The unionized workforce in America peaked in 1954 at 35 percent and has dropped steadily ever since. Currently it hovers around 13 percent.
The country's transformation from a manufacturing to a service sector economy has partially contributed to this decline. WalMart, the largest company in the world, epitomizes this ballooning low paid, non-union service sector work force. Globalization, whereby historically high paying jobs move to countries with low labor costs, has also negatively impacted unions. Nonetheless, these external factors pale in comparison to the problems unions face from within.
Workers generally benefit from belonging to a union. In contrast to comparable non-union work, union jobs pay higher wages, provide better health insurance and accrue larger pensions.
In addition, union contractual agreements generally give members more job security and termination protection as opposed to what non-union workers receive. In fact, the state of Washington's business friendly "at will" status allows employers, not bound by labor agreements, liberal latitude when firing workers.
I can attest to the perils of working as an "at will" employee. After 10 years of working, ironically, for a non-profit social service agency, my employer exploited this "at will" provision to summarily fire me and two coworkers without notice or cause. At the time, my wife, a unionized letter carrier, and I were astounded to learn my termination, though unethical, was perfectly legal!
You would think with the superior benefits and job security afforded union workers there would be a groundswell of support among the rank and file for union solidarity. On the contrary, if support were measured by meeting attendance and volunteer participation, then the state of unionism has gone the way of the eight-track tape.
Attending one of my Amalgamated Transit union meetings is like going to a morning matinee; I don't look for an available seat because there's an entire empty row!
This dismal turnout for meetings and the dearth of participation demonstrates the pervasive apathy among the rank and file. In short, many workers resent having to pay dues and generally do not value unionism.
With respect to dues, the benefits packages most unions negotiate on behalf of the rank and file far exceed what members pay in dues. In fact, the job security and termination protection alone are worth significantly more than the dues.
As for the rank and file' s tenuous loyalty, their lack of an awareness of the sacrifices endured by the union founders, results in unions being misunderstood and underappreciated.
Union apathy is exacerbated by the prevalence of an "aristocracy of labor." These skilled workers often organize within their specialized crafts believing their bargaining power would be stronger without the "dead weight" of less skilled workers. This attitude was exemplified when I asked a striking airline mechanic why his union didn't join forces with the baggage handlers.
"They are a bunch of sheep", he disdainfully said.
I then inquired about partnering with the pilots.
"The sky gods?" he incredulously asked.
Incidentally, the Northwest Airlines Mechanics strike highlighted the folly of this elitism when these union mechanics were replaced with lower paid, non-union workers.
This "aristocracy of labor" also aggravates the divisions between higher and lower paid workers. This came to bear recently when Linda Averill, a Metro driver, ran for Seattle City Council on a platform that included a $17 an hour minimum wage and universal health care coverage. This working class candidate's campaign to address the plight of the disenfranchised and working poor was rejected overwhelmingly by her fellow drivers who already have health insurance and earn over three times the minimum wage.
Rather than focusing on internal problems, unions resort to political contributions to bolster their influence. This greasing the palms of politicians in return for favorable legislation cheapens and undermines the integrity of the political process.
Instead of paying politicians to "do the right thing," union members should vote for working class candidates, like Averill, who genuinely support labor.
If unions are to be relevant institutions then the long-term remedy lies with an informed, involved and empathetic rank and file. It is imperative that the members read labor history and understand that union strength resides in the collaboration of all labor by appealing to the "all for one, one for all" motto. In the case of the airline industry, the mechanics would have fared better collectively and individually had one airline union represented the baggage handlers, mechanics, stewardesses and pilots.
Secondly, members must take pride and ownership of their unions by actively participating as they would with their families, churches and schools. Finally, the rank and file must be sympathetic to those less fortunate and recognize that elevating the status of the underclass is not only in the best interest of all labor but, more importantly, it is the right thing to do.
Unless unions transform from within they will continue to be marginalized and eventually "WalMartized."
Central Area writer Joe Kadushin may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.