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A Future For Unions, If They Can Keep It

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A Future For Unions, If They Can Keep It

Unions, Right To Work

In the space of one day, the Los Angeles City Council votes to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2020 and Philadelphia Democrats nominate a mayoral candidate who ran on a platform of raising wages. Are unions on a roll?

When it comes to lifting the earnings of low-income workers, the answer is a definite yes. Last year, voters approved ballot measures to raise the minimum wage in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and the California cities of San Francisco and Oakland. In 10 other states, as well as Chicago and the District of Columbia, lawmakers enacted raises. This year, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio is pushing for a $15 minimum wage and New York governor Andrew Cuomo says he will use executive authority to raise the wages of fast-food workers. Walmart and McDonald’s are voluntarily increasing pay to some workers.

The income issue is moving so fast that President Obama’s call last year to raise the $7.25 federal minimum wage to $10.10 already seems outdated; congressional Democrats recently introduced a bill to push it to $12. The Obama administration, meanwhile, is expected to announce an update in overtime rules that will give millions of workers a raise.

At the same time, union members and clout are ebbing. Membership stood at 14.6 million or 11.1 percent of the labor force last year, according to the Labor Department. That’s down from 17.7 million and 20.1 percent in 1983. And unions are losing political fights at every level.

Even as he readies that overtime-rule update, Obama is in a high-profile, high-stakes fight with labor over what could be the chief accomplishment of his second term. That would be the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement with 11 Asian-Pacific nations, for which he wants “fast-track” authority that would limit congressional input to an up or down vote on a final deal.

The spectacle has featured Obama and Senator Elizabeth Warren trading personal attacks over who is right about potential harm to priorities they both hold dear, and AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka exchanging jabs with Obama over which one of them is living in the past. With Obama, Republicans and some Democrats lined up against them, the most unions can hope for is that negotiators heed their critiques.

A potentially more dire development for unions is Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s ascent to the top tier of the 2016 Republican presidential field — in large part on his reputation as a union buster. Unions tried to oust him in a 2012 recall election after he ended collective bargaining for state public employee unions, but all they did was turn him into a conservative martyr with sky-high name recognition and a national fundraising base.

Walker not only beat the recall, he won re-election in 2014 and promptly made Wisconsin the 25th state with a right-to-work law that lets people opt out of joining unions in workplaces represented by unions. Public-employee union membership, meanwhile, has plummeted since the collective bargaining ban.

Not surprisingly, Walker is running for president as the David who slew the Goliath of labor. He never fails to rouse conservative audiences with tales of the 100,000 protestors at the Capitol, the death threats to him and his wife, his resolve and ultimate victory over “the big-government union bosses,” and his appreciation for the prayers of supporters around the country. Especially supporters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

Whether labor is really a Goliath is questionable. In South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley attacked unions in her State of the State address and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers withdrew a request for an April 22 vote on forming a union at the Boeing Dreamliner plant in North Charleston. Lead organizer Mike Evans cited “an atmosphere of threats, harassment and unprecedented political interference” in an April 17 release that’s painful to read. The union said two organizers were threatened at gunpoint and others reported “hostile and near-violent confrontations.”

Yet a Winthrop University poll in March finds that even in South Carolina, 68 percent favor raising the minimum wage, suggesting a ballot initiative there could well succeed.

The path forward for unions is murky. Campaigning for issues and candidates important to workers takes money, which takes members who pay dues. And while the push for higher wages is a cause sweeping the land, what about other union functions, such as making sure workplaces are safe and workers aren’t abused?

Threats at gunpoint notwithstanding, union organizers should not be deterred. In a Pew Research Center poll in March, people viewed unions favorably by 48 percent to 39 percent. Even more encouraging, support for the right to organize in specific sectors was as high as 82 percent and the age group most supportive of unions was 18 to 29. Polls and election results alike suggest labor has a future, if it can keep it.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com. 

File Photo: Thousands of protesters gather for a rally on the State Capitol grounds in Lansing, Michigan, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012. The crowd was protesting right-to-work legislation that had been passed by the state legislature the previous week. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Jill Lawrence

Award-winning journalist Jill Lawrence is a nationally syndicated columnist and a contributing editor to U.S. News & World Report. She also contributed to The Surge: 2014's Big GOP Win and What It Means for the Next Presidential Race (2015). Lawrence has discussed political and policy developments on television, radio, and many other media outlets. She was an adjunct professorial lecturer at American University in 2014, teaching on the relationship between politics and the media.

Lawrence has covered every presidential campaign since 1988, as well as historic events such as the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, the Clinton impeachment, the Florida recount, and the 1993 and 2009 battles over health reform.

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  1. Dominick Vila May 21, 2015

    To say that the future of organized labor in the USA is bleak would be an under statement. The reason for this circumstance, which is the exact opposite to what is happening in most industrialized nations, include the fact that most Americans either don’t know or forgot the fact that the reason most Americans enjoy high compensation, employer provided healthcare, paid vacations, paid sick leave, paid bereavement, maternity leave, and work in a relatively safe environment is because of the labor unions that fought for those rights. Another important element in our aversion to organized labor is the ability of corporate America to turn them into dark, smoke filled room, thugs plotting to destroy our society, and convincing millions of Americans that the only way to keep jobs in America is to forgo pay increases and benefits. The fact that prosperous European and Asian countries enjoy a high standard of living, and benefit from organized labor is never mentioned or simply ignored.
    Like every organizations, labor Unions have made many mistakes, but I think we will make a huge mistake if we abandon the concept of representative unity, and let corporations set the rules for us, especially for blue collar workers.

    1. mike May 21, 2015

      Why have so many companies gone overseas?? Costs because of labor unions and their demands make the U.S. less competitive in most fields. Less taxes and regulations plays a part.
      When given an opportunity to not have to pay union dues the workers opt out having dues taken from their checks.
      Unions function as labor cartels that seek to reduce job opportunities, causes unionized companies to lose jobs. Economists consistently find that unions decrease the number of jobs available in the economy. The vast majority of manufacturing jobs lost over the past three decades have been among union members–non-union manufacturing employment has risen. Research also shows that widespread unionization delays recovery from economic downturns.

      What should be asked, why are labor unions donating to Clinton Foundation?What is more disturbing is categorizing them as “Policital” on disclosure forms. Using such funds to support the Clinton Foundation strikes me as problematic. Is there a union initiative in the Clinton Foundation?? If not, why over 2 million?

      1. Insinnergy May 21, 2015

        Complete bu11shit.

        There is nothing that either paying people properly, or not paying them properly in the USA will affect when a company can see a way to pay a Bangladeshian child 25 cents a day to make the same things. Or a Chinese manufacturer minion $10 a day to make your iPhone.

        Did you see the analysis that it would add roughly $30 odd dollars to the cost of each phone to make it in the USA?… That’s about 2%.
        So in order that the company can make that extra 2% profit on each phone they are willing to ship those jobs overseas and abuse workers in other countries. That’s how little they care about keeping labor in the USA, or the people who labor in the USA.
        Profit rules.

        The only time it would become even profit-neutral to move manufacturing back to home would be if US workers agreed to the same wages as Chinese iPhone slaves.

        It generally doesn’t matter if it’s immoral, or unethical. As long as it is profitable. See “The Gap” for example… serial offender for decades.

        Look at the effect this has on the rest of the USA… Jobs are suddenly scarce… labor is in a high supply, low demand situation. Companies have more power to offer lower and lower wages until they find the absolute minimum amount that the most desperate person is willing to accept.

        So, now, lets exaggerate this a little to make my point:
        Let’s say we live the Republican wet dream, boost corporate profits massively, remove all regulation, cut all social funding of any sort, repeal Obamacare, remove Medicaid, allow companies to ship whatever jobs they like to China and we end up with no social safety net, and 30% unemployment.

        Now you have absolutely desperate people who cannot feed themselves or their children, starving and dying in the streets… and well-off Republican philosophers opining further about how “if people would just stop being lazy” and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” then they wouldn’t be in this mess. “It’s self-created poverty really.”

        In this scenario Apple can now offer $1 per day to work in their US iPhone plant, and people will jump at the chance, because the alternative is starvation and death. This undercuts the Chinese and provides a business case to bring manufacturing back to the USA.
        Walmart can offer 25 cents a day… and people will take it. The unregulated free market wins again!

        Does it matter to the profit takers or the free market that the result of this is to treat human beings like cattle, and mince them up in the system? Not a bit.

        So the purpose of a union is to bring some balance back into this equation. And in the strongest way demand a certain level of humanity from the corporations, or ensure they lose profits through strike action. This rebalances the profit equation: “Yes we can squeeze them this much, but more than that and our business stops functioning”.
        Can Unions go too far? Sure.
        Are they asking for too much in the USA at the moment? Not even close.
        Do any of the anti-union arguments stack up at this point in the USA? Don’t make me laugh.

        The purpose of government is to regulate so that a certain balance is maintained between the two forces, which keeps the economy healthy. With the corporations now buying the politicians, the US is in very dangerous waters.

        The critical point here is this: Corporations seek only profit. And they generally do it at any cost, including inhumane, immoral and unethical practices. Like Wall Street recently… they will continue to push for less regulation and more freedom, lower wages, fewer benefits, less jobs, and shipping jobs overseas until… The majority of people (who actually make up the “Market” they are selling to directly and indirectly) have no income left to actually buy their products.
        Sales start falling, profits reduce, society begins crumbling, education is failing, skilled worker numbers are dropping, crime is rising… and you know what they will do then?

        Take their money and decamp to somewhere else where there are profits to be made. Because they don’t give a cr@p about you, your country, or anything else, other than profit.

        1. Dominick Vila May 22, 2015

          It is also important to remember that the reason so many American corporations are investing and building plants in China is to get market share, and profit from it. The potential for profit in China is huge, and our investors are well aware of it.
          The greatest threat to American labor, and labor worldwide, is automation. Work that used to be performed by human a few decades ago is now being done by computers or robotics. This trend is going to continue, and will actually increase as technology improves the efficiency of robotics.
          The best thing our young can do is to pursue careers or trades in areas where automation is difficult, and where reliance on human intervention and intelligence will be needed for decades to come.
          The only way to remain competitive, intellectually speaking, is to invest in education, both at the college and trade school level, to ensure our young are prepared to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
          On the issue of high wages, the obvious question for those who oppose a higher minimum wage, and those who attack unions because they hold them responsible for their members their members earning livable wages, having a good benefit package, and working in a safe environment, is to ask them if they are proposing Bangladesh level wages and a work place for Americans? Instead of focusing on Third World or repressive countries, we would be well served trying to figure out why Northern European countries remain competitive in spite of the high standard of living they enjoy, and having a much lower level of financial inequality than we do. Countries like Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, and Germany should serve as models for us to emulate, rather than lamenting that we are not competitive, from a labor cost perspective, with countries like Bangladesh or India.

          1. midway54 May 22, 2015

            Well said…as usual. Let us all consider how few immigrants there are from the Scandinavan countries, Germany and the Netherlands knocking down our doors to get in for a better life as described by our plutocrats through the freedom to work for less and do without health care for profit because of its unaffordable cost. Don’t need that big gummint socialistic stuff in the U.S.

  2. latebloomingrandma May 21, 2015

    Wisconsin was the test case for union busting, funded by ALEC (translation-Koch brothers funding). If successful, it was to be duplicated in all Republican led states. Another ALEC goal was to get a majority of Republican led states. This happened in time to gerrymander districts to their favor after the 2010 census. Surprise!!!
    We now have a majority or Repub. led states, redrawn districts to insure that they have a majority of Republican congresspersons, safe until 2020.
    Their goals are coming to pass. Keep your eyes on Scott Walker–bought and paid for by the Kochs to do their bidding and remake America. He’s on his way.

  3. Eleanore Whitaker May 21, 2015

    What is going on in businesses today is a direct attack on labor. Here’s an example. Businesses hire temp recruiters to hire only temps to fill jobs. You’ll never who most of these temp recruiters are hiring…illegals. It is so long past time to fine any business who hires illegals. There is NO reason for them to make any excuse of “not knowing.” There isn’t an employer in the US who isn’t aware of the government data base that allows them to check the status of a new hire. Next excuse?

    When these recruiters hire these people, the basic threat is job loss if they don’t accept the most arcane business policies…like no holidays, no vacation time and no raises for up to 2 or more years. How is that not increasing business profits? And, these businesses are not paying their fair share of taxes. They make these under the table profits and shove them into offshore bank accounts tax free. All off the backs of workers they threatened with job loss or worse, deportation and stiffing them on paying overtime for working holidays when they know these are federal holidays that have been allowed time off for decades.

  4. maxpain May 21, 2015

    Haha im in a union make good money and good working conditions, the company I work for has billions of dollars, god forbid I make a fair living.

    1. midway54 May 22, 2015

      Well gee whiz the plutocrats and their shills in the majority Plutocratic Party in Congress and the States are only striving to protect American workers’ from those “union bosses.”


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