JOBS FOR ALL COALITION P.O.
Box 96, Lynbrook, NY 11563
19 © March 1998
Full Employment Matters to Unions*
Elaine Bernard, Executive Director, Trade Union Program,
Harvard University, and member of the Advisory Board, National
Jobs for All Coalition
from NEW PARTY PAPER 4, Open Magazine Pamphlet Series.
Do unions really
matter any more? And if they do, what should be their mission:
to build a movement to represent and defend the interests of only
their own members? Or to represent and defend the interests of
all working people? In the United States there has been an irrational
and self-defeating division of labor. Unions organize workplaces,
while other groups--so-called social movements and identity groups--organize
the community. This division of turf misleadingly implies that
there is an easy division between workplace issues and other economic
and social struggles. These separate spheres have meant that US
progressives, who often march in solidarity with workers around
the world, often fail to support workers here at home.
For those striving
for social and economic justice, organizing the workplace is crucial.
Yet, in one sense, a workplace by nature is already organized--employees
usually need to cooperate with others to accomplish their assignments.
Everyone there is earning money, so it is a resource-rich community
compared to many others; and decisions of great importance are
made there. It may also be a place where global capital puts its
foot down, so there is an opportunity for people to act upon it
and influence it. Thus, the workplace is an important place for
organizing--and not just for bread and butter issues, as important
as they may be.
participation: not at work
The worksite is also
a place where workers learn about the relations of power, especially
about how few rights they have to participate in decisions that
greatly affect their lives. The autocratic hierarchy at work undermines
democracy. It is not surprising that after spending eight hours
a day obeying orders, people do not then engage in robust, critical
dialogue about the structure of our society. Being a deferential
servant from nine to five diminishes a worker's after-hours liberty
and sense of civic entitlement and responsibility.
Of course, not all
workers are unhappy, nor are all workplaces hellish. Rather, the
workplace is a unique location where we have come to accept our
lack of entitlement to the rights we normally enjoy as citizens.
Take a fundamental rule of our legal system--the presumption of
innocence. If management accuses a worker of a transgression,
there is no such presumption. Even in organized workplaces, the
rule remains: work first, grieve later. Workers protected by a
collective agreement with a contractual grievance procedure can
at least grieve an unjust practice (or, specifically, one that
that violates the rights won through collective bargaining). But
unorganized workers only have the option of appealing to their
superiorsô benevolence or joining the unemployment line.
"Free" labor entails no rights other than the freedom to quit
without penalty. That's one step up from indentured servitude,
but a long way from democracy.
There is not even
protection against arbitrary and capricious actions by management.
For example, workers have no right to employment security and
no protection against unjust dismissal in the private sector,
unlike workers in most other advanced industrial countries. The
US workplace is governed by the doctrine of "employment at will."
While there is some protection for employees against dismissal
for clearly discriminatory reasons of race, gender, disability
or age, that same employee can be black, female, older, white,
male or whatever, and as long as the dismissal is for "no reason,"
it's legal. Most Americans believe that there is a law that protects
them from being fired for "no cause." But they're wrong. When
entering the workplace, citizens are transformed into employees
who leave their rights at the door.
A glaring example
of the power imbalance on the job concerns freedom of speech.
Though we celebrate it as the most cherished right of a free citizen,
most Americans are astonished to learn that freedom of speech
does not extend to the workplace, or at least not to workers.
It is literally true that free speech exists for bosses but not
for workers. Because the Bill of Rights forbids only government,
not "private," restrictions on speech, it does not protect workersô
speech. Further tilting the balance of power against workers,
the Supreme Court held that corporations are "persons" and therefore
protected by the Bill of Rights. So any legislation (e.g., the
National Labor Relations Act) or agency (e.g., the National Labor
Relations Board) that seeks to restrict a corporate "person's"
freedom of speech, is unacceptable. This means that employers
are entitled to hold compulsory sessions to lecture employees
on the employersô views of unions without granting employees
or their unions the right of response. Thus the First Amendment
protects fictitious "legal" persons (including transnational corporations
designated as persons) against the infringement of their rights
by government--but not the infringement of rights of real persons
(workers) by the private concentration of power and wealth known
New Deal Agenda
Few people remember
that the National Labor Relations Act (1935), the cornerstone
of US labor law, was intended not simply to provide a procedure
to end workplace strife. Rather, this New Deal legislation had
a more ambitious mission: to promote industrial democracy by "free
collective bargaining." Now, the very term "industrial democracy"
seems like a contradiction in terms. While we might not expect
politicians to lead the charge on this issue, what about organized
labor? While an occasional union document mentions it, there has
been little recent effort by US unions to connect workplace rights
with the overall struggle of working people for democracy. Fighting
for workplace democracy, and not simply the right to form unions,
is vital to the restoration of labor's social mission. It is not
only the right strategy; it is smart, too. With organized
labor down to only 14 percent of the total workforce (1997)
the vast majority of workers have no direct experience with
unions. But as citizens, they have a conception of democracy and
Organized labor has,
of course, long sought to restore some balance to US labor law.
Supreme Court decisions rolling back union and worker rights,
as well as management-inspired amendments to labor law, have restricted
union organizers while freeing management to penalize workers
who attempt to exercise their rights. Management can, of course,
voluntarily recognize unions or permit workers to participate
in decision-making, but these are not rights. Though collective
bargaining gives workers power that can win rights, this
is different from having rights. Like a hunting license,
it guarantees only opportunity.
New Deal legacy, at least as important to workers, is the Economic
Bill of Rights, advocated by Franklin Roosevelt in his 1944 State
of the Union address. First on the list was "the right to a useful
and remunerative job...." (Others include a decent home, medical
care, economic security, and education.) Union power in the workplace
needs the support of national policies guaranteeing jobs for all
who want them, either through appropriate macroeconomic policy
or direct job creation. It is difficult for unions to secure gains
when unemployment threatens the livelihood of workers.
and butter" unionism
The United States
currently has the highest levels of income inequality in the advanced
industrial world, and the majority of US workers have experienced
declining real wages for 25 years. Economic inequality and falling
wages are linked to workplace democracy and job availability.
Workers' rights are crucial issues for organizing, and organizing
is essential to overcoming problems of inequality and falling
wages. But organizing does not create jobs. A chronically job-short
economy undermines unions. As Roosevelt quoted in the 1944
address mentioned above, "necessitous men are not free men." An
important aim of the reconstructed union movement must be to ensure
the conditions for full employment. An important recent study**
reports a link between pay and unemployment. As the authors conclude,
"A worker who is employed in an area of high unemployment earns
less than an identical individual who works in a region with low
joblessness." In short, an area's joblessness helps to determine
the ability of workers and unions to get raises. So, too, in the
national economy, two decades of high unemployment is an important
reason for wage stagnation.
If the aims of unions
are, as stated by the AFL-CIO, to "achieve decent wages and conditions,
democracy in the workplace, a full voice for working people in
society, and the more equitable sharing of the wealth of the nation,"
then unions must be more than service organizations for their
members. Though servicing the membership is often believed incompatible
with fulfilling a wider social mission, it is increasingly clear
that unions need to do both. Unions, like any organization, will
not survive if they do not serve their members' needs. Nor will
they survive if they only serve those needs.
The experience of
organized labor in the United States demonstrates this: in the
narrowest sense of "delivering" for members, US trade unions have
been the most "successful" labor movement in the world. Unions
won for their members benefits such as pensions, health care,
and paid vacations that working people in other industrial countries
were able to win only through political as well as industrial
action. US trade unionists also enjoy the highest wage premium
in any country--that is, the difference in pay and benefits between
organized and unorganized workers in the same sector. Thus if
serving the membership were the key to building unions, then the
US should have the highest rate of unionization in the world,
not one of the lowest. The low levels of unionization underline
the downside to labor's achievement: the higher the wage premium,
the greater the employer resistance to unionization. By failing
to extend the gains made by unions to the rest of working people,
these gains are now threatened.
A second problem in
winning benefits only for their own members is that eventually,
this approach isolates unionists from other working people. Unionists
are left with little sense of belonging to a broad class movement
that includes all workers. Members see joining the union as purchasing
a service, not participating in a movement for social change.
Ultimately working people, start to see unions as simply another
"special interest" rather than organizations representing the
interest of the vast majority of people--workers.
Unions and politics:
constructing the possible
Most unionists recognize
that politics is important and that there is nothing that labor
can win at the bargaining table that cannot be taken away by regulation,
legislation or political decision-making. Politics has always
been fundamentally a contest of ideas. For the working person
today, it is useful to see politics as the process of constructing
the possible. In essence, it is the process of deciding which
issues warrant a social response and which are best left to the
The 1994 debate over
health care reform exemplified this process. The question was
whether we should leave this critical service to individuals seeking
private solutions through a maze of various insurance plans or
whether society as a whole should assure comprehensive, affordable
quality coverage for all. Some few proposed a single-payer system
like Canada's, where the provision of insurance is socialized
but the practice of medicine is private, with freedom of choice
of doctors assured. Although we have already socialized health
insurance for the elderly through Medicare, many Americans seemed
to balk at the prospect of extending it to all. Yet in our history,
we have often done precisely that--socialized a service, thereby
transforming it from an individual responsibility to a community-provided
Fire service throughout
this country was an individual responsibility at the turn of the
century. Those who could afford it, and those who had the most
to lose in case of fire, financed private fire departments. Insured
buildings had iron plaques so that in case of fire the local fire
service could identify them and act promptly. While the uninsured
could engage in expedited negotiations with the fire department
over fees when fire struck, fire spreads easily from the uninsured
to the insured. It gradually dawned on the insured that the only
complete protection was to insure everyone. So the insured supported
socializing fire service: a public system financed by taxes extended
it to everyone. The universal system was cheaper and more efficient,
with quality assured because rich and poor alike were covered.
The problem of fires was thereby moved from the realm of individual
concern to collective responsibility. We may eventually see guarantees
of the right to employment and to health care as similarly a public
market values or social values?
The current politics
in the United States and elsewhere designates virtually all problems
as the responsibility of the individual, whose fate is left to
the mercy of the market. Markets have their uses, but are oblivious
to morals or democratic decision-making and promote only the value
of profit. In the marketplace, it's "one dollar, one vote," which
despite an appearance of neutrality, privileges the rich at the
expense of the poor. The marketplace must not be permitted to
replace social decision-making.
The elevation of the
market as the sole arbitrator of values deprives people of a sense
of belonging to a community. Instead, people feel isolated and
demoralized. An individual can't opt for full employment, rapid
transit or improved public schools, so by default, these problems
become "unsolvable." This frightening world view forces people
to seek individual solutions. If there is no such thing as society,
then government is a waste, and redistributive programs are robbery.
Worse yet, anything that goes from my pocket makes it that much
harder for me and my family to survive.
Unions and civil
The labor movement
builds communities--that's what unions do. By bringing together
workers who have few rights, who are isolated and often competing
against each other, unions forge a community in the workplace.
They help workers understand that they have rights, and they provide
a collective vehicle for exercising those rights. And they fight
for the right of workers to participate in decision-making in
the workplace. But labor movements and other communities of common
interest don't just happen. They must be constructed. This is
an ongoing process, rather like democracy. And like democracy,
it's a process that can be rolled back or reversed. At 16 million
members, the labor movement remains the largest multi-racial,
multi-issue membership organization in the country. As such, it
is a prime target of the New Right's assault on working people's
rights, both in and out of the workplace. Because unions are the
only organizations capable of representing all working people,
the success of their cause reaches far beyond their own survival.
Expansion of the labor movement would be a major step in securing
working people's rights. Such an expansion would be easier to
accomplish in a full employment society.
G. Blanchflower and Andrew J. Oswald, The Wage Curve, Cambridge:
MIT Press, 1994.
June Zaccone, Economics (Emer.), Hofstra University and Helen
Lachs Ginsburg,, Economics (Emer.), Brooklyn College, CUNY
National Jobs for All Coalition is a project of the Council on
Public and International Affairs.