It takes a lot to get Theodore J. St. Antoine mad. But what really got my Uncle Ted’s Irish up (our family hails from County Roscommon) was Michigan Governor Rick Snyder conspiring with the Republican-controlled legislature to turn the ancestral home of American labor into a “right-to-work” state – and to do it through fast-track legislation snuck through without public hearings or even notice while angry citizens mobilizing to protest this desecration of Michigan’s heritage were barred by police from their own State Capitol until the wretched deed was done.
The new law, says the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne, was passed “in a travesty of normal democratic deliberation” as Snyder and Republicans rushed the right-to-work bill through a lame-duck session in a way that was “insidious.”
The anti-union crowd waited until after the election to pass it, said Dionne. Then Snyder, who had previously avoided taking a stand on right-to-work “miraculously discovered that it would be a first-rate economic development measure.”
Further, the law was attached to an appropriations bill as a rider to make it much harder for voters to later challenge the law through a popular referendum. It was the first time, Ted told the Wall Street Journal, he had ever seen a right-to-work law passed using a spending bill as a human shield to prevent the people from later shooting it down.
And so in a curtly-worded letter to Governor Snyder, Ted, who is a long-time labor law professor and one-time dean of the University of Michigan Law School, wrote this: “You have been elected to represent all the people of this State. You should do so.”
Ted now devotes most of his time to speaking and writing about subjects like the Model Employment Termination Act, a law he wrote as official draftsperson and which protects workers against arbitrary and capricious bosses.
As I said, Ted has a long fuse and his equanimity has been honed by years spent mediating union and management disputes, including the dozens of Major League Baseball arbitrations he’s settled involving super stars (and super-sized egos) like Curt Schilling, Sandy Alomar, Jr. and Darryl Strawberry.
And so Ted was surprised and disappointed that Governor Snyder, who posed as a sensible centrist, would act in such a ruthless and underhanded way against labor in a state that honors and even reveres labor unions.
“Although I am a life-long Democrat, I voted for you because I felt you had the business acumen and the balanced judgment to lead Michigan through some serious financial difficulties,” Ted said to Governor Snyder.
Though he understood the pressures Snyder was under, Ted said the Governor’s actions were disappointing nonetheless since “almost no one who seriously studies labor relations believes so-called ‘right-to-work’ legislation is a matter of ‘worker freedom.’”
Existing federal and state law already forbids workers from joining a union against their will or being subject to its discipline, said Ted. What the law does require is that if a majority of the employees want union representation, the union and the employer may agree that all the employees in the unit must pay their fair share of the representation costs that the union is legally obligated to provide for all the employees in the unit, without discrimination among union members and nonmembers, said Ted.
“Right-to-work” laws, said Ted, allow some workers to become “free riders” who benefit from the fruits of the union’s negotiating without having to pay for those benefits.
“It’s wholly contrary to democratic principles to argue that the minority need not pay what can fairly be described as the tax that the majority has levied to fund the collective representative,” said Ted.
But let’s be honest with ourselves, Ted told Snyder. “‘Right-to-work’ legislation is not proposed for the benefit of workers. Its proponents are the same persons who in the past have opposed minimum wages, workers’ compensation, Social Security, and a wide range of other social legislation.”
Right-to-work laws are supposed to attract new business into a state, but studies say their track record is mixed as best. “What we do know is that as union strength has waned, income and wealth inequality in this country has greatly increased,” said Ted. “Both the working class and the middle class have been the losers. And the true objective of ‘right-to-work’ legislation is to stifle even further the strength of unions.”
Indeed, as Dionne says, “the moral case for unions is that they give bargaining strength to workers who would have far less capacity to improve their wages and benefits negotiating as individuals. Further gutting unions is the last thing we need to do at a time when the income gap is growing.”
And not just the income gap. At a time when Big Money is stronger than ever, our democracy pays a huge price not having the countervailing power which labor unions provide.
It’s hard not to see this vote against unions, so quickly after Republicans were soundly defeated all throughout the union strongholds of the Midwest, as being a petulant reprisal against those who beat them and an effort to pave the road to Republican victories in 2014 by using the law to erode the foundations of the opposition.
After Republicans lost the popular vote for the fifth time in the last sixth presidential elections, Dionne said he was initially hopeful Republicans understood “new thinking might be in order.”
But after the sneak attack Republicans launched against labor in Lansing, Dionne is not so sure anything has really changed. It now looks as if Republicans are once again in the hands of those who reject adjusting to a new electorate and new circumstances and instead believe the strategy for future victories lies in using naked government power to “alter the political playing field in a way that diminishes the political influence of groups likely to be hostile to the conservative agenda.”
And that is why my disappointed uncle sent his “Dear Rick” letter to Michigan’s Governor Snyder.
By: Ted Frier, Open Salon, December 19, 2012
A common refrain among union critics is that Americans no longer need unions—that unions were well and good for the exploited sweatshop workers of a century ago, but today’s empowered Americans need no such crutch.
With workers’ incomes falling, and with the United States leading all industrial nations in the percentage of its workers in low-wage jobs, it’s increasingly clear that today, we need unions for many of the same reasons that the workers of 1912 did: They’re exploited and underpaid. But if it’s only the nation’s most exploited workers who need to band together, why have America’s most talented employees formed unions of their own?
Actors, writers, directors, and cinematographers all have unions. Baseball, football, and basketball players have unions. And now, ESPN.com reports, America’s track and field athletes want a union of their own as well.
The immediate grievance that has spurred the athletes to action is Rule 40 of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which prohibits Olympic athletes from advertising for non-Olympic sponsors in the days leading up to and then during the Olympic games—that is, when they are most marketable. Rather than just trying to get the IOC to change this one provision, however, the athletes have decided to form a union to win more power for themselves with the IOC on a host of issues.
Among the leaders of this effort is Olympics star Sanya Richards-Ross, who told ESPN:
I’ve seen my husband [Aaron Ross, a cornerback for the Jacksonville Jaguars], who has been in the NFL for six years, an I’ve seen what a strong players’ union does, not only for the benefit of the players but the benefit of the sport. … There are unions in every industry because they need to have that voce, not just for financial reasons but for consideration of other things.
Scott Blackmun, the CEO of the United States Olympic Committee, expressed openness to the athletes’ initiative. While declining to comment on their specific proposal, he told ESPN, “I understand the desire and need on the part of the athletes to try and create some real estate they can sell during the 16 days they’re really at the peak of their careers, so I am sympathetic to the need and desire to do that.”
Not exactly a union-busting tirade. But then, Blackmun can’t parrot the standard talking points of most American CEOs. He can’t go after Richards-Ross and the other athletes leading the union initiative as outside agitators or cynical union bosses. He can’t because the athletes are irreplaceable. And in American labor relations today, it’s only the irreplaceable workers, paradoxically, who can unionize.
As a stream of studies has demonstrated, most organizing drives founder because management fires a number of the workers involved. (It’s illegal to fire them, but the penalties are negligible.) Just about the only workers who can unionize without fear of being fired are workers whom management can’t replace—the famous, the highly skilled. That’s why athletes and entertainers can organize and strike. Airline pilots can be replaced, but not immediately, not in large numbers. If they strike, they wreak havoc on the nation’s travel.
American management’s war on unions has already helped reduce the percentage of unionized private-sector workers from 35 percent in the middle of the last century to less than 7 percent today. One day soon, the only remaining unionized workers may be America’s most celebrated and talented employees. And the fact that even they need a union to win better compensation and safer working conditions makes it pretty clear that every other employee needs one, too.
By: Harold Meyerson, Editor-at-Large, The American Prospect, September 25, 2012
In 1961, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the United Auto Workers about what the civil rights movement had learned from the labor movement. He said that, in the 1930s, “you creatively stood up for your rights by sitting down at your machines, just as our courageous students are sitting down at lunch counters across the South.”
When King was describing the “kinship” between the two movements, organized labor was strong, representing about a third of the non-agricultural private-sector workforce. The civil rights movement was still a fledgling campaign, not yet having won passage of the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act.
This Labor Day, the roles have reversed. The civil rights movement is the nation’s iconic cause. The gay rights movement, hardly a blip on the radar screen a half-century ago, is winning meaningful victories in the courts and in legislatures. But unions are on the road to virtual extinction.
Even public-sector unions, now a majority of the labor movement, are on the defensive. A new movie, “Won’t Back Down,” unfairly paints teachers unions as impediments to quality education for students of color. One character asks, “When did Norma Rae get to be the bad guy?”
To revive itself, labor must rediscover its roots as an early civil rights movement for workers. In some places, this is already starting to happen. On Aug. 11, the AFL-CIO held a massive rally in Philadelphia demanding a “Second Bill of Rights,” including the right to organize and bargain collectively. This summer, the UAW has been trying to organize a Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., where 70 percent of the workforce is African American, using a civil rights frame.
“The civil rights experience was fought on that very ground,” the UAW’s Gary Casteel told Reuters. “We’ve been saying that worker rights is the civil rights battle of the 21st century.”
In particular, unions should emulate three strategies of the civil rights movement.
First, labor must make clear, in word and deed, that it is part of a broader movement for social justice and against concentrated wealth and power, not just a special interest concerned only with its membership. The civil rights movement has succeeded when it has made a pitch for ending discrimination universally, and it has struggled when focusing on narrow, race-specific preferences. Labor has a good case to make: When union wages increase, nonunion employers respond by raising pay, too, to attract workers. And each percentage-point decline in the U.S. unionization rate has been accompanied by a comparable fall in the proportion of income going to the middle class.
Second, unions need to show that they are a vehicle for vindicating the individual rights that Americans hold dear against the power of large employers and the government. Just as King fought for individual civil rights as a fulfillment of the Declaration of Independence’s promise of equal opportunity, so the labor movement should fight for individuals’ First Amendment right to engage in the freedom of association, including the right to form a union.
Third, like the civil rights movement, labor needs to codify its notion of rights through strong federal legislation. The crowning glory of the civil rights movement is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which through the force of law and sanctions helped delegitimize racial bias. Organized labor has the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which institutionalizes the right to organize, but its sanctions are so weak that employers routinely flout the law and pay the penalties. In part because employers frequently fire or demote employees for trying to unionize, the watchdog group Freedom House rates the United States as less free for labor than 41 other nations.
The Civil Rights Act should be amended to outlaw employment discrimination not only on the basis of race and sex, but also for exercising the right to join a union. Doing so would allow employees to sue in federal court and to receive compensatory and punitive damages from employers. It would stigmatize employers who broke the law as civil rights violators. Without employers trying to block organization, polls suggest that many American workers would join unions, if given a free choice.
Organized labor has been written off before. But if a civil rights approach succeeds in strengthening the movement, more people will join it. And if part of the reason the gay rights movement is succeeding is that more people know someone who is gay, the growth of the labor movement could generate a similar virtuous cycle for American unions.
By: Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit
Are American unions history?
In the wake of labor’s defeated effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) last week, both pro- and anti-union pundits have opined that unions are in an all-but-irreversible decline. Privately, a number of my friends and acquaintances in the labor movement have voiced similar sentiments. Most don’t think that decline is irreversible but few have any idea how labor would come back.
What would America look like without a union movement? That’s not a hard question to answer, because we’re almost at that point. The rate of private-sector unionization has fallen below 7 percent, from a post-World War II high of roughly 40 percent. Already, the economic effects of a union-free America are glaringly apparent: an economically stagnant or downwardly mobile middle class, a steady clawing-back of job-related health and retirement benefits and ever-rising economic inequality.
In the three decades after World War II the United States dominated the global economy, but that’s only one of the two reasons our country became the first to have a middle-class majority. The other is that this was the only time in our history when we had a high degree of unionization. From 1947 through 1972 — the peak years of unionization — productivity increased by 102 percent, and median household income also increased by 102 percent. Thereafter, as the rate of unionization relentlessly fell, a gap opened between the economic benefits flowing from a more productive economy and the incomes of ordinary Americans, so much so that in recent decades, all the gains in productivity — as economists Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon have shown — have gone to the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans. When labor was at its numerical apogee in 1955, the wealthiest 10 percent claimed just 33 percent of the nation’s income. By 2007, with the labor movement greatly diminished, the wealthiest 10 percent claimed 50 percent of the nation’s income.
Today, wages account for the lowest share of both gross domestic product and corporate revenue since World War II ended — and that share continues to shrink. An International Monetary Fund study released in April shows that the portion of GDP going to wages and benefits has declined from 64 percent in 2001 to 58 percent this year. The survey compared the United States with Europe, where the only other nations in which labor’s share declined were Greece, Spain and Ireland — countries whose economies are at death’s door. Our economy is nowhere near so weak, but as Americans’ ability to collectively bargain has waned, so has their power to keep all corporate revenue from going to top executives and shareholders.
When unions are powerful, they boost the incomes of not only their members but also of nonunion workers in their sector or region. Princeton economist Henry Farber has shown that the wages of a nonunion worker in an industry that is 25 percent unionized are 7.5 percent higher because of that unionization. Today, however, few industries have so high a rate of unionization, and a consequence is that unions can no longer win the kinds of wages and benefits they used to.
Deunionization is just one reason Americans’ incomes have declined, of course; globalization has taken its toll as well. But the declining share of pretax income going to wages is chiefly the result of the weakening of unions, which is the main reason American managers now routinely seek to thwart their workers’ attempts to unionize through legally questionable but economically rewarding tactics (rewarding, that is, for the managers).
The weakening of unions has had a huge political effect as well: the realignment of the white working class. Since the ’60s, exit polls have shown that unionized blue-collar whites vote Democratic at a rate 20 to 30 percent higher than their nonunion counterparts. The decline in union membership has weakened Democrats in such heavily white, increasingly deunionized states as West Virginia and Wisconsin — the main reason Republicans such as Walker have sought to reduce labor’s numbers. Liberals who have been indifferent to unions’ decline will find it difficult to enact progressive legislation in their absence.
Understandably, some liberals are searching for ways to arrest the economic decline of the majority of their fellow Americans in a post-union environment. I fear they’re bound to be frustrated. If workers can’t bargain with their employers, it can’t be done. If and when Big Labor dies — it’s on life support now — America’s big middle class dies with it.
By: Harold Meyerson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, June 12, 2012
Last July, Major League Baseball blew an opportunity to make a difference. With 28 players who were either Hispanic or of Hispanic descent participating in the league’s annual All-Star Game in Phoenix, Arizona, and the eyes of the sports world watching, nary a one spoke out against the radical anti-immigration law Arizona had passed a year before, even though it could have directly affected the players and will directly affect many of their fans. “I ain’t Jackie Robinson,” David Ortiz, one of baseball’s biggest characters, said.
Over the next 10 days, the National Football League will have a similar chance to make a difference.
Just two weeks before Super Bowl XLVI kicks off at Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis, more than 10,000 people marched through the city to protest right-to-work legislation that is being pushed through the state’s legislature. The legislation passed the state Senate this week and the state House today, and is backed by Gov. Mitch Daniels (R). Considering the NFL nearly lost its 2011 season, and Super Bowl XLVI with it, to a labor dispute, Indiana Republicans’ assault on workers is a cause the players should be familiar with.
Fortunately, there are signs that the NFL players aren’t going to repeat Major League Baseball’s mistake. Several players have spoken out against the legislation, and NFL Players Association President DeMaurice Smith said his organization is already taking action. “We’ve been on picket lines in Indianapolis already with hotel workers who were basically pushed to the point of breaking on the hotel rooms that they had to clean because they were not union workers,” Smith told the Nation. “We’ve been on picket lines in Boston and San Antonio. So, the idea of participating in a legal protest is something that we’ve done before.”
That’s a good first step. But it’s not enough. Indiana union officials are contemplating disrupting Super Bowl-related events to draw attention to their cause, clogging city streets and slowing down events around Lucas Oil Stadium (which was built and is maintained by union workers). Labor leaders are hesitant, though, fearing that such actions could give the city and their cause “a black eye” with people who think sports and politics don’t mix. If some of the league’s top players, particularly those participating in the Super Bowl, spoke in support of those efforts, however, that perception could change.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, one of the NFL’s most recognizable players, felt strongly enough about his own rights that he signed on as a plaintiff in the players’ antitrust lawsuit against the league last year. So did Logan Mankins, Brady’s teammate, and Osi Umenyiora, a prominent defensive end for the New York Giants. Those players were willing to risk backlash from the league, public scrutiny, and their own images to fight league owners for better benefits and wages. In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, they should do the same for workers who don’t have the luxury of multimillion-dollar contracts, rich endorsement deals, and the good fortune of playing a game for a living.
Sure, with Super Bowl week ahead of them, political causes may be the furthest thing from the minds of most players. But with thousands of reporters conducting hundreds of interviews before, during, and after the big game, the players will have the chance to stand up for the rights of people they should be fighting for. Unlike their counterparts in baseball, they shouldn’t blow it.
By: Travis Waldron, Think Progress, January 25, 2012