Posts Tagged ‘unionism’
by stuartbramhall in Attacks on the Working Class
In my view, the failure of the Obama administration and Congress to prevent Republican states from stripping workers of all union protections – as well as their threats to repeal Medicare, Medicaid and Social – leave American workers no choice but to follow the example of their Egyptian brothers and form their own (illegal) unions. Relying on a pro-corporate federal government to address labor rights is never going to work. It’s time for the rank and file to reclaim the freedom to have mass pickets, slowdowns and wildcat and sit down strikes in response to management misbehavior, as they did in the 1930s. Historically these are the only tactics that have won real gains for unions and workers.
The Strength of European Unions
Surprisingly the US doesn’t have the lowest rate of union membership in the industrialized world. It would seem the ineffectiveness of American unions isn’t based on low membership, but on negative public opinion and the paralyzing effect of the Taft Hartley Act – which makes US unions de facto government unions.
At present the rate of union membership in the industrialized world is determined by two main factors: the size of the public sector work force (which tends to have high unionization rates everywhere) and the percent of the private sector represented by small business (as opposed to corporations), which tend to be extremely hard to unionize. Finland (at 74%) and Sweden (at 71%) have the highest rates of unionization owing to their large public sectors. Italy and Canada (both at 30%) and the UK (at 27%) have fairly high rates, as they still have large public sectors. Germany, where both the manufacturing and public sector are strong, is 27% unionized. Greece, despite its large public sector, has a relatively low rate of unionization (23%) as 93% of its private sector consists of businesses with fewer than 20 employees. (See http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations/Across-Europe/Trade-Unions2, http://www.hrsdc.gc.ca/eng/labour/labour_relations/info_analysis/union_membership/2010/pdf/unionmembership2010.pdf and http://www.fedee.com/tradeunions.html)
Because of recent general strikes in Spain and France, I was very surprised to see the small percentage of their workforce that is unionized. The US at 11.9% falls between Spain, at 16% and France, at 8%. European Union analysts attribute labor’s organizing success in Spain and France (and Greece) to the high public regard unions enjoy in both countries. The result is that most non-union workers will strike in solidarity with a general strike called by major unions.
Following the Egyptian Example
So long as American workers follow the dictates of the Taft Hartley Act, I see no hope of building a union movement strong enough to resist Wall Street and government efforts to reduce the US to a third world sweatshop. Trade unionists in New Zealand find it laughable that US workers have to get permission from the federal government (the National Labor Relations Board) to form a union. In their view that’s hardly different from having a government-run union, like they do in Egypt and other Middle East countries.
They believe, as I do, that American workers are doomed if they continue to rely on the strategy of begging the trade union bureaucracy to beg the Democratic Party to repeal the Taft Hartley Act. Even the AFL-CIO breakaway United to Win Federation fails to mention repealing the Taft Hartley Act in their demands. As Dr Bernard points out in her interview (http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?Itemid=74&id=31&jumival=3548&option=com_content&task=view), the increasingly pro-corporate Democrats have had ample opportunity (during numerous periods where they controlled both Congress and the White House) to repeal the Taft Hartley Act and have resisted doing so.
Facebook and Social Networking Aren’t the Answer
I recently checked out the “Repeal the Taft Hartley Act” Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Repeal-the-Taft-Hartley-Act/123394871061984 It has a grand total of five members (including me). The corporate-controlled media want us to believe Facebook and Twitter produced the revolution in Egypt, when in reality it resulted from years of sustained organizing by Egypt’s (illegal) union movement (see “Egypt’s Invisible Labor Movement” at http://stuartbramhall.aegauthorblogs.com/2011/02/23/egypts-invisible-labor-movement/).
by stuartbramhall in Attacks on the Working Class
The effect of the 1947 Taft Hartley Act on union membership was almost immediate. In 1946 the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) had 6.3 million members. By 1954, when it merged with the AFL, this number was 4.6 million. This steady drop continued. In 1954 34.7% of American workers belonged to a union. By 2010, this had dropped to 11.9% (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm).
There are obviously multiple factors leading to the decline of unions in the US: the wholesale export of union manufacturing jobs, the expulsion of militant unionists (thanks to Taft Hartley’s red baiting clause), enabling union bureaucrats to identify more strongly with management than the rank and file; CIA infiltration of the AFL-CIO; Mafia involvement in the Teamsters and other unions with large pension funds; and the systematic Wall Street public relations campaign to demonize unions and the working class.
1. The export of American manufacturing jobs – the wholesale shutdown of US factories to relocate overseas was clearly a disaster for both the US economy and the trade union movement. Yet many on the Left argue, as I do, that a strong union movement would have stopped Ronald Reagan from repealing the tariff, quota and tax laws that, prior to 1980, would have prevented this massive dislocation. To make matters worse, as hundreds of thousands of workers left their good paying union jobs to take minimum wage jobs at MacDonald’s and Wal-Mart, the restrictions imposed by the Taft Hartley Act made it extremely difficult for unions to organize them in this new sector.
2. The expulsion of militant trade unionists – generous wages and benefits gave US workers a false sense of security during the economic boom of the fifties and sixties. Especially after the expulsion of more militant unionists, this allowed the conservative union leaders to identify more with corporate executives than with rank and file workers. Instead of lobbying to repeal Taft Hartley and relying on a well-organized rank and file and industrial action, union bosses became more focused on “sweetheart deals,” in which they got special perks from management for guaranteeing labor discipline among the workers they were supposed to represent. Rank and file unionists fought back in the 1970s with the formation of Teamsters for a Democratic Union and similar reform groups who fought hard for the right to elect their union leadership. In 2005 the union reform movement led the Teamsters and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to form the Change to Win Federation.
3. CIA infiltration of the AFL-CIO leadership – during the fifties and sixties, CIA infiltration clearly played a role in the AFL-CIO’s abandonment of rank and file workers. Former CIA officer Tom Braden bragged in a 1967 Saturday Evening Post article about the number of AFL-CIO officers he placed on the CIA payroll. See http://revitalisinglabour.blogspot.com/2009/04/lenny-brenner-on-tom-braden.html, http://www.laboreducator.org/darkpast2.htm and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Braden
4. Mafia and organized crime involvement – participation by Mafia figures such as Jimmy Hoffa in the Teamsters and other major unions (the millions of dollars the unions held in their pension funds were irresistible to organized crime) was a major factor in turning public opinion against unionism and organized labor. The refusal of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to recognize or fight organized crime clearly enabled the takeover of the Teamsters by the Mafia. Both the FBI and CIA have a history of collaborating with organized crime in drug trafficking, strike breaking and in “anti-Communist” campaigns targeting trade unions and leftist groups in the US and Europe (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucky_Luciano, http://www.converge.org.nz/pirm/cia.htm and http://tinyurl.com/6f6vms5 – an excerpt from Opium: Uncovering the Politics of the Poppy by Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy). The FBI and military intelligence also collaborated with senior organized crime figures in the JFK assassination (see the 1970 Torbitt Document, based on New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison’s grand jury investigation of the JFK Assassination http://www.newsmakingnews.com/torbitt.htm)
5. Wall Street’s public relations campaign to demonize unions – I have written at length (see “Thinking Like Egyptians” http://stuartbramhall.aegauthorblogs.com/2011/03/01/thinking-like-egyptians/) about a systematic, seven decade corporate campaign to bombard the American public with anti-union, anti-worker and anti-working class messages. The late Australian psychologist Alex Carey was the first to document the extent of this campaign in his 1995 Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty.
by stuartbramhall in Attacks on the Working Class
The US union movement was built during the last serious recession (the Great Depression, which started in 1929). Then, as now, employers took advantage of the economic downturn to cut wages, pile on work and force employees to work under sweatshop conditions. In the 1930s organized labor, largely led by the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), fought back through sit down and wildcat strikes. A wildcat strike is an unofficial strike, usually called in response to mistreatment of a co-worker. In essence, workers refuse to return until management agrees to their demands.
Because slowdowns and wildcat and sit down strikes are illegal under the Taft Hartley Act, American unions face steep fines for engaging in them. In 2011, if a worker is bullied, harassed or illegally fired by an employer, his only option is to file a grievance through the National Labor Relations Board, a process that can drag out for months or years. Because there are no real sanctions against employers, workplace bullying and harassment are incredibly common in the US. In my Seattle practice, I counseled numerous victims of workplace harassment while they waited for their grievance hearing. The stress of trying to work productively in a hostile environment is so enormous that most are forced to quit or take unpaid leave while waiting for their grievance to be heard.
Other Taft Hartley provisions that restrict labor rights:
- Taft Hartley authorizes states to enact right-to-work laws. These laws outlaw collective bargaining contracts (contracts agreed on between union and management) that make union membership a condition of employment. Such laws are virtually unheard of in other countries, as they permit “free-rider” workers to enjoy the hard won benefits of union membership (wages and benefits are always better in a union company) without joining the union or paying dues. In the 22 states (mostly in the South and Rocky Mountain region) that have them, they have reduced union membership to a level that it has virtually no effect on working conditions.
- Taft Hartley excludes supervisors and independent contractors (which includes most doctors) as employees for purposes of union membership. This has allowed companies to arbitrarily designate thousands of employees as independent contractors and/or supervisors and thus deprive them of union protection. As well greatly reducing potential union membership.
- Taft Hartley makes pass picketing illegal – a common tactic used during the 1930s to discourage scab labor from entering the worksite.
- Taft Hartley allows the President to obtain an 80 day court ordered injunction to halt a strike, allowing the employer sufficient time to recruit scabs to replace striking workers.
- Taft Hartley establishes the right of management to campaign against union membership (often incorporating coercive scare tactics) during a unionizing drive. This is in marked contrast to European countries, where employers (who always have an unfair advantage) are required to maintain a neutral stance towards union organizing.
- Taft Hartley allows the employer to petition for a union certification election and/or decertification election. Similar laws are also unheard of in Europe. Management frequently uses this provision to force a premature certification vote, before workers have had a full discussion of the pros and cons of union membership.
- Taft Hartley prohibits secondary boycotts directed against neutral companies to pressure employers who are refusing to negotiate. Prior to 1947, this was one of organized labor’s most potent tools.
- Taft Hartley allows employers to delay union certification by demanding National Labor Relations Board hearings on key matters of dispute (such as what constitutes a bargaining unit). Management often uses the time to coerce individual workers to vote against the union.
- Taft Hartley establishes heavy penalties against unions who violate the Act and negligible penalties for employer violations. This tends to make employer violations of labor rights (e.g. illegal firing of labor supporters during organizing drives) routine.
- (Prior to 1965) Taft Hartley required all union leaders to sign an anti-communist pledge. Prior to its 1965 repeal, this led to massive red-baiting in the union movement, with the result that the most militant union members were either expelled or forced out.
To be continued.
by stuartbramhall in Attacks on the Working Class
Like the F-word, the U-word is largely taboo in polite society, especially among younger Americans. According to a recent survey 41% of Americans “disapprove” of unions (see http://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/2010/09/why-has-union-membership-declined.html). Generation X,Y and Z Americans are more likely to view unions as irrelevant, rather than negative. I find all this incredibly sad, as American workers owe the forty hour week (it used to be 70+ hours), workplace safety laws and the end of child labor to the union movement.
I myself come from a proud union family. My mother walked the picket line as a member of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association. My father, a radio announcer, belonged to the American Federation of Television and Radio artists. AFTRA saved his career after his boss fired him for taking a sick day when a nut allergy caused him to suffer anaphylactic reaction. October 21, 2002 was a very proud day for me when I (at 54) joined my first union: the New Zealand Association of Salaried Medical Specialists. In the US, most salaried doctors are viewed as independent contractors and are prohibited under the Taft Hartley Act from unionizing. My proudest day was in 2006 when I voted to undertake industrial action (stop work meetings and, if need be, strike action), in response to management efforts to remove patient safety provisions from our contact.
America’s Toothless Trade Union Movement
Yet I can’t say I blame younger Americans for their dismissive attitude towards unions. Thanks to the repressive Taft Hartley Act the US passed in 1947, American unions essentially function as government unions, owing to stringent federal restrictions on their activities. This only struck home as I read about the essential role illegal Egyptian unions played in Egypt’s February revolution (see “Egypt’s Invisible Labor Movement” at http://stuartbramhall.aegauthorblogs.com/2011/02/23/egypts-invisible-labor-movement/).
In Egypt, all workers are required to join the government-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation, and independent trade unions are banned. Members of the Trade Union Federation are required to get government permission (which is rarely granted) to strike. However since 1998, nearly two million Egyptian workers have formed independent unions and have engaged in more than 3,000 strikes. Moreover it was the threat of a general strike (and the closure of the Suez Canal) that ultimately forced Mubarak to resign.
Should the US Repeal the Taft Hartley Act?
Hell, yes. Obviously there is no official government union in the US. Nevertheless, for all practical purposes, the Taft Hartley Act forces the American trade union movement to function as a de facto government union by repealing many of the labor rights guaranteed under the 1935 Wagner Act (for example it makes mass picketing, slowdowns and sit down and wildcat strikes illegal).
Progressive pundits scratch their heads wondering why American workers aren’t in the streets like their European counterparts – as Congress and many states roll back wages, pensions, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and every other gain they have won over the past 70 years. The 1947 Taft Hartley Act was passed by a Republican Congress over President Truman’s veto. Yet the increasingly pro-corporate Democrats, despite unwavering support from organized labor, have never attempted to repeal it – despite numerous opportunities when they controlled both Congress and the presidency (such as 2009-2010 under Obama).
Repealing Taft Hartley was part of Ralph Nader’s platform in the 2000, 2004 and 2008, which might explain why the so-called “alternative” media attacked him so viciously. In fact the only people talking about repealing Taft Hartley are Nader, a few socialist groups, and Dr Elaine Bernard, the Executive Director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. Certainly no one in the trade union bureaucracy talks about it. Nevertheless so long as Taft Hartley remains in force, the “official” trade union movement is virtually paralyzed in fighting the all-out attack in many states against the right to unionize.
Click here to see an interview with Dr Bernard explaining the major role Taft Hartley Act and other anti-union laws have played in the decline of America’s union movement:
To be continued, with a discussion of the specific Taft Hartley provisions that suppress labor rights.