptible to anti-union propaganda and often end up resenting the wages, benefit packages, and pensions that organized workers in the public sphere receive because they feel they are paying these wages and benefits with their tax dollars.

6. Union membership is also geographically skewed. About half the union workers live in seven states (California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio). At 23.2%, New York has the highest union membership rate in the country. North Carolina has the lowest, 2.9%. In a country with serious racial divisions and animosity, Black men, who often work in the public sector, had the highest union membership rate (14.8%), which may contribute to some of the hostility toward unions. Of even greater concern for the future of the labor movement, the union membership rate was highest among older workers (14.9%) and lowest among workers ages 16 to 24 (4.2%).

To counter these trends, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a former President of the United Mine Workers Union, recently announced a bold plan to reverse organized labor's long slide. He wants the AFL-CIO to welcome nonunion workers as well as environmental, immigrant, and other advocacy groups such as the NAACP, the Sierra Club, the National and MomsRising, either as formal partners or affiliate, into the labor union federation. His goal is to build a broad coalition to advance worker-friendly political and economic agenda and in a speech before the AFL-CIO national convention, Trumka declared, "If you work for a living in this country, our movement is your movement."

AFL-CIO affiliates now have 13 million members, but as Trumka conceded, that is a small fraction of the 150 million workers in the United States. Trumka told union members, "We cannot win economic justice only for ourselves, for union members alone. It would not be right and it's not possible. All working people will rise together, or we will keep falling together." But it is not clear to me if this can be done by inviting other groups to join the AFL-CIO, rather than having the AFL-CIO become willing to join with them on a more or less equal footing in a larger coalition. Non-union workers and activists have no reason to believe a junior partnership within the AFL-CIO will earn them any benefits or political clout.

A positive move has been AFL-CIO support for federal, state, and local and efforts to raise the minimum wage. The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009 while purchasing power has declined. Some AFL-CIO state affiliates have endorsed a campaign by fast-food workers to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

It will be very hard to regain what has been lost and to convince unorganized workers to support the union movement. As a Mexican immigrant from Texas who is active in the Workers Defense Project stated, "The Workers Defense Project is not like a union - it welcomes everyone."

Over the years I have been a member of the taxi cab drivers union, the teamsters, the Transit Workers Union, American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). I served on chapter executive committees and walked picket lines. I am a strong supporter of labor unions, but also a vocal critic of the way they have been operating in the United States.

If teachers are going to defend public education, and the labor movement is going to defend the rights of working people, they must convince people like this Mexican immigrant that our fight is really his fight and that he is welcome to join with us on an equal footing in the struggle for a more progressive United States.

Only aggressive action is going to save the American labor movement. When laws are made by the rich and powerful to serve their interests, organized workers need to stop obeying the laws.
Unions need to have muscle, they need to be willing to strike, they need to be willing to defy unjust laws, they need to welcome new members and not just represent those who hold onto relatively privileged better-paying jobs, and to they need to be more responsive to their members and potential members.