Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Why unions have a crucial role to play in the United States

Americans have mixed feelings when it comes to organized labor. According to the New York Times while a third of Americans surveyed view unions favorably and a quarter view unions unfavorably (the remainder undecided) U.S. citizens “oppose weakening the bargaining rights of public employee unions by a margin of nearly two to one: 60 percent to 33 percent.”

Labor history has certainly been messy giving many people pause but unions also represent a threat to the powerful both financial and political. Efforts to destroy the union movements have a long history in the United States and elsewhere. The ongoing effort to crush public sector unions in Wisconsin is only a continuation of the forces set in motion with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act passed by the Republican congress in 1947 which conveniently undermines a key Democratic Party constituency.

If the reactionary forces in our society are successful in destroying labor we will all – union member or not -- be poorer for it. Ezra Klein explains why unions have a crucial role to play in the United States today:
….First, they give workers a voice within—and, when necessary, leverage against—their employer. That means higher wages, but it also means that workers can go to their managers with safety concerns or ideas to improve efficiency and know that they’ll not only get a hearing, they’ll be protected from possible reprisals. Second, unions are a powerful, sophisticated player concerned with more than just the next quarter’s profit reports—what economist John Kenneth Galbraith called a “countervailing power” in an economy dominated by large corporations. They participate in shareholder meetings, where they’re focused on things like job quality and resisting outsourcing. They push back on business models that they don’t consider sustainable for their workers or, increasingly, for the environment. In an economy with a tendency toward bigness—where big producers are negotiating with big retailers and big distributors—workers need a big advocate of their own. Finally, unions bring some semblance of balance to the political system. A lot of what happens in politics is, unfortunately, the result of moneyed, organized interests who lobby strategically and patiently to get their way. Most of that money is coming from various business interests. One of the few lobbies pushing for the other side is organized labor—and it plays a strikingly broad role. The Civil Rights Act, the weekend, and the Affordable Care Act are all examples of organized labor fighting for laws that benefited not just the unionized. That’s money and political capital it could’ve spent on reforming the nation’s labor laws.
It is no coincidence that as organized labor has declined in membership over the past decades wealth and political power have become more concentrated. The future of our shared prosperity and democracy depends on institutions like labor unions to play the role of the countervailing power in our economy and polity.

You can read the New York Times article here and Klein’s piece here.

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