Labor Day – The Union Point of View


A look at union membership this Labor Day finds that while all union officials have not lost their power to force workers into joining, private sector membership remains less than 7 percent, but government employee union membership is five times that rate.  This announcement is not only dismal for workers, but for taxpayers as well. 

While The National Right to Work Law plank in the 2012 Republican Party Platform has been cited as a deterrent to union membership, apparently government employee unions have not gotten the message.

Government employee unions continue to hold workers and taxpayers hostage with forced dues and rampant monopoly bargaining power which is bankrupting more and more cities and state governments every day.

Ed Crego, George Muñoz and Frank Islam write at The Huffington Post blog, but have ignored the stark fact that workers are still forced to join or support a labor union in order to get or keep a job, regardless of union membership percentages.

Public sector union membership from 1983 to 2011 has hovered in the 36 to 37+ percent range. In stark contrast, private sector union membership tumbled from the 16.5 percent of 1983 to 6.9 percent (a decline of almost 58 percent in that time frame, and a decline of over 71 percent since 1973).

These statistics are stunning but they only tell part of the story about the current status of unions in both the private and public sectors. That story is in the back stories and not in the numbers.

If there is any one thing that symbolizes the sad state of the union movement today, it is the fact that the A.F.L.-C.I.O has put its National Labor College, which according to Eugene L. Meyer in his August 1 New York Times article sits on “47 prime acres ripe for development just off the Capital Beltway,” up for sale. Meyer reports that the College is being sold because of the “decline in organized labor’s finances as well as the college’s shift to mostly online courses.” He quotes Greg W. Giebel, the school’s first provost on the sale, “It’s a big failure on the part of the labor movement. It certainly is not what was intended as I knew it. The dream was we were to be the West Point of the labor unions.” That dream is dying.

So, on this Labor Day, unions are under siege on all fronts and their future looks increasingly murky. There are a multitude of reasons for this that Eduardo Porter cites in his excellent July 18 New York Times article. These include: an ideological shift dating back to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher that caused employers to confront rather than work with unions; globalization; technological changes in the nature of work; the movement toward a more “free agent” and part-time work force; a loss of public trust; and resentment of non-union employees toward union employees.

The list could go on. Probably the overriding problem of unions has been that they have not changed with the times and their leadership has not been advocates for change. Porter makes this point continuously through his article and concludes, “Union leaders understand this — to a point. They are slowly beginning to experiment with new models of organization. Time is not on their side, however. If they fail to embrace radical change, in 80 years unions may not be around at all.”

What will be required will be union leaders with the vision, tenacity and courage to make their unions relevant to the 21st century. Ed Crego’s father, Ed, was Chairman of the union for Commonwealth Edison Company in Illinois. When he passed away in 1982, Jim O’Connor, the Chairman and Chief Executive of the Company, came to his funeral and said to Ed Jr., “Your father gave his enemies 110 percent.” The unions need that 110 percent today. They need it to make new friends and allies and to regain that loving feeling.