Opinion » Ted Rall

Union Yes?

Labor leaders to blame for workers' weakness



NEW YORK--I will never understand why people who are jealous of unionized workers who earn $50,000 a year give a pass to bank executives who get $5 million.

Given how companies have treated workers, you'd think Americans would be more receptive to unions. But organized labor's bad rep isn't surprising. Smears by big business and its media allies and sleazy laws passed by anti-worker politicians (c.f. the Taft-Hartley Act) have established labor as corrupt and selfish.

As if that propaganda wasn't enough, unions have responded to attacks with poorly thought-out strategies. As a result, fewer than 7 percent of private-sector workers belong to a union, and the last union stronghold, public-sector employees (36 percent), is under siege in states like Wisconsin and Ohio.

During the 1980s unions forgot what they were. They abandoned traditional oppositionalism to management on the ground that their fates were interlinked: If the plant closed, union members would lose their jobs.

The results of hobnobbing with corporate executives were predictable: givebacks and concessions to companies. In 2009, for example, the United Auto Workers froze salaries to help save the big three Detroit automakers. Did the Big Three use those savings to invest in new plants? Hell no. They continued to outsource jobs and increase CEOs' payouts.

This "please let me sit at the jocks' table" mentality persists. UAW President Bob King said in January that seats on the boards of each of the big three Detroit automakers are at the top of his wish list. Memo from reality: You don't hang out with your enemy.

John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO from 1995 to 2009, spearheaded a drive to organize women, minorities and low-paid workers. The new emphasis neglected labor's traditional base of white males, who happen to be politically influential swing voters. They became today's right-wing Tea Party.

Big labor's abusive love affair with the Democratic Party has been bafflingly counterproductive. I don't have a problem with the forced collection of dues, but it's ridiculous to use those dues to support one party. Between 1990 and 2008 unions made more than $667 million in contributions, 92 percent to Dems.

Which might be justifiable, if unions got anything in return. NAFTA, GATT and WTO (signed by Bill Clinton and continued by President Barack Obama) gutted manufacturing jobs. The 2009-2010 Democratic majority Congress ignored labor's top priority, the Employee Free Choice Act. Neither Clinton nor Obama even considered repealing Taft-Hartley, which bans wildcat strikes, solidarity strikes, secondary boycotts, union shops and allows courts to break strikes arbitrarily.

A bigger mistake has been labor's inexplicable refusal to go after the ersatz "white collar" workplaces. The AFL-CIO and other unions talk about organizing the white-collar ghetto, but they aren't doing much. Few workers in the tech sector, advertising, finance or the media have ever met a union organizer. If labor had its act together, no cubicle farm would go a year without an attempt to unionize.

Labor is on the ropes. With the economy getting worse, however, there has never been a greater need for union leaders to get smarter and more militant--or a better opportunity to reverse their long slide.


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