Labor Rights: If Unions Won’t Fight for Them, Then What Good Are Unions?

On December 10th, International Human Rights Day, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney pointed out that “[f]or all practical purposes, Americans have lost the freedom to form unions.”  Accordingly, the AFL-CIO and its allies engaged in a series of protests and rallies in over 100 cities across the country (as well as in eight countries around the world) in the days up to and including December 10, arguing that “Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights!” Sweeney argues: “Our labor laws are so weak and so feebly enforced. . . . ” Long-time labor writer Dick Meister, writing in Znet, concurs: “The lack of firm legal rights is a main reason only about 13 percent of the country’s workers belong to unions, compared to a high of 35 percent in the 1950s.”

American Rights at WorkI want to argue a different perspective.  Yes, I agree, workers’ rights in this country have been terribly undermined, so much that it is extremely difficult to form a union.  I agree that this hurts unions, weakens popular democracy, and threatens the economic well-being of American workers and their families.  And I agree that this is a violation of international human rights in general and a specific violation of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But I don’t buy Meister’s claim — and Sweeney’s as well — that the lack of legal rights is a main reason why workers aren’t joining unions.  I think the AFL-CIO’s focus on labor laws is, in reality, a diversion from the real problem, a way of acting like a problem is being addressed when it is not.  I think workers aren’t joining unions because they don’t trust union leadership — and especially at the national level, I think workers are right.  (See several of my previous articles for MRZine: “Distilling the 2005 AFL-CIO Convention: Disaster Ahoy!”; “US Labor Leaders: Missing in Action”; and “Labor: Eyeless in America.”)

Let’s step back and look at the attack on unions to see if this might help us understand what is going on. Most of the anti-union rhetoric we hear ad nauseum is that unions force wages too high, supposedly killing US corporations’ ability to compete with foreign-based competition. Is that true?

Recently, the New York Times ran an article on the downsizing of General Motors (GM) and its effects on autoworkers (Danny Hakim, “For a G.M. Family, the American Dream Vanishes,” 19 November 2005:  A-1, B-7).  The article discussed how General Motors was going to make massive layoffs and initiate plant closures: “GM plans to cut its blue-collar work force . . . to 86,000 Americans nationwide by the end of 2008, about the same number of people it once employed in Flint alone in the 1970s.  At its peak, GM employed more than 600,000 Americans.” That obviously means that affected union workers will lose their “middle-class” standards of living: “the good life that auto work has afforded their family for four generations, and for hundreds of thousands of other families in Michigan and elsewhere across the country, is ending.” Interesting, however, was a listing of UAW hourly wages — among the highest hourly wage levels for industrial workers in the country — from 1929 to 2000 included in the article. The Times had converted all the wages into 2004 dollars, so one could easily compare real wages (i.e., adjusted for inflation) over time.

GM Hourly WagesClick on the graphic for a larger view.

According to this graphic, the UAW wage in 1980 was $30.58 an hour — and in 2004, the estimated top rate was $36 an hour: in a 24-year period, wages had grown only $5.42 an hour per worker.  (That’s a Compound Annual Growth Rate of .68% per year!)  How could GM survive such massive increases?!?

While unions can force undesired wage increases upon employers, any increases in the last couple of decades have been modest at best. And yet, unions are still under attack. The main reason employers do not like unions is that they have the collective power to hobble if not reverse corporate decisions through its ability to disrupt production.  In other words, a union can act as a “governor” over corporate activities, at least as far as the workforce goes — at least potentially.  Now, obviously, the union leadership must gain and maintain the support of its members to make that power real, but a union is the one organization in our society that is run by working people and that has the potential power to counteract corporate management power.  And when unions work together, especially as they pull in allies, they have the ability to transcend the power of an individual corporation and affect entire industries and, at times, even government policies. It is this power that gives unions an ability to ensure labor rights, gain higher wages, better working conditions, increased benefits, and the like.  And it is this power that gives them an ability to protect their activists (informal leaders) as well as the members who follow these activists.  Without this power, wages, etc. can only improve with management acquiescence — and protection for activists is basically non-existent.

I believe that a main reason workers aren’t joining unions is that national- and international-level union leadership does all it can to keep workers from making that collective power real.  (Continual compromise with corporate management only leads to more of the same in the future.  Yes, compromise can be justified in almost any situation, but it simply does not offer workers anything that they can’t generally get on their own.) Leaders don’t want to fight — no matter how important it is to their organization to fight — because it means that union members might go beyond the limits imposed by leadership and might even replace the current leaders.  Like our gutless representatives and senators — are you listening, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry? — labor leaders would rather lose than risk fighting.

Now, let’s be clear: there aren’t all these class-conscious workers out there, straining at the bit, ready to strike upon command.  Anyone who believes that is living in a fool’s paradise. But there are increasing numbers of working people who know that something is terribly wrong, that the American “dream” is turning into the American “nightmare,” if it hasn’t already done so for them.  Many — if not most — already have figured out that their sons and daughters will more than likely have a worse economic future than workers today. And that scares them.  Yet, despite this, fewer and fewer workers are joining unions.

Why, in these times of increasing income inequality and worsening economic situations, aren’t workers joining unions?  I agree with labor leaders: there IS a risk that any workers seeking to join a union, or to build one, could lose their job.  No question about this. But the question is WHY so few workers are taking that risk. I believe that the reason is that there is so little to gain from it.

Partly, that is not the unions’ fault.  Companies do have to survive in their respective industries. A company’s wage levels cannot be terribly out of line with its competitors or the company will possibly go under. But what IS the unions’ fault is that most union leaders — showing no leadership, no vision, no determination to fight for their members or to gain new ones — will not directly confront the unions’ own problems.

First, many unions simply are not democratic. In many cases, once leaders get installed, a nuclear bomb can’t blast them out.  Their interest is to do just enough to keep their jobs, and if there’s a choice between leading the members in a fight or keeping their jobs, the latter will win almost every time.  And they will run over anyone who tries to start a democratic discussion of issues of vital importance to unions.  Union politics is not for the weak of heart, and democracy is often quickly forgotten when a union leader’s job is at stake.

Secondly, it is quite often the case that union leaders have no trust in their members, even in a democratic union.  “No matter what we do, those bastards won’t back us,” is a common leader lament.  But WHY should members back union leaders automatically?  Union leaders in general are neither smarter nor dumber than most of their members.  What have union leaders done to educate their members?  Not some top-down “here’s-what-we’re-going-to-do” type of “education,” but education that is democratic, that involves all members who want to get involved, and that can be wide-ranging and critical, of the union itself as well as employers.  Workers can be won to militant campaigns if they have been presented with the situation in all of its complexity, if they can democratically decide how to proceed, and if they are treated with respect.

Finally, workers need to know that, if they stick their necks out, the union will do everything in its power to defend and protect them. I’m not talking about just filing grievances or even taking cases to court.  I mean that the union will do everything possible — including working-to-rule (most workplaces are dependent upon workers voluntarily using their knowledge to get things done, so for workers to do only the minimum required of them is extremely disruptive), wildcat striking, or just generally disrupting production in any way it can — to force the company to reinstate immediately any targeted union member.

Ask the workers at Delphi about the support they’ve gotten from their union.  Ask the workers at Northwest Airlines about union solidarity with their own union.

To sum up, if we don’t have legal rights for workers in this country, that’s because unions will not educate and mobilize rank-and-file union members and those who want to join unions — let alone allies and supporters — to fight for them. If unions won’t do it for their own interests — while legal rights are important for individual workers, they are essential to union survival — then why should workers trust that they’ll fight for anything else?  And if they won’t fight for anything, what good are they?

Complaining about our lack of labor rights without a program to obtain and enforce them through struggle is no more than begging: “please, master, if you just give us our legal rights, we’ll be good little boys and girls and ever so grateful.” And that’s why we’re losing what little we still have. 

Frederick Douglass said it best nearly 150 years ago:

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. 

We will get our labor rights restored when we develop the power and determination to grab them.  And all the sniveling in the world won’t move us one step toward building that power.

Kim Scipes is a member of the National Writers Union and a long-time global labor activist in the US. He currently teaches sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Indiana. His on-line bibliography on “Contemporary Labor Issues” can be accessed at He can be contacted at <>.