American Labor in Crisis (July 16, 2007)

Why Unions Have Lost Their Appeal
To Millions of Unorganized Workers

(The second of five articles.)

By Harry Kelber

The AFL-CIO and Choice to Win have been spending enormous amounts of money and resources for the past four years in a full-scale campaign to get Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). It is their belief that millions of workers will be eager to join unions, once they are assured they will not be harassed, intimidated or fired from their jobs by their employers.

Labor leaders have been implying that unless — and until — EFCA becomes the law of the land, it will be virtually impossible for them to make significant progress in recruiting new members. Many unions are putting their major organizing campaigns on hold, waiting, however long, for passage of an EFCA law.

The two labor federations have assembled powerful statistics to document employers’ ferocious attacks on their pro-union workers. They show how employers use a range of threats to discourage union sentiment. Consider this example: “According to American Rights at Work, every twenty-three minutes, in the United States, a worker is fired or discriminated against for her support of union organizing.”

In trying to convince Congress of the need to enact EFCA, labor leaders have sent a chilling, contradictory message to unorganized workers, telling them that: employers are a lot stronger than unions, and that now is not the right time to take the risk of joining a union.

Isn’t it strange that there has been no movement from unorganized workers to campaign for “Free Choice,” even though the legislation is clearly for their benefit? And equally strange, that the only workers who are campaigning for EFCA don’t need the law, because they are, and have been, union members.

Admittedly, fear of their employer is a powerful deterrent for workers who may be considering joining a union, but is that the only reason why they are reluctant to sign on? Labor leaders can justly heap blame on employers, but they rarely, if ever, criticize themselves (or listen to critics) for their obvious organizing failures.

Several Reasons Why Unorganized Workers Shun Unions

If unions are as beneficial as labor leaders claim they are, workers should be flocking into union halls to sign up. Why aren’t they? There must be good reasons why they refrain from joining. Here are several of them:

1. They don’t get to know much about unions. Neither the AFL-CIO nor Change to Win have weekly radio and TV programs that can entertain a national audience while making a sustained and convincing case for the importance of unions for American workers.

Most workers get their labor news from the business-controlled media that rarely miss an opportunity to bad-mouth unions. Since labor leaders rarely refute slanderous comments, workers tend to believe they are true.

2. Unions come across as weak, in comparison with employers. They are not able to stop employers from firing workers unjustly. Unions have done nothing about the hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs that have been shipped to low-wage regions. In the auto, airline and other industries, unions have been making huge concessions in pay and benefits.

3. Unions have hardly any influence in Washington. Their leaders are not consulted on economic and political issues that concern working people. They are almost never seen on national television and they hold very few press conferences to describe labor’s views and strategies.

4. They never say how they are spending the dues money of their members. They hold conventions and conferences at the best hotels and there is no accounting of the cost. They impose assessments and special taxes on members, without giving a detailed explanation of why the additional money is needed or how it is to be spent.

5. There is a broad public perception that most unions, especially at the top, are undemocratic, and that at least some are controlled by racketeers. Another fairly popular view is that national labor leaders pay more attention to serving their own interests than that of their members or workers at large. Labor leaders never respond to charges that members have almost no voice in determining union policies.

6. When unorganized workers seek remedies for their grievances, they turn to class action suits rather than union assistance. And they have won millions of dollars in cases involving discrimination and back pay for overtime. Wal-Mart employees, who have resisted joining a union, have won large money settlements in suits against their employer.

No Welcome Mat for Workers Who Want to Join

Imagine you are a worker who is ready to join a union. What do you do? Where do you go? You might consult a union member for friendly advice and the suggestion that you visit the headquarters of the union that has jurisdiction over the occupation you are in.

You find the address of the union in the telephone directory, make an appointment, and eventually get to talk with a union representative.. Here are examples of the kind of reception that individual workers generally receive when they apply to join a union:

1. If you’re an undocumented worker, the odds are that you are going to get a cool reception. You may not be asked to fill out an application card, even though you insist that you have several years’ experience in agriculture, construction and warehousing. You’ll probably be told that the union is not taking in members “at this time.”

2. If you’re working in a factory or office, you may (or may not) be asked to fill out an application card, which will be filed. You’ll be told to go back to your shop and try to get as many of your co-workers to fill out application cards. Depending on your results, the union will consider the next steps.

3. You will be informed that to get into the union, you must first pass an apprenticeship test and have at least a high school diploma or GED. At a certain stage (it may take months), you may have to appear before the union executive board or membership committee to answer whatever questions they want to ask.

4. Even if you and many of your co-workers are eager to join the union, you may learn that the union’s organizers are already committed to specific campaigns and can’t consider your request until next year.

5. You may be denied an application on the grounds that the membership has decided to “close the books” on new members because of unemployment in the industry.

Top labor leaders regularly repeat the gratifying polls that say that some 60 million unorganized workers would like to join unions. If the labor movement could organize only a quarter of that mass, it would just about double the size of the current union membership.

But our national labor leaders have not shown either the competence or will or vision about how and where to reach out to those millions who urgently need assistance. And if you can’t talk to them, how are you going to organize them?

Article 3 of “American Labor in Crisis” will appear on Monday, July 23, 2007. Also check our Web site: