5. Enhancing the Unions

When you shop at Walmart are you aware of their anti-union position?

Does the abuse of migrant workers upset you?

Do you believe that unions have a place in society?

Are you aware of the range of corporation hostility to worker rights?

I don’t know about you, but I have always felt uncomfortable crossing a union picket-line. The good news for me has been that this has become an infrequent challenge. But the steep decline of the unions has not been good for workers nor for any nation.

I believe that the power gap between government and  representatives of the work force (however this may be defined) has become critical. The unions — in part as the result of corporate inspired legislation, to some extent because of the often inept union leadership, and in large measure because of the nature of capitalism itself- have become disenfranchised. The unions in the US and the UK no longer constitute an effective force against the corporations. Their members who, in response, have left in large numbers have become unrepresented and lower paid.

This steady dis-empowerment of the work force is not being properly addressed by anyone, not even by some politicians who are indebted to union support, like Britain’s Labor Party leadership. The question of how to redress the serious plight of the mass of unrepresented workers was not even brought up as an issue at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month.

In capitalism the rich have the legislatures, the banks, all the corporations and most of the media on their side. The weakened unions have a small percentage of workers and a handful of politicians favorable to them.  Money and corporate profits, in this scenario, usually have the upper hand over fairness. Under the aggressive anti-union policies of ruthless companies like Walmart, corporations have been able to keep wages down while raising the remuneration of management. But these advances against unionism have  not resulted in any advantages to the now economically struggling national economies in the US or the UK.

The global economy is dependent on the balance of labor, capital and resources. As Al Gore cautions in his latest book: “the fundamental role of labor in the economy of the future is being called into question.”1 In the 21st Century capital has emerged triumphant, but the imbalance has caused massive failure on all three fronts: labor has become abused, the natural resources are being over-exploited and capital investment has become shaky.

This erosion of the power of organized labor has been long in the making. The trade unions have been vilified in the United States for the past two generations. The once progressive American unions, were infiltrated by corporate agents and by agents-provocateur of the police and FBI. In addition they also have been steadily undermined by Republicans in the name of “labor flexibility”. As a result of the inability of the2 politically harassed unions to protect jobs or pay, membership in such groups as the AFL-CIO is at a nearly 100 year low of ll.3 per cent of the work force, down from about 35 per cent 50 years ago. Anti-union right-to-work legislation in the US has left former blue-collar workers to compete for lower-skill and lower-pay jobs at the same time that computer driven technologies are throwing the American labor unions into an existential crisis.3

In the UK the current situation of the unions is hardly any better. Unions have been systematically dis-empowered by the provocative policies and tactics of politicians. Margaret Thatcher was an outstanding example of a politician intent on decimating the unions in the UK. When the unions still had power in the 1970’s their leadership was over-reaching and self-destructive in their tactics as well as in their demands. As a consequence when Margaret Thatcher became PM in the 1980’s she was determined to combat the power of the unions — using the police and the army against the miners and other groups. She pushed for the privatization of the national rail services because she saw its unionized work force as an organized opposition.

The job situation of workers in the UK in the 21st century has been spiraling downwards. The New Trade Union Congress chief, Frances O’Grady, has said that the Tory-led government has made it easier for employers to sack workers and more difficult for employees to get justice in the courts. Michael Gove, the abrasive Education Secretary and close, long-time friend of Rupert Murdoch, wrote to all the school heads in the British state schools last autumn urging them to take strong action against teachers involved in industrial disputes and to dock their pay. This caused an uproar in the highly unionized teaching profession which has still been able to respond effectively.

The Unions in the UK continue to be the principal paymasters of the Labor Party. On the other hand, the Labor Party leaders of recent years have felt constrained by the sense that they must never appear to be in the pockets of the TUC .

The four day work week and the 35 hour week, which have been tried in France and elsewhere in Europe are not regarded as a likely experiment in the UK which has some of the longest working hour levels in Europe. Prime Minister David Cameron and his inept Chancellor, George Osborne, have given the impression that in the future employees will have to work longer and later-on in life at lower pay. Pressured by small and large businesses, the Tories would very much like to abandon the maximum 48 hour week currently demanded by European labor legislation.4

The International Monetary Fund now admits that one of the chief causes of the global crisis is the decline of trade union bargaining power. The global squeeze on the real wages of the workforce is certainly indisputable. Arguing against the corporate propaganda that high union wages necessarily make manufacturing uncompetitive in a globalized economy has been a labor lawyer, Thomas Geoghegan. The American way of emasculating the trade unions over the past decades in order to become more competitive with goods produced China, India and in developing states has not proved effective. On the contrary, social democracies such as Sweden, Holland, Switzerland and Germany, that kept on paying high wages, now have healthier industries than the U.S. or the UK. which have seen their industrial base damaged.

The economic analyst, Will Hutton, writing in The Observer suggested that Trade unionists should refocus their demands and push for real change in the entire fundamentally bankrupt capitalist system.5

My own proposal to correct this increasingly problematic situation is that the labor movement should demand an end to global corporate hegemony and shift the economy to  cooperative employee ownership of the means of production. Such a revolutionary shift should come in well-planned stages.6 The first legal step would be to change the laws so that it will be far easier for corporations to transform themselves into cooperatives. Cooperation has not been a welcome word in the competitive world of capitalism. It was David Ricardo who argued back in 1817 that in capitalism competition drives wages down to the subsistence level and pits worker against worker and producer against producer. The role models I have in mind for the 21st Century include such successful cooperatives as the globalized United Parcel Service, The John Lewis Partnership (UK) and Mondragon (Spain).

Varied studies have shown that women are naturally more inclined to cooperation than the men who are so competitive in mismanaging the global economy. Listening more closely to the cooperative aspirations of most women would be a positive step towards the transformation of our entire socio-economic system.

We also must end decades of union bashing and find new ways to give the workers the means not only to further their interests but also to find more charismatic and intelligent leadership in the global union movement. While unions are trying to organize at a global level and proclaim their belief in global solidarity, they still act mostly in their national self-interest. The global differentiation of production processes has led to diverging strategies and interests between the northern tier of industrialized nations and the developing countries. Obviously such differences tend to derail any  hopes unions may have of creating broader universal policies.

For the Unions the time for direct confrontation with the police, the military or other governmental forces is over. Modern protests must come via the internet. In Germany the labor unions have taken on Amazon’s anti-union stance by the use of filmed staged protests. A coordinated and carefully planned internet assault on a corporation (e.g. Amazon or Walmart), an elected government (like 10 Downing Street or The White House), or a media body (such as FOX News in the US ) could help to bring the embattled worker unions to the forefront again. And that, in itself, is of the essence.

Footnote

Historically, the long term effects in the US of the 1947 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taft-Hartley_Act Taft-Hartley Act which first slowed, then halted labor’s growth and ultimately, over many decades, reduced it have been crucial. This legislation stopped mass organizing on the 1930s scale, outlawed mass picketing, secondary strikes as well as sit-downs. Wikipedia details how The Taft-Hartley enactments required hearings, campaign periods, secret-ballot elections, and sometimes more hearings, before a union could be officially recognized.

 It permitted and even encouraged employers to threaten workers who wanted to organize.

This legislation ultimately led to the “union-busting” that started with Nixon in the late 60’s. Corporate heads now feel they can violate the pro-labor provisions of the 1935 Wagner Act by firing workers at will, or firing them deliberately for exercising their legal rights.7

Illegal union firing increased during the Reagan administration and continued under the last Bush Administration. Labor strategist Kate Bronfenbrenner claims that the federal government in the 1980s was largely responsible for giving employers the perception that they could engage in aggressive strategies to repress the formation of unions.

1Al Gore, The Future, (2013) p.6

2Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality, (2012) p. 282

3Adam Davidson, “Unions play every card to stay relevant,” International Herald Tribune, February 2, 2013.

4Andrew Simms, “Less Is More,” The Guardian Weekend, 23 February 2013

5Will Hutton. The Observer, “Capitalism is bust for all but our elite.” January 20, 2013

6Yorick Blumenfeld, Dollars or Democracy. (2004)

7F.  Yorick Blumenfeld,  “Unemployment and New Jobs,” Editorial Research Reports, February 1, 1961.p.88

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