LaborTalk for January 30, 2008

If unions are so good (and they are!) for workers,
why aren't millions of them rushing to join? (5)

The Good News and the Bad News
About Labor's Organizing Efforts

By Harry Kelber


Labor leaders received the happy, surprising news that union membership had increased by 311,000 in 2007?to end a steady decline for more than two decades, according to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As a result, labor can now claim that it represents 12.1 percent of the U.S. workforce, instead of 12 percent, and that its latest organizing success lifts its representation in the private sector to 7.5 percent. To put it in another way, today only one of eight workers belongs to a union, and in the private sector, the figure is less than one out of 12.

It would be nice to believe that 2008 will be the beginning of an upsurge in union organizing; that the AFL-CIO and Change to Win will take advantage of its new-found momentum to launch a crusade to organize the 50 million workers who say they want a union, and to mobilize their members to participate in that effort.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that top union leaders have the desire?or the ability?to undertake this massive recruiting effort. Their focus is not on organizing but on passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. They appear willing to mark time for another 15 months or more until, hopefully, it becomes a law.

Most of the 311,000 membership gains came from three sources: hospital unions added 142,000; construction unions, 96.000, and about 80,000 came from union deals with two state legislatures that covered child care and home care providers,

In 23 States, Unions Represent 10% or Less of Workers

All along the South and in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain states, unions have been shackled by restrictions imposed on them by the Taft Hartley Act (1947). In more than a half century, the AFL-CIO has made only an occasional, half-hearted attempt to rescind the anti-union measure. In five southern states, unions represent 4 percent or less of their workforce.

Weak unions cannot win decent contracts for their members. They are a prey to concession bargaining. Here is another BLS item worth noting: In 2007, real wages, adjusted for inflation, declined by 0.9 percent, the biggest drop in average weekly pay since 1990.

Union leaders rarely blame themselves for labor's poor organizing record. It's all the employers' fault that millions of workers resist joining a union, they say. But there are several other reasons why we can't convince millions of workers to join us. These reasons are addressed in this series of articles, "Why Workers Won't Join," in the hope of a public debate on how to build a "bigger and stronger" labor movement.

We believe that unless the two labor federations make a series of changes in their policies and practices, the American Dream will remain a source for rhetoric, not a reality.

Article 6: "Why Workers Won't Join" will be posted here on Wednesday, February 6.

For back issues of this series, visit our web site: http://www.laboreducator.org/.