The State of Organized Labor

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was a member of the Communication Workers of America union back in the early 1980s. I am not a member of a union today but am very interested in labor and the labor movement.

There are several reasons for my interest in labor issues. There is the role that labor played in the building, development and progress of our nation (i.e., railroads, industries, and mines), especially in the mid-to-late 1800s. Labor fought for and helped secure many of the benefits that working men and women enjoy today – the eight-hour work day, safety standards and laws, and laws that protect children at work. And, today, union members’ wages are 27% higher than non-union workers, 93% of union workers are covered by health insurance and 76% of all union workers get paid sick days where they work.

So, I am trying to educate myself about unions and have found some interesting articles on the subject.

One article that I’ve recently read is entitled, “The State of Organized Labor in the U.S.”, by Elaine Bernard, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard University Law School.

In the opening paragraphs of the article, Ms. Bernard points out that organized labor has been in decline over the past 50 years. In 1955, one out of every three workers was a union member. In 2007, only one in eight workers was a union member nationally, and less that one in 12 was a union member in the private sector. Today, union density “stands at a dismal 12 percent nationally.”

Ms. Bernard then states that, “This decline in unions has contributed to the stagnating wages of the majority of workers and aptly demonstrates that workers in one sector can not expect to maintain their standards if workers everywhere are seeing their wages and conditions eroded.”

The article continues as Ms. Bernard asks and then answers three questions: Why the Decline in Unions Hurts Everyone? If Organizing is the Answer, What’s the Question? What is the Ultimate Role of Labor?

The answers that Ms. Bernard gives to these questions will be approvingly accepted by many and cynically denounced by others.

The last two paragraphs give, in my opinion, the summary statement of the article.

In short, unions are the primary institution of a free, democratic society, promoting democracy in the workplace, as well as economic and social justice, and equality. They have this role because they are instruments of transformation of members and of society at large. In this wonderful transformation rests the real power of the unions.

Is the goal of unions merely to build lobbying power, the political influence of its leaders to get a little more for its members? Or is it to transform power in society as a whole by extending democracy to the workplace and the economic sphere and ultimately to break up concentrations of power, influence, and wealth? If labor’s goal is the transformation of power, then this goal means leading a democratic struggle throughout society and within workplaces. It means constructing democratic unions and moving beyond a stategy of simply seeking to lobby those in power, whether by militant or cooperative strategies, and instead, building a democratic alternative to the concentration of power and wealth.”

I found this article to be interesting, informative and  thought provoking.

This article was posted November 18, 2008 on the “talkingunion” blog. You can read it here.

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