Why Unions Matter: Why Full Employment Matters to Unions*

UNCOMMON SENSE 19 © March 1998 *Adapted from NEW PARTY PAPER 4, Open Magazine Pamphlet Series.

by Elaine Bernard, Executive Director, Trade Union Program, Harvard University, and member of the Advisory Board, National Jobs for All Coalition

Do unions really matter any more? And if they do, what should be their mission: to build a movement to represent and defend the interests of only their own members? Or to represent and defend the interests of all working people? In the United States there has been an irrational and self-defeating division of labor. Unions organize workplaces, while other groups–so-called social movements and identity groups–organize the community. This division of turf misleadingly implies that there is an easy division between workplace issues and other economic and social struggles. These separate spheres have meant that US progressives, who often march in solidarity with workers around the world, often fail to support workers here at home.

For those striving for social and economic justice, organizing the workplace is crucial. Yet, in one sense, a workplace by nature is already organized–employees usually need to cooperate with others to accomplish their assignments. Everyone there is earning money, so it is a resource-rich community compared to many others; and decisions of great importance are made there. It may also be a place where global capital puts its foot down, so there is an opportunity for people to act upon it and influence it. Thus, the workplace is an important place for organizing–and not just for bread and butter issues, as important as they may be.

Democracy and participation: not at work

The worksite is also a place where workers learn about the relations of power, especially about how few rights they have to participate in decisions that greatly affect their lives. The autocratic hierarchy at work undermines democracy. It is not surprising that after spending eight hours a day obeying orders, people do not then engage in robust, critical dialogue about the structure of our society. Being a deferential servant from nine to five diminishes a worker’s after-hours liberty and sense of civic entitlement and responsibility.

Of course, not all workers are unhappy, nor are all workplaces hellish. Rather, the workplace is a unique location where we have come to accept our lack of entitlement to the rights we normally enjoy as citizens. Take a fundamental rule of our legal system–the presumption of innocence. If management accuses a worker of a transgression, there is no such presumption. Even in organized workplaces, the rule remains: work first, grieve later. Workers protected by a collective agreement with a contractual grievance procedure can at least grieve an unjust practice (or, specifically, one that that violates the rights won through collective bargaining). But unorganized workers only have the option of appealing to their superiorsô benevolence or joining the unemployment line. “Free” labor entails no rights other than the freedom to quit without penalty. That’s one step up from indentured servitude, but a long way from democracy.

There is not even protection against arbitrary and capricious actions by management. For example, workers have no right to employment security and no protection against unjust dismissal in the private sector, unlike workers in most other advanced industrial countries. The US workplace is governed by the doctrine of “employment at will.” While there is some protection for employees against dismissal for clearly discriminatory reasons of race, gender, disability or age, that same employee can be black, female, older, white, male or whatever, and as long as the dismissal is for “no reason,” it’s legal. Most Americans believe that there is a law that protects them from being fired for “no cause.” But they’re wrong. When entering the workplace, citizens are transformed into employees who leave their rights at the door.

Free speech for whom?

A glaring example of the power imbalance on the job concerns freedom of speech. Though we celebrate it as the most cherished right of a free citizen, most Americans are astonished to learn that freedom of speech does not extend to the workplace, or at least not to workers. It is literally true that free speech exists for bosses but not for workers. Because the Bill of Rights forbids only government, not “private,” restrictions on speech, it does not protect workers’ speech. Further tilting the balance of power against workers, the Supreme Court held that corporations are “persons” and therefore protected by the Bill of Rights. So any legislation (e.g., the National Labor Relations Act) or agency (e.g., the National Labor Relations Board) that seeks to restrict a corporate “person’s” freedom of speech, is unacceptable. This means that employers are entitled to hold compulsory sessions to lecture employees on the employers’ views of unions without granting employees or their unions the right of response. Thus the First Amendment protects fictitious “legal” persons (including transnational corporations designated as persons) against the infringement of their rights by government–but not the infringement of rights of real persons (workers) by the private concentration of power and wealth known as corporations.

The unfinished New Deal Agenda

Few people remember that the National Labor Relations Act (1935), the cornerstone of US labor law, was intended not simply to provide a procedure to end workplace strife. Rather, this New Deal legislation had a more ambitious mission: to promote industrial democracy by “free collective bargaining.” Now, the very term “industrial democracy” seems like a contradiction in terms. While we might not expect politicians to lead the charge on this issue, what about organized labor? While an occasional union document mentions it, there has been little recent effort by US unions to connect workplace rights with the overall struggle of working people for democracy. Fighting for workplace democracy, and not simply the right to form unions, is vital to the restoration of labor’s social mission. It is not only the right strategy; it is smart, too. With organized labor down to only 14 percent of the total workforce (1997) the vast majority of workers have no direct experience with unions. But as citizens, they have a conception of democracy and their rights.

Organized labor has, of course, long sought to restore some balance to US labor law. Supreme Court decisions rolling back union and worker rights, as well as management-inspired amendments to labor law, have restricted union organizers while freeing management to penalize workers who attempt to exercise their rights. Management can, of course, voluntarily recognize unions or permit workers to participate in decision-making, but these are not rights. Though collective bargaining gives workers power that can win rights, this is different from having rights. Like a hunting license, it guarantees only opportunity.

Another important New Deal legacy, at least as important to workers, is the Economic Bill of Rights, advocated by Franklin Roosevelt in his 1944 State of the Union address. First on the list was “the right to a useful and remunerative job….” (Others include a decent home, medical care, economic security, and education.) Union power in the workplace needs the support of national policies guaranteeing jobs for all who want them, either through appropriate macroeconomic policy or direct job creation. It is difficult for unions to secure gains when unemployment threatens the livelihood of workers.

Beyond “bread and butter” unionism

The United States currently has the highest levels of income inequality in the advanced industrial world, and the majority of US workers have experienced declining real wages for 25 years. Economic inequality and falling wages are linked to workplace democracy and job availability. Workers’ rights are crucial issues for organizing, and organizing is essential to overcoming problems of inequality and falling wages. But organizing does not create jobs. A chronically job-short economy undermines unions. As Roosevelt quoted in the 1944 address mentioned above, “necessitous men are not free men.” An important aim of the reconstructed union movement must be to ensure the conditions for full employment. An important recent study** reports a link between pay and unemployment. As the authors conclude, “A worker who is employed in an area of high unemployment earns less than an identical individual who works in a region with low joblessness.” In short, an area’s joblessness helps to determine the ability of workers and unions to get raises. So, too, in the national economy, two decades of high unemployment is an important reason for wage stagnation.

If the aims of unions are, as stated by the AFL-CIO, to “achieve decent wages and conditions, democracy in the workplace, a full voice for working people in society, and the more equitable sharing of the wealth of the nation,” then unions must be more than service organizations for their members. Though servicing the membership is often believed incompatible with fulfilling a wider social mission, it is increasingly clear that unions need to do both. Unions, like any organization, will not survive if they do not serve their members’ needs. Nor will they survive if they only serve those needs.

The experience of organized labor in the United States demonstrates this: in the narrowest sense of “delivering” for members, US trade unions have been the most “successful” labor movement in the world. Unions won for their members benefits such as pensions, health care, and paid vacations that working people in other industrial countries were able to win only through political as well as industrial action. US trade unionists also enjoy the highest wage premium in any country–that is, the difference in pay and benefits between organized and unorganized workers in the same sector. Thus if serving the membership were the key to building unions, then the US should have the highest rate of unionization in the world, not one of the lowest. The low levels of unionization underline the downside to labor’s achievement: the higher the wage premium, the greater the employer resistance to unionization. By failing to extend the gains made by unions to the rest of working people, these gains are now threatened.

A second problem in winning benefits only for their own members is that eventually, this approach isolates unionists from other working people. Unionists are left with little sense of belonging to a broad class movement that includes all workers. Members see joining the union as purchasing a service, not participating in a movement for social change. Ultimately working people, start to see unions as simply another “special interest” rather than organizations representing the interest of the vast majority of people–workers.

Unions and politics: constructing the possible

Most unionists recognize that politics is important and that there is nothing that labor can win at the bargaining table that cannot be taken away by regulation, legislation or political decision-making. Politics has always been fundamentally a contest of ideas. For the working person today, it is useful to see politics as the process of constructing the possible. In essence, it is the process of deciding which issues warrant a social response and which are best left to the individual.

The 1994 debate over health care reform exemplified this process. The question was whether we should leave this critical service to individuals seeking private solutions through a maze of various insurance plans or whether society as a whole should assure comprehensive, affordable quality coverage for all. Some few proposed a single-payer system like Canada’s, where the provision of insurance is socialized but the practice of medicine is private, with freedom of choice of doctors assured. Although we have already socialized health insurance for the elderly through Medicare, many Americans seemed to balk at the prospect of extending it to all. Yet in our history, we have often done precisely that–socialized a service, thereby transforming it from an individual responsibility to a community-provided universal right.

Fire service throughout this country was an individual responsibility at the turn of the century. Those who could afford it, and those who had the most to lose in case of fire, financed private fire departments. Insured buildings had iron plaques so that in case of fire the local fire service could identify them and act promptly. While the uninsured could engage in expedited negotiations with the fire department over fees when fire struck, fire spreads easily from the uninsured to the insured. It gradually dawned on the insured that the only complete protection was to insure everyone. So the insured supported socializing fire service: a public system financed by taxes extended it to everyone. The universal system was cheaper and more efficient, with quality assured because rich and poor alike were covered. The problem of fires was thereby moved from the realm of individual concern to collective responsibility. We may eventually see guarantees of the right to employment and to health care as similarly a public function.

Who decides: market values or social values?

The current politics in the United States and elsewhere designates virtually all problems as the responsibility of the individual, whose fate is left to the mercy of the market. Markets have their uses, but are oblivious to morals or democratic decision-making and promote only the value of profit. In the marketplace, it’s “one dollar, one vote,” which despite an appearance of neutrality, privileges the rich at the expense of the poor. The marketplace must not be permitted to replace social decision-making.

The elevation of the market as the sole arbitrator of values deprives people of a sense of belonging to a community. Instead, people feel isolated and demoralized. An individual can’t opt for full employment, rapid transit or improved public schools, so by default, these problems become “unsolvable.” This frightening world view forces people to seek individual solutions. If there is no such thing as society, then government is a waste, and redistributive programs are robbery. Worse yet, anything that goes from my pocket makes it that much harder for me and my family to survive.

Unions and civil society

The labor movement builds communities–that’s what unions do. By bringing together workers who have few rights, who are isolated and often competing against each other, unions forge a community in the workplace. They help workers understand that they have rights, and they provide a collective vehicle for exercising those rights. And they fight for the right of workers to participate in decision-making in the workplace. But labor movements and other communities of common interest don’t just happen. They must be constructed. This is an ongoing process, rather like democracy. And like democracy, it’s a process that can be rolled back or reversed. At 16 million members, the labor movement remains the largest multi-racial, multi-issue membership organization in the country. As such, it is a prime target of the New Right’s assault on working people’s rights, both in and out of the workplace. Because unions are the only organizations capable of representing all working people, the success of their cause reaches far beyond their own survival. Expansion of the labor movement would be a major step in securing working people’s rights. Such an expansion would be easier to accomplish in a full employment society.

**David G. Blanchflower and Andrew J. Oswald, The Wage Curve, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.

Editors: June Zaccone, Economics (Emer.), Hofstra University and Helen Lachs Ginsburg,, Economics (Emer.), Brooklyn College, CUNY