The Future of Unions

Are unions obsolete? Despite modest success by the Teamsters in the recent UPS strike, the question remains pertinent. With the percentage of unionized workers now at about a third of its peak, debates about the future of unions are inevitable. Nonetheless, I hope that reports of the demise of unions are premature.One frequently hears that the days of assembly lines and rote, tedious jobs are a thing of the past. Modern computerized technology has changed the face of workplaces. Employers need thoughtful and flexible workers to use the new technologies in fashioning continuously improving products. Traditional boundaries between production and management are breaking down. Because unions are thought to assume a permanent division of interest between managers and production workers, they hinder flexible adaptation to the conditions of the modern economy.This argument is not completely wrong, but there are good reasons to question its universal applicability and the sense of history implicit in it. For starters, one might ask why, if workers and managers are "all in this together," the gap in pay between upper level management and the lowest level employee has reached scandalous proportions in our largest firms. That ratio stands at a staggering 200 to 1, far in excess of many of our most successful European competitors. UPS, which tried to claim it could not create more full time jobs and still compete, enjoys a 19.4 percent return on equity, far in excess of other truckers. No one, not even Left economists, would attribute growing inequality solely to union decline. Nonetheless, one careful study by Harvard economist Richard Freeman attributes twenty percent of the decline in worker wages to erosion of unions. Some of the other factors Freeman cites, such as current global "free trade" models, cannot be completely dissociated from the relative powerlessness of unions.Before we accept or celebrate the passing of unions, it might be wise to take a look back at the good old days, before unions came to play the role they assumed in their post World War II heyday. The emergence of modern continuous process technologies in such industries as steel was preceded by ownership's eradication of early crafts unions. The introduction of the new technologies dramatically increased productivity, but non union workers failed to share in the rising productivity. Low worker wages fueled tremendous profit growth and business expansion in the twenties, but eventually corporate productivity outpaced the ability of working class citizens to afford the goods modern industry produced in such profusion. Twenties' inequalities were not the sole cause of the Great Depression, but they played a predominant role.Worse still, these workplaces were run as autocracies. Workers' tasks were minutely specialized and worker performance was closely monitored. Eighty hour weeks were not uncommon, and workers were often required to request permission even to go to the bathroom. Henry Ford carried such practices one step further, through a company police whose job was to monitor the private lives of employees.To suggest that new technologies will by themselves put an end to all these practices is to stoop to a technological determinism worthy of vulgar Marxists. A close study of the labor process across both cultures and time periods suggests that similar technologies can be deployed very differently in different workplaces. Many European firms have installed highly automated, numerically controlled auto and metal processing technologies. Unions have been able to insist on changes in work processes and technologies allowing them to plan, understand, program, and repair the entire process. Long term productivity gains have far surpassed our own. GM's mid eighties effort to curb the influence of its unions helps explain why. The company spent 600 million for robots in a Detroit plant, and, in the words of one student of its operations, "neglected to teach the workers how to use the robots," making the plant one of the least productive in America. Barbara Garson's classic, The Electronic Sweatshop, eloquently documents the ways modern U. S. firms have used the computer not to liberate or empower workers but to monitor and speed their every move, just as Henry Ford's goons did a generation before. Jane Slaughter reports in Labor Notes that new technology now allows UPS management to know " where the driver is at every moment and to assess whether he or she is spending the assigned amount of time at each stop." Such strategies can sometimes increase short term profits, but at the cost of worker morale, long term growth, and innovation.Workers are most likely to commit their skills and enthusiasm to an enterprise when they know they will share the benefits. But as in a marriage, trust is most likely to evolve and work best when it is a relationship among equals. Equal in this context does not mean literal pay equality, but it does include some degree of independence, respect, relative job security, and basic procedural rights. Most American workplaces still fear and distrust an independent worker. The most recent detailed study of U. S. workplaces, the Federal Government's own 1994 Worker Representation and Participation Survey, showed that a very large majority of U. S. workers feel bosses still don't want or care about their opinions and won't tap their talents. Traditions inherited from business schools, unwillingness to change old habits, and mutual funds more interested in quick payback than long term investment in worker education impede workplace change. The net result is that security, procedural fairness, and independence within most workplaces still have to be won by the worker.U. S. unions of course are not completely powerless or above blame in these developments. Unionization came to the mass production industries after current work practices had been established. Unions curbed some of the abuses, but too many have concentrated primarily on high wages for their own workers and have turned a blind eye to many environmental, workplace reorganization, and social justice issues. Many have also been internally as antidemocratic as the industries they opposed. Some unions will need to clean up their own act to get more of a foothold. Nonetheless, just as in the fifties wage and benefit progress for all workers depended on gains made by unionized workers, economic justice and workplace reform today would benefit from unionized firms leading the way. 18percent of all U. S. workers now hold part time jobs. Many seek full time jobs, and will benefit from Teamster success in stemming corporate profit strategies reliant on growing use of underpaid, part time employees. Contrary to the argument of many Republicans, workers hardly meet employers on an even playing field. Persistent joblessness, even in this so called boom, the ability to move jobs abroad, and the sheer disparities in wealth between most owners and most workers make any transaction exceedingly one sided. Laws to curb strike breaking and to give union organizers more equal access to firms are the least we owe workers. These would do little more than allow unions to make their best case. The only resource most workers have lies in their numbers. To the extent that workers can build solidarities not only within but also across firms and industries, the more likely is workplace reform, distributional justice, and stable growth. Powerless and exploited workers too easily lose self-esteem in a whole range of activities. It is not surprising that the erosion of unions has been accompanied by declining levels of voter participation. A healthy union movement may well be essential to the future of our democracy.


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