U is for Unions

Here is the state of unionized United States.

In 2011, the union membership rate–the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union–was 11.8 percent, essentially unchanged from 11.9 percent in 2010. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions [was] at 14.8 million… In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers.

In 2011, 7.6 million employees in the public sector belonged to a union, compared with 7.2 million union workers in the private sector. The union membership rate for public-sector workers (37.0 percent) was substantially higher than the rate for private-sector workers (6.9 percent)….Among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $938, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $729.

The role of unions has been a source of much debate. Some find unions not so important to the modern economy, with such a relatively small percentage of workers currently unionized. Others note that this declining union membership parallels the sharp decline in the share of the country’s income going to the middle class; I count myself in the latter group.

This generates the question, Why did labor unions start in the first place? “Labor unions are associations of workers who are banded together for the purpose of improving their employment conditions and protecting themselves and their coworkers from economic and legal exploitation.” Unions are almost always formed as a reaction to a situation.

There definitely has been hostility towards unions in recent years. A Kenneth Cole fashion ad managed to dis teachers and their unions. A local newspaper writer got into a bit of a kerfuffle over her anti-union remarks.

I have been watching events in the state of Wisconsin with fascination. First, the people elected an anti-union governor, Scott Walker in 2010. Then, as he attempted to make draconian cuts to the budget, and paint union members less than favorably (an understatement), a massive and sustained protest of workers – teachers, firefighters and many others – literally rocked the statehouse. Now, over a million Wisconsinites signed on to try to recall the governor, in an election, coincidentally being held today.

The librarians at the Albany Public Library have had a union for less than two decades, and it was initiated by the weather. On Saturday, March 13, 1993, there was a warning for a severe snowstorm in Albany, from a storm which already had pelted locations as far south as Alabama and Florida with severe weather. The city had told people to get off the roads. The library director, who I’ll call Bill, could not be reached. The librarians made a collective decision to close the facilities early, and it was a good thing: the airport received over 26 inches (over 2/3 of a meter) of snow in what has been dubbed The Storm of the Century. The autocratic director was furious that the staff had acted without his say-so, and took disciplinary action against some employees. Though the punishment was later rescinded (I believe) because of negative publicity, this became the impetus for a union at APL.

No doubt there have been excesses in unions over the years – my first image of union involved tough guy Jimmy Hoffa – but unions also can advocate for a fair shake in a manner that individual workers simply cannot.

Last cartoon:

ABC Wednesday – Round 10

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31 thoughts on “U is for Unions

  1. It’s interesting what you told about the initiation of the union of Albany Public Library. What I see from the cartoon is that power, distrust and discrimination are the main feelings that cause the problems in any change for better conditions of the employees.
    Thanks for your comment! Yes Uriah Heep, the one in David Copperfield, was also in my mind but I want to continue writing entries about Israel, the Bible and the symbols of Judaism until September/ October. I have so much material. And the journey to Israel was very interesting. Well Roger, thank you for your work for ABC Wednesday!

  2. Reading through this, I just got a gut-response:

    Although I never knew him, my dad was supposedly a scab, which made him dirt to my grandparents, both big union supporters. He was a teamster scab – he drove truck, as well as taxi.

    I now follow in his footsteps: as a yearly contract adjunct professor I am also a “scab.” I am not a member of the university union.

    🙂 Oh, well. Gotta eat, and the union jobs for my profession are drying up, partially because while uni personnel will jump and scream about their own tenure rights and the rights of educators outside of the uni, within the uni they’re more than happy to make sure their own finances are guarded by taking advantage of the glut of PhDs they’ve produced. Hm. ;-p

  3. Good post. I think unions are very important and in spite of problems with unions at times, it’s a matter of not throwing out the baby with the bath water. Carver, ABC-Wed. Team

  4. I agree that unions have their place in the workforce. Currently, our teachers are fighting for a fair agreement with the provincial government. I hope things get settled soon with the government allowing some of the teachers’ demands, especially with class sizes and in the learning assistance area. However, they (the gov’t) passed a bill unilaterally disallowing the teachers to strike, so now all they (the teachers) can do is NOT do any of the “volunteer” work they normally do in the areas of extracurricular activities. It’s strange how so many people are more upset about this than they were about not getting report cards on their kids’ academic achievement. I don’t think most people understand the demands a teacher has with regard to his/her job.

    Leslie
    abcw team

  5. Great info today about unions. I am closely watching this recall election today for the governor. It will DRASTICALLLY affect the election in Nov..
    Ann

  6. You say “union” I still think…Norma Rae. While I agree in theory about the need for unions, I do believe things have gotten a bit out of hand. As a teacher, for example, I HAD to join the union – had no choice – dues were automatically deducted…and now as a consultant, I see so many abuses in the system insisted upon by union leaders. Maybe this is just human nature, maybe we need some serious rethinking…

    Regardless, great post. Have a great week.

  7. My first thought was Jimmy HOffa, and the movie where I believe DeNero place the part..Know I spelled his name wrong, but you know who I mean???

  8. The school where I worked before coming to the States got a little shook up when a group of employees tried to form a union but it did not succeed. Union is good if the intention is just to protect the rights of the worker but when it gets out of hand, it’s not good at all.

  9. Interestingly enough, when I was in high school in England we were taught that John Wesley, and the rise of Methodism had much to do with the establishment of trade unions and social reform in England. In fact one of the questions on my high school exit exams, set by the University of London, asked us to illustrate how John Wesley and the rise of Methodism was directly influential in preventing a ‘French Revolution’ in England. Hardly politically correct in academia today, I think.

    Sadly, like so many things, good intentions taken to excess cause unforeseen consequences.

  10. We have 3 official Unions here in Belgium (Syndicat)depends on political parties, which defends the workers and employees rights. That’s why we have so often strikes, the Union pays !

  11. Seems like things have come full circle. The struggles workers endured prior to gaining access to unions are not widely known or appreciated by many. Unfortunately, unions evolved and in some cases became too far removed from their original intent. As a consequence, many employers fear unions as they did the past. Meanwhile, the plight of many modern workers seems to be returning to the days when they were poorly treated with low wages, long hours and no health care options.

  12. A few years ago, my co-workers and I joined a union because the company we were all working for at the time seemed about to screw us over in a restructuring. While they would’ve obeyed any laws, we felt we needed someone to fight on our behalf. In the end, the company sold us to a foreign corporation, and I ended up leaving a year or so later. So, for us, we definitely joined a Union “as a reaction to a situation.”

    I’m always puzzled by people talking about unions “going too far” or being “too powerful”. I’ve never personally known anyone who was victimised by a union, but I’ve known plenty who have been victimised by corporations—some of them many different times. Personally, I’d much rather have powerful unions and take the chance that sometimes they misbehave, because so many corporations misbehave and workers need something on their side, I think.

    On a completely different matter, I was amused to see you refer to 26 inches as “2/3 of a meter”. When I moved to New Zealand, several people mentioned to be how they’d never learned fractions because, with New Zealand a fully metric country, fractions were irrelevant. I got the idea they kind of admired how Americans learned fractions, even though it meant we were also stuck with an old fashioned system of weights and measures. So, I’d say that 26 inches is “about 66 centimetres”, which I can easily picture (NOW!); 2/3 of a metre? Only if I think about it. How times change!

  13. Very interesting for this Detroit resident. I work in a large hospital, and have never been in a union, but you are aware Detroit is a blue collar, union town. In my (uneducated) view, unions have had their pros and cons in this city. I know many who work/worked in the auto plants, and heard of much favoritism, inefficiency, and downright waste because of the unions. On the other hand, they made sure people had a livable wage. Truly a complex subject.

    I lived across the street from a young man who worked as a bus boy at the Fox & Hounds, the restaurant where Hoffa disappeared. One day I was sitting on my porch, and a cadre of long, black cars surrounded our street. It was the FBI; they wanted to question the boy about anything he had seen. He didn’t even know who Hoffa was, but the show of force by the men in black was quite impressive!

    luluberoo
    ABC team

  14. oh, sorry, I see I’m not supposed to use ABC team–that would be YOU! from now on, I’ll just put ABC Wednesday

  15. I found this post very interesting. There were definitely good reasons for unions at the outset. Now, as a teacher, I have seen union-controlled conditions sometimes be detrimental to student learning. Balance in all things, I guess.

  16. I once had a very depressing conversation with a coworker who was irate that she was making $X.XX at her job, while her husband, a unionized worker at a car plant, was making more than twice that for a job that wasn’t all that more demanding than hers. Her notion was that he should be making less, and all the while I’m thinking, “Why isn’t your position that YOU should be making MORE?!”

    Unions are like any other human enterprise: sometimes myopic, sometimes corrupt, sometimes too committed to a status quo in the face of serious hardship. But that applies to any human enterprise I can name, because of the involvement of — guess what — HUMANS. But for some reason, unions are vilified far more readily than any other organizations that suffer the same faults.

    Ultimately I don’t understand why so many in this country are so angry with the people who do the work, and I am utterly baffled as to why so many of the people who are so angry with the people who do the work ARE the people who do the work.

  17. Dear Roger,
    We can always count on you in teach us something new. I have never been part of an union but know of them. I respect their views and what they stand for. I have my own opinion of them. Thanks for sharing sir.

  18. I live in Madison, WI, scene of protests on behalf of unions as well as the attempted recall of the governor, who struck down collective bargaining for state employees.

    I was raised “Union YES!” and to fight for social justice. Speak truth to power. Basically, a liberal hardcore activist. I do believe the problem with certain unions lies in corruption – greed. Hubris. Same as our Guv. Now we are stuck with a lying sack of manure who is about to be indicted over campaign finance corruption, as well as his close staff member’s monkeying around: Stealing $20,000 from a CHARITY. My God, how low can you go?

    Careful, other 49 states. The Koch Brothers (who put Walker in office and helped pony up almost $60 MILLION for his recall fight, outspending his opponent by 7 to 10 times. Walker wants to make this a ‘Right to Work’ state, which means people can be members of a union without paying dues, while enjoying all the union protections.

    Those who don’t like unions should think about the women and girls who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire after their bid for a union was rejected by owners. And have fun with your new 12-hour work day and 6-day work week. How soon we forget… Mother Jones is reeling in her grave. Off soapbox now… Roger, you post the most wonderful material. Peace, Amy http://sharplittlepencil.com/2012/06/07/fortress-in-mind/

  19. Today, the union won, govt zero, they were going to cut teachers, cut technical classes, up class sizes, Union got all the teachers, and parents to protest. The minister withdrew. Ya!!!!

  20. Amen brother. I was a union member for many years with government and SO appreciate things like job security and fair hiring practices, and pay equity legislation, all of which are in place because of unions.

    Some feel unions have run their course…I personally think we need them now more than ever, as corporate greed ramps up and the accumulation of massive wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer, with total disregard for the cost to humanity and the earth. A new union model is probably necessary (not that I know what it should look like) but the general population of workers definitely needs to stand together against the force of corporate evil in our world (and yes, I personally would name the current level of corporate greed as “evil”).

  21. I’m with Meryl and Hildred. The basic tenants that unions were founded on is necessary to avoid taking advantage of the work force. But we hear about so many unions that have become corrupt these days. Since I’m responding after the election, it was interesting that Walker survived the recall. What does that say?

  22. Jaquandor – Obviously your office worker coworker who resented her husband never held a job in an auto factory. I did once. I can guarantee that she would not have been able to last one single day on the job. Probably not even an hour. I can assure you that her husband deserved a much higher rate of pay than she did, playing with little pieces of paper all day and chatting on the phone.

    But that’s all moot because the auto factories are gone to places where people work themselves literally to death for a pittance because there are no unions.

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