Response to Nick Unger’s “Unions as Consciousness Builders – Part 2”

On July 3rd, we posted Part II of Nick Unger’s series on union structures, labor history and union member consciousness. As with the first installment, the responses have been rolling in. Here’s a sampling:

From Martin Morand, Professor Emeritus, Industrial and Labor Relations, Indiana University of Pennsylvania:

Nick is painfully correct — as far as he has gone. Since he promises, “Glimpses of new possibilities that might make one less forlorn,” my cavils may be premature. But, “fools rush in…”

As critique this is brilliant — painfully so. Until I see the “new possibilities,” I remain forlorn. As with Occupy, it exposes and labels the enemy without quite providing a solution.

Of course, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration is naught but a list of grievances. Took another dozen years to come up with (a Very Compromised) Constitution. Fortunately, at the time, there was Tom Paine spelling out some principles regarding what was to be done — and how.

Why have we encouraged accommodation rather than insurgency? Nick points to the Wagner Act and its structure. Agreed. But, Wagner was copied, word for word, in Canada. Most of the union movement was initially organized by US-based unions. So, how come, with the same GM, Radio Shack, McDonalds, etc., their unions are nimbler than ours?

Might it be related to a political system in which unions can ally with a political party that questions capitalism? Does that bear upon the fact that Canadian labor got single payer and we settled for ACA? Does that, somewhat, shed light on why there’s no UAW in Canada? The Detroit deal which permanently split the workers between haves and have-nots was anathema to our class conscious union brethren.

N.B. Canada did NOT copy the Taft-Hartley emasculation of Wagner. When such was proposed in British Columbia unions did not just lobby. They threatened a General Strike. So, Business told the government, “Forget it.” Is this, to some significant extent, a reflection of the Cold War’s impact on silencing the left within U.S. labor?

Pursuing for a moment Nick’s question re: structure — where does exclusivity fit in? We here in the US are habituated to the notion of one union — or no union. When I tried to explain/describe the situation I found in Milan at a contract ratification meeting where the chair was from a Socialist union, the presenter of the proposed settlement from a Communist union, the maker of the motion to approve from the Catholic union and my translator of Italian to English from the “conservative — i.e. AFL-CIO-like union — to my US colleagues; they were disbelieving. “Could never work” or “would undermine ‘Solidarity’ and ‘Unity’” — watchwords for suppressing dissent.

“Does the order [in which you get the job and join the union] matter?” Of course. But, since that, in industry, is a problem without a solution, what about the other end, the “goodbye.” It is certainly true that the layoff which becomes a cutting of the umbilical cord is an extremely negative experience. Is there any way to avoid this trauma? Since we are not yet ready, willing and able to do away with the cyclical nature of the demand for labor, what in the meantime? Two thoughts:

First: There are other capitalist countries where employment (e.g. Canada, Germany) is not quite so insecure. Instead of layoffs, with last hired/first fired being the rule, they practice worksharing. (Also known as Short-Time Compensation or Kurzarbeitergeld.) Attend to the word “compensation” and the phrase “geld”.

“…a simple example. Suppose, because of reduced demand, the employer of 100 workers is planning to lay off 20 of them. Instead, however, he reduces the workweek of all 100 workers by 20 percent, and the same UI benefits that would have been paid to the 20 laid-off workers are divided among the 100.” (From, “Short-Time Compensation: A Formula for Worksharing,” Ramelle MaCoy and Martin Morand.) The benefits to society, employers and workers are spelled out in the book.

An amendment to the federal law which encourages states to amend their UI laws to permit work-sharing in lieu of layoff was introduced by Patricia Schroeder and passed by Congress over three decades ago. Initially, the proposal was opposed by AFL-CIO in an unfortunate and misbegotten notion that it undermined “the union principle of seniority-based layoffs.” Fortunately, President John Sweeney, who came out of the ILGWU which had long practiced worksharing, was persuaded, by the positive experience with the law by unions in California, to reverse field on that.

Many states followed suit, but many more have failed to do so. The reason, I believe, is related to my next point.

Second: We have forgotten, given up on, our struggle for limits on hours of work. It’s over a century and a quarter ago that labor fought for the principle of the Eight Hour Day. More than a half century ago the garment workers won the SEVEN Hour Day. (And had with it, not just coincidentally, the highest industrial wages in the world, plus: a Health Center on Seventh Avenue, a Vacation Resort in the Poconos, a Pension to supplement Social Security, even a Severance Fund as a cushion for workers when shops closed.)

There is some stirring re: higher minimum wages. Despite the enormous increases in labor productivity, nary a word about shorter hours. We have become, with too little protest or even notice, what Juliette Schorr calls in her book, “The Overworked American.”

What would happen if we were to place on the top of our agenda a combination of a demand for fuller employment with a reduction of hours and a sharing of available work together with a UI-like supplement?

Nick asks some prescient questions. He notes that “…unions provide education and training for those who ask for it.” Presumably, this means we are preaching primarily to those already partially converted. He asks if his dark assessment is accurate. Damn right. But, perhaps, “The truth shall make ye free.”

“What if anything can be done about creating an insurgent culture…?” Part of that problem is that the insurgency might threaten not only the capitalist bosses but the union bosses.

“What can college labor education programs do to help?” Similar to the preceding problem. Who controls (and funds) these programs?

This is NOT a Final Solution. Just a reaction.

From Jon Levine, ILA Local 1233, Newark, NJ:

Nick, thanks for sharing this analysis. The item that struck me sharpest was the lack of Union cards. In forty or more years of dues paying membership (United Autoworkers, in a GM assembly plant; Communication Workers, while an AFL-CIO Community Services staff worker; and ILA Longshoreman, on the docks of Port Newark), I have only seen a Union card once. I remember my grandpa Charlie’s Teamsters dues book, but we have nothing like that today.

No, while an officer of a County Central Labor Council, the council president created a simulated, spurious card in brass to be bestowed on our friends in government, management and politics as a “Gold Card” of CLC membership. Both weird and offensive to actual members.

From Thomas Matthews:

Partnering in college-based worker education programs (Penn State et al.) is useful only if labor develops or has strict oversight regarding the curriculum as well as instructors.

The problem with today’s young union members has now gone generational since many union leaders and staff have for years ignored worker education (yup…including more than a few who fear well-informed members).

Worker Education? Hell, workers are not even allowed a brief union orientation within their first months as members and most will never experience it. They are hired by the big boss or HR manager; handed over to an admin assistant (non-bargaining unit) who does the W-4 and hands the kid a management-produced rule book; then sent on to a department boss who assigns the newbie to a job alongside another worker who, at best, will be just as bewildered and ignorant or, worse yet, anti-union. Following 4 or 6 or 8 weeks of work (with little or no contact with any union steward or staff representative) this hapless young person wonders why his/her pay is short. Oops…there it is…Union dues deducted. Happy bleeping day! Added to this old train wreck is a long history of the near total lack of U.S. worker class consciousness. And now there are millions our members who are not even union conscious.

Came across this which I excised only for brevity:

Even those of the disinherited class who gathered no capital, did not give up the hope that they might become capitalists. We became a nation of believers in universal capitalism. Our press, our pulpits, our popular orators are so utterly ignorant of the real political economy that, whenever an Astor, Stewart, Vanderbilt or Stevens dies, they preach the gospel that every young man may become a millionaire. This superstition dies hard, and this reason alone sufficiently accounts for the slow progress of our efforts at organizing a labor party.

From Facts to be Considered, an editorial within The Labor Standard, published June of 1877. 137 years and the lie still lives on.

On experiences with right-to-work driving union consciousness: I found the best union members to be those who had struggled to win or sustain their union by way of experiencing either an organizational or contract strike. One might even hold that ideally, an organized workplace needed to see a strike (or at the very least a serious confrontation with the employer) every 5 or 6 years as a means of reinforcing worker militancy.