Is It The End of An Era for Unions?

December 12, 2012
By Jenny Li Fowler, Harvard Kennedy School Communications

Michigan has become the 24th state in the union to pass legislation banning requirements that workers pay for union representation, sparking outrage from pro-labor groups. Linda Kaboolian is a lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School who works with labor, management and community groups around improved organizational performance and service to diverse communities. We asked her how the so-called “right to work” legislation could threaten organized labor forces in the United States.
Q: What does the new Michigan legislation mean for unions and workers in unionized workplaces?
Kaboolian: First a fact, in the United States no oneis forced to be in a union as a condition of employment. Ifa workplace is unionized, an employee is required to pay for the cost of bargaining and administering the contract unless "right to work" legislation is in place.
This is more a symbolic blow to unions than a real one. Where unions are present, even in "right to work" states, nearly all employees pay dues by choice. In Michigan the largest unions, the Autoworkers and the teachers' unions, are well organized, have loyal memberships and constructive relationships with the employers. Additionally, almost all new workplaces in Michigan open as non-union. For all practical purposes, very little will change in Michigan.
However, both the attack on public sector collective bargaining last year in Wisconsin and now on union dues in Michigan are rich in symbolism. These are the two states where the history of the industrial labor movement was made. Wisconsin was the first state to enact laws to allow collective bargaining (part of Progressive Era reforms) and Michigan is where the Reuther brothers led the famous sit down strikes that forced Henry Ford to recognize the UAW in the 1930s.
Q: You recently mention the power of organized labor is shrinking in the United States, but hasn't it been shrinking for a decade? What power does organized labor have left?
Kaboolian: Union power comes from two sources: the ability to negotiate for a large portion of an industry (and thereby prevent competition based on labor costs) and the ability to contribute to electoral politics. Union decline in the private sector has followed the decline in the manufacturing industries that were organized and most open to international competition – auto, steel, machine tools, heavy machinery, textiles, etc.
The public sector, impervious to globalization is still very heavily unionized. Police, fire and education have the highest unionization rates in the U.S. The new service economy industries where many non-professional jobs in the U.S. are now located – fast food restaurants, retail stores, health care, hotels – are in the beginning stages of unionization.
All unions, public and private, still have great power in electoral politics. Unions provide many resources such as meeting halls, phone banks and data to their preferred candidates and party. Union members voluntarily contribute millions through their unions to candidates, parties and PACs. They are the "boots on the ground" in get-out-the-vote efforts and are extremely well organized in "swing states" They also vote in disproportionately high rates.
It's important to note that in the past 20 years, the Republican Party has lost the support of conservative unions and their members, which were part of the "Reagan Coalition.” Now, with nearly all union generated resources devoted to the Democrats, unions are seen as a threat by Republican politicians and their funders. It follows that Republican dominated legislatures in Wisconsin and Michigan have enacted legislation to weaken them.
Q: How will this impact America's middle class and the country's economy?
Kaboolian: It's a psychic hit but not a fatal blow. American public opinion is divided on unionization. Just before the recession, unions enjoyed a 60% favorable rating in public opinion polls. Economic vulnerability took a slice out of that, but only to even with "unfavorable."
We are now in a era when economic inequality is at a historic rate; middle class families have seen their real income decline (i.e. "the rich are richer and the middle is poorer") and new jobs pay low-wages with no promotion opportunities.
Our national election was a referendum on these conditions and U.S. voters supported change. Unions are and will be a mechanism for that change. It may appear that they are on their knees, but I predict a re-emergence. It will be in new industries, take on new forms and adopt new repertoires of action. The alternative, as our predecessors who wrote our existing labor laws knew, is action in the streets.

Linda Kaboolian, lecturer in public policy

Linda Kaboolian, lecturer in public policy

"Unions are and will be a mechanism for that change. It may appear that they are on their knees, but I predict a re-emergence," said Kaboolian.

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