This past week the Bureau of Labors Statistics (BLS) released alarming new figures on union membership. They’re down, from 12.5 percent of eligible workers a year ago to 12 percent. Some question the numbers because of changes in survey methods implemented by the BLS last January. Regardless, the continuing and relentless government and big business attacks on labor that started with Ronald Reagan’s destruction of the air traffic controllers union in 1981 have undoubtedly driven union membership down.
Of course there are also many other related factors. Every year giant U.S. corporations and banks move capital offshore, destroying union jobs and working conditions for hundreds of thousands of workers here. Even though these moves destroy whole communities and regions, they are mostly unregulated and even encouraged by current tax and banking laws. Technology has increased worker productivity with big impact on manufacturing industries. Yet workers have not shared in those gains. Instead of shorter hours or higher pay, workers get layoffs and plant closings, destroying millions of union jobs.
The big business press trumpets these declining union density numbers for many reasons. The main one is, they want us to believe unions are dying a natural death and are no longer needed in a modern global economy.
There are plenty of reasons why the far right and corporate America feel such glee at declining union membership. It is about increasing profits and asserting corporate power and control, to be sure. But, it is also about basic democracy.
Despite membership loss, unions remain the largest mass organizations of workers in our country. In membership, and increasingly in leadership, they most closely reflect the true multinational, multiracial, male/female makeup of the U.S. working class. Unions are central counterweights to the incredible political power and money of the capitalist class and those who serve them. Unions are about raising living standards and protecting workers, but they are also about giving voice to the interests and rights of all working people.
Abraham Lincoln had it right: “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Of course that’s not the way things turned out under capitalism.
Yet, in all capitalist societies, except those under far-right dictatorships that outlaw unions, the labor movement is the democratic bulwark against capital. The labor movement, broadly defined, and its core organized sector have historically played that role. Just think child labor laws, health and safety laws, public education, minimum wage and overtime laws. Or the defeat of the ultra-right grip on Congress in the 2006 elections — even the right-wing press recognizes labor’s role in that one. And when organized labor is strong enough to raise the living standards of its members it puts upward pressure on wages and living standards for all workers.
Big capital and the right wing understand this very well. That is why, since the Wagner Act was passed in 1935, they have gone all-out to try and roll back this basic labor law that once guaranteed workers the right to organize and bargain collectively. That is why right-wing pro-business forces in Congress constantly chipped away at the Wagner Act, and continue to do so today.
The Taft-Hartley Act was a major assault on worker rights disguised as “democratic elections.” In fact, that “reform” invited the corporations into the union-busting business and gave the companies a say in union elections.
The Bill of Rights guarantee of freedom of association means that workers should have the right to form unions with no outside interference or restrictions, that companies should have no voice or role in the process.
Now a critically important effort is under way to restore the basic right to organize for all who work for a living. It takes the form of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), soon to be reintroduced in Congress. In the last Congress, the bill had 218 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives. Today, in the new Congress, it has somewhere around 230 pledged to co-sponsor. The EFCA restores the right of workers to freely associate in unions without any interference from the employer, through the mechanism of a simple card check. When a majority in a workplace agrees to form a union by signing an authorization card, then the employer has to recognize it and bargain with its employees. The act also mandates a first contract in a set period of time and triples fines for illegal harassment or firing of workers for union activity.
All of labor is mobilized in this effort to build pressure for passage of the EFCA. Feeling the momentum of the 2006 elections, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions are united in making this a centerpiece of their legislative work. The labor movement is acutely aware that the EFCA is a critical component of the overall fight for democracy. They know that they have to build the widest possible progressive coalition to win passage. Labor sees this bill as a critical component of the 2008 elections.
A bigger union movement is central to all progressive movements and causes. Those who fight the ultra-right, who fight for equal rights, civil rights, women’s rights, peace and justice, democracy and human rights, need a bigger union movement. All of us, and the organizations that we belong to, need to become champions of the Employee Free Choice Act.
Scott Marshall (scott @ rednet.org) is chair of the Communist Party USA’s Labor Commission.