A couple of weeks ago, we addressed the issue of labor-management cooperation as an economic development tool. Something, we said, that is needed to address the economic issues in communities across the U. S. Who else but the people that actually do the job can respond to the issues impacting jobs and their work places. Labor-management cooperation, or worker voice, needs to be encouraged to help with wages and jobs issues of today.
But it’s also about getting everybody to do it. There needs to be a driving force on all sides. Lately it seems there is a lack of energy to come together. Why is that? Has it become so polarized or politicized that it’s difficult to change? Is it because union membership is down or they’re perceived to be weaker?
Let’s take the Volkswagon plant in Chattenooga, TN. Volkswagon is a good example of a company that uses work councils. Work councils are made up of hourly and salaried employees to look at some of the decisions VW makes. VW encouraged union representation at the Chattenooga plant so work councils could be established. Many employees thought this was a great way to address the problems and concerns they faced on a daily basis including the issue of temp workers making less money than permanent workers even though they do the same job. The permanent workers were hoping they could use the work council as a vehicle to encourage wage increases for temp workers. Plus, permanent workers thought having work councils at different locations could help attract more jobs to the Chattenooga area. Unfortunately, when UAW tried to unionize the plant, a political firestorm broke out. UAW lost in union representation for that plant. While many believe it was because of the political motivations of some individuals, it can’t be confirmed. UAW later organized a smaller group of workers within the plant that represented the skilled trade workers but that, too, has created resistance. This time, surprisingly, it was from VW management who had previously encouraged union representation. The timing of this resistance raises suspicion. This was at the time the U. S. was charging VW with emissions cheating.
Politics can also have an impact through local and federal laws. As we have blogged before, U. S. labor laws are 80 years old! Politicians could update those laws that would encourage worker voice, increase wages, and create jobs. Today, many politicians vote for laws and regulations that hurt workers such as Right-To-Work laws which have the ability to diminish financial resources to unions. Right-To-Work is not at all what the name implies. It allows workers to opt out of paying dues to unions that negotiate wage settlements, benefits and work rules that include scheduling and work times. By reducing the financial support of unions, it also can limit their overall ability to represent workers and the contract they negotiated. Those workers who live in Right-To-Work states and opt out of paying dues must still receive the same union representation as workers who pay dues. Most businesses or services such as attorneys do not provide clients with this type of service. If they did, they would probably go out of business. Why should unions be any different?
Despite an overall 60% support for unions, the amount changes depending on political affiliation, age and other demographics. Some workers complain unions use dues money as a way to advance political ideology they don’t agree with. Workers do have a right in many states to have a certain amount of money reduced from their overall dues for political action funds. Corporations also give money to political action funds or to lobbyists who support the interests of corporations.
In addition, workers who don’t believe in unions and don’t want to pay union dues, should not apply at unionized workplaces if they do not like unions or for what they stand for but they also run the risk of not being paid as well or having good benefits as in a unionized workplace thanks to contractual agreements negotiated by labor and management.
Are unions at a greater disadvantage than before? Are they weaker? According to Jake Rosenfeld, a Washington University sociology professor and someone who has studied unions, employers have run campaigns against unions for some time but other things like global competition and automation have also greatly reduced union membership. Some employers dislike being restricted by contracts and having to pay higher wages which normally happens in unionized environments. They threaten to close plants, leave communities and that works because everybody is afraid of losing jobs.
Within the last 40 years, employers have become more aggressive because of increased competition and other issues that put pressure on profits. But as we have blogged before, labor-management committees can help with employers’ fears. Many of the committees we at CALMC have worked with understand flexibility issues. They know customer service or production is important. They are eager to share ideas and thoughts to help with competition, can be willing to address flexibility issues and are sometimes harder on themselves than most managers. Partnerships have and can be developed.
One problem unions need to work on is communication. Many people don’t know what unions are all about especially younger people. Many of them don’t realize the typical things we take for granted such as the five -day work week, eight hour day, paid time off and many other things are because of unions. There is no doubt about it, unions need to speak up and tell what great things they do. Some unions have started advertising but more must be done. On our blogs, we’ve talked about the compassionate work or drives unions do that is not always known. Maybe there would be even more support if communication increased. It also might encourage an increase membership. Unions need to have as big a campaign as the employers fighting against them.
Unions may have to change. They may have to update themselves for the jobs of today. Some unions have been a means of support for some non-union groups. They have provided guidance and expertise that non-union groups may not have but can learn about. We’ve mentioned some of these in previous blogs. Providing leadership either to others or improving the leadership skills of their members is something unions need to continue to do.
It’s important to note, union wages impact non-union workers. Jake Rosenfeld, in the article cited above, said more than $1 billion in wages have been lost. Some sort of worker voice is needed to help push for wage increases and also to keep workplaces safer and continue to push benefits more conducive to lifestyles and work of today. There are lobbyists that are very effective for employers and corporations but unions need to be maintained as the lobbyist for workers. Today people want better wages and jobs. That can happen with unions. In other countries, union membership is higher. Those other countries don’t always have the strong campaigns as the U. S. does. Maybe if there was more visible support, it would also help.
What’s the conclusion? Is it politics or polarization? Is it changes in unions or is it all the above?
Leadership skills are necessary on both sides. Both sides have an obligation to come up with multiple solutions instead of making ultimatums. Sometimes ultimatums are necessary but for the most part there is always more than one way to solve a problem. Ultimatums put people in corners and create power games. That usually is not the way to have a good outcome.
It is imperative for people on both sides within an organization to demand they work together to address problems and not be complacent about it. Trying is better than not trying. If people don’t try they can be assured nothing will happen.
Community leaders, business leaders, and union leaders need to make sure everyone is working together to make it a priority to do what’s necessary to improve wages, create jobs and eliminate divisive attitudes and actions that hurt everybody, and, as we are learning, our country. It must be demonstrated workers are just as important as corporations and businesses.
In addition, laws that are 80 years old need to be revised that help everybody, not just one side. The work we do today is very different than what occurred 80 years ago. Laws should be updated that take that into consideration.
The number of members in unions may have changed but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are weaker. They have the ability, and have been doing things, to make lives better for all workers. Just last week Ford announced they would be investing more in some of their U. S. plants. The reason was because it was a negotiated agreement between the union and management. It’s crucial for unions to continue to “flex their muscle” when they can and consider other alternatives such as public relations or other communication.
Remaining complacent is not an option. Local labor-management committees are one way that can help communities with job and wage issues. It takes both old and new ways of doing things to make a difference but what is necessary is something must be done and it needs to be made a priority!