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Who’s Sticking to the Union?

Combating the Resurgence of Organized Labor: A Modern Guide to Union Prevention

by Alfred T. DeMaria
Communications Training Institute, 544 pp., $125.00 (paper)

Graduate Student Unionization Controversy at Yale University

by the Yale University Office of Public Affairs. www.yale.edu/opa/gradschool/gradschool.html

PROPORTION OF WORKERS BELONGING TO UNIONS

UNION MEMBERSHIP: COMPOSITION AND CHARACTERISTICS

UNION MEMBERSHIP IN SELECTED OCCUPATIONS, 1997

The statistics are striking. At the end of 1997, when the most recent complete count was made, 14.1 percent of employed Americans belonged to unions, the lowest proportion since 1936. At the close of World War II, when membership was at its height, 35.3 percent of working men and women carried union cards.

Currently, 41.9 percent of union members are in the public sector, up from 25.8 percent twenty years ago. During this period, also, the number of women rose from 22.7 percent to 39.4 percent of total membership rolls. Moreover, 55.7 percent of union members have attended college, almost exactly the ratio for the workforce as a whole. Among the most strongly organized occupations are firefighters (71.6 percent), flight attendants (69.4 percent), and high school teachers (56.1 percent). Only 28.6 percent of coal miners now belong to unions, and only 19.5 percent of truck drivers.

The teamsters union, with the son of Jimmy Hoffa as its new president, currently has 1.4 million members, down from 2.3 million when his father was its head. (Nor is there much likelihood that these losses will be reversed, as Hoffa’s support comes largely from local satraps who have shown little interest in mounting organizing drives.) During the last two decades, the wage advantage for unionized workers with private jobs has fallen by 44.1 percent, although in the public sector it has moved up 9.5 percent.1

The reasons for the fall in membership have been much discussed. One cause, clearly, has been the decline of manufacturing in America and the transfer of much manufacturing work abroad. Because of labor-saving innovations, moreover, fewer people are needed to make steel or assemble cars. As a result, 16.1 percent of US workers now work in factories, down from 22.8 percent twenty years ago. There are also fewer people on corporate payrolls, which in the past were more likely to sign industrywide contracts. In the latest available count, the 800 largest US firms employed 17.0 percent of the overall workforce, against 25.7 percent twenty years earlier. Many of these companies now have much of their work done abroad or farm it out to relatively small domestic suppliers. Nike does not make a single sneaker in the United States; many publishers are sending typesetting overseas; insurance companies are having paperwork processed abroad.

At home, corporate jobs are frequently assigned to temporary workers, who are often classed as “independent contractors,” and are not easily reached in union organizing campaigns. Indeed, there are fewer long-term jobs, something union seniority could once guarantee. Last year, among men aged forty to forty-five, only 39.1 percent had worked ten or more years for their current employer, compared with 51.1 percent in 1983.

1.

Back to the Future” could have been an alternate title of Stanley Aronowitz’s plea for a revitalized labor movement. The famous labor leaders of the 1930s—Walter Reuther of the auto workers, John L. Lewis of the miners, Harry Bridges of the longshoremen—haunt his pages. (How many of today’s union heads can we name?) So do the heady days of sit-down strikes and face-offs with National Guardsmen. Hence, too, Aronowitz’s epigraph, from the old anthem: “Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong!”

Reviving the labor movement won’t be easy. Only one in seven workers now belongs to unions, and in the private sector it is one in ten. True, the AFL-CIO signed up 400,000 new members in 1997, ranging from hotel workers in Las Vegas and janitors in Denver to nurses in San Diego. Yet during the same year, unions lost 200,000 members, because locals were decertified or (more likely) plants and companies closed or moved away. Given the size of today’s workforce, unions would have to find 15 million new members to return to their 1945 high.2

Still, Aronowitz is optimistic. “With all of its flaws,” he writes, “the labor movement remains the best hope for democracy.” He cites successful strikes in 1998 at General Motors and United Parcel Service, plus signs of serious commitments to organizing by the AFL-CIO’s new leadership. From the Ashes of the Old contains much advice to the labor movement. Unions, Aronowitz says, should mount new campaigns in Southern states, since low pay there pulls down wages everywhere. Yet he says hardly a word about Southern “right-to-work” laws, which pose formidable barriers to unions and face no likelihood of repeal. He would also have unions recruit the working poor, although it will not be easy to overcome “the reluctance of most unions to identify themselves with the economically abject.” Office workers, professionals, and lower-level managers are also on his list, even if many of them appear to feel that union protection is unnecessary or demeaning. Still, white-collar public employees have been joining unions, so why not their private counterparts?

Unions, Aronowitz writes, should press for a shorter work week, and refuse offers of “a dual wage system” with lower pay for new hires. He also urges that they “establish connections” with minority and women’s groups, and make common cause with environmentalists and those who favor choice on abortion. His conclusion on political strategy is not surprising, although it is hard even to visualize how it could be followed.

It may be time to fashion a new doctrine of democratic syndicalism, wherein the labor movement remains distant from both the state and the party system,…running its own candidates in selected races, and allying itself with independent political formations and social movements.

From the Ashes of the Old is basically a plea for a more just America, with the added hope that unions will become the force for realizing this vision. But Aronowitz offers little evidence that they are ready to espouse larger social goals. True, unions, by definition, demand a degree of income redistribution, although today they often settle for preserving what their members have. In the private sector, union workers’ financial edge over other workers is half what it was two decades ago, not least because management is taking a larger share of the pie. Even the epithet “movement” sits awkwardly on associations not even sure they can maintain their status quo.

2.

There is a widespread impression that more and more Americans identify with management or are professional workers who will resist joining unions. But is this really so? In his book counseling corporations on how to defeat unions, Alfred DeMaria warns that professionals may be less self-reliant than is often thought. While some may initially “believe that a union would stifle individual achievement,” he says, “unions have often effectively countered this belief”:

They persuade professional employees to join by arguing that salaries and promotion mechanisms are bona fide subjects for collective bargaining. Without a union, they argue, management makes these decisions unilaterally, usually without any input from the professionals. They promise that union representation will give them input into working conditions and the ability to develop systems that best suit their profession and employment conditions.

Indeed, as has been noted, over half of union members have attended college, and those with degrees earn an average of $45,396 a year. In fact, union membership extends all the way up the salary scale. Movie stars who get eight figures per picture find it useful to renew their cards in the Screen Actors Guild, not least for its generous health benefits. Here are a few examples of salaries secured through collective bargaining by highly trained professionals:

  • Pilots with only fifteen years of service at Northwest, American, United, and US Airways now earn on average over $175,000 a year. To gain this, they have been willing to strike and picket terminals.

  • Professors at New York’s City University can now get as much as $101,655 for twenty-eight weeks of teaching. Some need only spend 140 hours a year in a classroom.

  • Top reporters at The New York Times receive over $100,000 when overtime pay is added in, as it often is, since their Newspaper Guild contract sets the basic workweek at 37 1/2 hours.

  • Under the National Basketball Association contract, first-year players—some of them 18-year-olds straight from high school—will start at $300,000.

  • Last year, 450 New Jersey physicians sought to join the United Food and Commerical Workers Union, alongside meat cutters and supermarket cashiers, the better to deal with the HMOs in their state. The National Labor Relations Board turned down their bid, ruling they are “skilled professionals with the characteristics of independent business people.” The doctors are appealing the decision, on the ground that its latter part is no longer an accurate description.

According to federal law, most managers may not join or form unions. In theory, and often in practice, they serve as surrogates for the top executives, and sit on their side of the table. To allow them to ally themselves with the workers they supervise, or even to have a union of their own, would give them an ambiguous status, undercutting the authority of management. However, as Aronowitz makes clear, the managerial jobs have undergone radical changes in recent years. Not only do few managers have secretaries; most now do much of their own typing. Fewer of them make decisions, since “computer-mediated technologies turned over dozens of managerial functions to programmers.” Loan officers at banks now tap in data on applicants, and software prints out a yes or no, with specifications and conditions.

Aronowitz believes that “the largest group of managers assign work and are responsible for its performance.” Yet even this is no longer so. In 1997, the most recent count by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10 million men and 8.2 million women had jobs listed as managers, executives, or administrators. Taken together, they accounted for one in seven of all American workers. Yet as it turns out, most of them do not supervise other workers or, for that matter, have anyone “under” them. Rather, they carry out assignments—for example, filling in spreadsheets—which are office counterparts of production work. At best, they form a support staff for the people really in charge, who can accurately be called “management”; but so do receptionists and billing clerks.3

Hypothetically, many if not most members of this tier of workers might be drawn to union membership. Some court decisions would first be required to establish that impressive titles need not signify supervisory functions or duties. Even now, in the public sector, genuine managers can form unions if their state legislatures allow them to do so. Thus in New York, school principals and police commanders use collective bargaining to negotiate pay and working conditions.

According to Aronowitz, “some 130,000 professors and other education professionals” are now members of unions, representing “a little under a quarter of full-time faculty in colleges and universities.” There would be considerably more, he observes, were it not for a 1980 (not 1981, as he states) Supreme Court decision that said administrators at private schools were not obliged to negotiate with faculty unions. A 5-4 decision supported the position of New York’s Yeshiva University that its professors were an arm of management. In particular, the majority upheld a lower court’s finding that faculty members lacked the right to organize, since they were “in effect substantially and pervasively operating the enterprise.”4

  1. 1

    Most of these figures and those in the tables accompanying this review are from Barry T. Hirsch and David A. Macpherson, Union Membership and Earnings Data Book (Bureau of National Affairs, 1998).

  2. 2

    See Gregory Mantsios, editor, A New Labor Movement for the New Century (Monthly Review Press, 1998).

  3. 3

    Richard Sennett has described, in telling detail, how demands for workplace “flexibility” take their toll on the capacity to evolve a sense of self and to set goals for life. He shows how employees are expected to reinvent themselves almost on an annual basis, as careers and whole professions become less defined and less meaningful. See The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (Norton, 1998).

  4. 4

    National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University, with Yeshiva University Faculty Association as intervenor petitioner, 444 US 672 (argued October 10, 1979, decided February 20, 1980).

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