Ignorance is NOT bliss. That statement is more complicated that it sounds when applied to labor unions. For union leaders and activists, it has a deeper and more ominous meaning! The ignorance I am speaking of is the general public’s lack of knowledge concerning labor unions and the labor movement.
There is a dearth of accurate information about what labor unions are, what they do, and how they do it. This lack of information creates a vacuum that society fills with half-truths, exaggerations, and ugly untrue stereotypes about labor unions. Each of those distortions masquerades as the truth. That means that the myths about unions are guiding people’s behavior. Not only do average Americans not understand unions, unfortunately too many union members don’t either. Union members, through no fault of their own, come to the union “flawed.” They have little real understanding of the importance of their role in building the solidarity required to establish and maintain dignity and respect in the workplace.
Let me give a couple of examples of these ugly stereotypes. First, at the turn of the 20th century, Samuel Gompers the first president of the American Federation of Labor, was asked, “What does labor want?” His reply was a statement that, I believe, was about creating a society that honors the best values embodied in opportunities presented by the American Revolution.
“What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more constant work and less crime; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.”
The media of the day reduced that eloquent statement to the one word: “more.” The idea that unions are, at their core, greedy turns reality on its head. No union today wants to drive its employer out of business. Why kill the goose that lays the golden egg?
The primary goal for publicly-traded corporations is to maximize short-term stockholder profits. That was as true in the 1800s as it is today. William Henry Vanderbilt, the self-described richest man on earth, described in 1883 the reasons he owned and ran his railroads, “The public be damned! I run my railroads for my stockholders!” Twenty-eight years later, a stockholder in the American Woolen Company told social reformer Harry Emerson Fosdick, “Any man who pays more for labor than the lowest sum he can get men for is robbing the stockholders. If he can secure men for $6 and pays more, he is stealing from the company.”
This isn’t shocking, it is merely how an unregulated economy works. In 2010, elected officials are still blaming the United Automobile Workers union for damaging the economic viability of the American automobile industry. I believe they have it exactly backwards. Here’s Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman in his book Capitalism and Freedom on how the economy is supposed to work. The focus of corporate officials should exclusively be on “more.”
“The view has been gaining widespread acceptance that corporate officials … have a ‘social responsibility’ that goes beyond the interest of their stockholders … This view shows a fundamental misconception of the character to use its resources and to engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game … Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundation of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”
The second example of a societal distortion is the commonly used term “union boss” to describe the position of elected union leader. Boss implies an unelected permanent status with unlimited power. By law unions are among the most regulated institutions in American society. Local union leaders must stand for re-election by their membership every three years and national leaders every five years.
I have been a labor educator for over 30 years, and the most common and perplexing challenge to union effectiveness is member apathy. Apathy strikes at the heart of member solidarity. Apathy leads to burn out on the part of the leaders and activists who invest their time and energy in the life of the union.
The question becomes what can be done to turn apathy into activism? The first step is to realize that members who are apathetic about the union are not “genetically” apathetic about other parts of their lives. Union members are often very involved in their families, various communities, religious organizations, and clubs of all sorts.
The second step is examining why anyone joins and participates in an organized group. People take part in organizations because they understand what the organization is, how its values are consistent with the values they hold dear, and why participating will pay off for them. Society’s untrue union stereotypes act as a roadblock to member participation. The distortions need to be replaced with a general understanding of the labor movement’s contributions to our national quality of life, the “best practice” values that undergird unions, and more specifically how that member’s particular labor union works. I’ve learned in doing this kind of education close to 20 years in Nebraska, a right-to-work state, that my best tools in building union consciousness for members come from American history, more specifically labor history.
I try to “reframe” unions for the members. Some “reframing” is short and simple: labor unions: the folks who brought you the weekend; labor unions: our nation’s first successful anti-poverty program; and labor unions: bringing democracy to a workplace near you. These “bumper sticker” statements can be thought provoking. It is explaining these concepts in ways that are easily understood and repeatable that takes time.
Whose job is it to educate both new and old members? It is the job of union leaders and activists! The education of old and new members cannot be left to chance. It should be part of a well thought out ongoing orientation for all members. One of the most basic concepts that all members need to understand has to do with power. Any organization that has lofty ideas and goals, but no power to achieve them, will eventually find itself begging for members.
Unions need power to achieve their goals of creating workplaces where employers treat employees with respect and dignity. Power is also needed to pass worker-friendly legislation that improves the quality of life for families at work and in the community. Likewise, power is needed to support the right of employees to organize new bargaining units and increase union density. The real power of any union lies in its informed and involved members who are willing to engage in public and private acts of solidarity. This is a place where numbers count. The more people acting in solidarity with each other, the more power the union has.
The labor awareness class I teach starts with the basics. Ninety percent of the US workforce is composed of people who sell their intelligence, experience, and strength to an employer to earn a living. And yet, most union members and most employees, for that matter, haven’t consciously thought about and don’t fully appreciate the importance of the employer/employee relationship. When I ask members in my “union awareness” classes to identify the five most important relationships in their lives, they typically identify relationships focusing on family, friends, and their Creator. Rarely, if ever, do they identify the employment relationship. I then ask students to identify how the employment relationship directly and indirectly affects the quality of their lives, their families’ lives, and even the quality of the communities in which they reside. Students quickly come to understand how important that relationship is and how it touches every relationship they just identified as important.
We spend time in class examining why the history of the “humanization” of the employer/employee relationship is not taught in either American history or civics classes. It is not the members’ fault that they can’t detail the reasons average employees in the US no longer work 10-14 hour days and six to seven day workweeks. Students quickly assure me it wasn’t merely the kindness of employers across the nation that explains shorter work hours, safer workplaces, the regulation of child labor, and equal pay for equal work. Our members need to know how the relationship was humanized so that they can explain it to others.
I find this void in the US history taught in our public and private schools troublesome. I believe our schools are supposed to help prepare our children for competently living meaningful and involved lives. Our children need the information and skills required to intelligently earn a living and participate in our representative democracy. Imparting that knowledge is an important reason schools exist. Denying students the history of how the employer/employee relationship evolved is a disservice to them and our nation.
When we discuss the employment relationship, my union students are surprised to learn that the American employment relationship traces its roots to the master/servant relationship in England! At-will-employment is the “default position” in US employment law. In many ways, employer rights under today’s at-will-employment law mirror the rights of masters. Within limits, employers have the unilateral right to set and reset wages, hours of work, and terms of employment literally at-will! Again, within limits, employers have the legal right to discipline an employee for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all. Additionally, at-will-employment brings with it a legal obligation for employees to be “loyal” to their employers. This loyalty obligation is not reciprocal. The single most important right that an employee has that a servant does not is “the right to quit” if dissatisfied with the employment relationship. The rights of individual employees to speak out, to attempt to change wages, hours and terms of employment exists in a union and not in an at-will-employment setting.
By the end of the class union members come to realize that labor unions are as American as apple pie. The principles on which this nation was founded, and we are still trying to extend to those who were originally denied their benefits, largely overlap with the “best practice” principles at the core of unionism. Having a voice in determining your future quality of life, fairness, justice, equality of opportunity are all basic union values.
Members learn that unions are the tools that employees use to extend the concept of Constitutional Rights into the workplace. For instance, the Bill of Rights establishes the freedoms of speech, assembly and association; the presumption of innocence; protection from self-incrimination; and right to due process in civil society. Members come to appreciate that, with a collectively-bargained agreement, these rights can be extended into the workplace.
History teaches us that the American labor movement deserves credit for protecting and expanding democracy in an out of the workplace; for increasing the respect with which all employers treat their employees; and for improving our national standard of living. Labor unions are the vehicles Americans used to broadly expand the middle class. They are the tools that help give working people a shot at achieving the American Dream. None of that is possible without informed and involved members acting in public and private acts of solidarity. Our members should know that, and the important role they play in keeping the American Dream alive.