Another Labor Day, Time to Notice Workers and Skewer Unions

New Orleans    Most of the world celebrates workers and Labor Day on May 1st, but the vestiges of “better dead than red,” have diluted Labor Day in the USA to a celebration of the end of summer, school openings, and, oh, yeah, workers are worth noticing for a change.  For pundits and journalists, it seems to have become an opportunity to take a glance at the working class, their issues and aspirations for sure, but also an opportunity to skewer unions, as the organized voice and collective institution of labor.

There’s no question that unions are being kicked on their long slow way down.  There’s no way to pretend that a fall over the last seventy years from nearly a third of workers being union members to hardly one-tenth now being in unions now is a win of any sorts.  Nonetheless that shouldn’t mean that it isn’t worth understanding the challenges that unions face, both internally and externally, rather than using them as a punching bag for below-the-belt shots.  For example, on Veterans Day somehow non-vets and public talking heads are able to thank veterans for their service without pointing out the fact that the US armed forces have pretty steadily lost one war after another for the last seventy years even while sucking up the lions share of US tax dollars throughout the period.

The New York Times editorial for example powerfully pictured three workers in different locations trying to raise families while having to work long hours and multiple jobs because their primary employment just didn’t pay a family-supporting wage.  Ok, point well taken.

The article in the Business section though offered a strained argument that workers were rising and ready for action and organization, but, essentially, unions were lagging and asleep at the wheel.  The implicit recommendations were astounding.  First, they argued that unions, which are funded and led by dues-paying members, should represent and advocate for workers regardless of whether or not they might ever be members.  Secondly, stepping slightly back from that argument, the reporter suggested maybe the AFL-CIO, a federation of those same unions and supported by a small piece of those unions’ dues payers, should be the ones to fund and support nascent efforts at organizing disparate workers.  This despite a declining organizing budget because of declining members, see above, and the fixation of federation leadership and member-unions with the primary function of the AFL-CIO which has almost always been politics, both elections and lobbying.  Thirdly, there was a suggestion the federation should fund workers’ centers, which do many important things where they exist, but almost categorically do not see themselves as organizing sustainable unions.  All of this is wrapped into an unprovable proposition that there is a rising movement of workers who are “fired up and won’t take it anymore!”

Oh, how I wish and pray!  Show me where and take me there!

Meanwhile in the real world, almost weekly we read the latest decisions of the Trump NLRB eroding fundamental workers’ rights, changing workers classifications as employees, excusing employers’ deliberate efforts to rip them off, slowing down elections for organizing, giving incentives and faster elections to employers and workers challenging union representation and contracts, and all this is just the tip of that iceberg.  I would challenge anyone to find any mention of any of this on Labor Day.  Oh, but no one will have trouble finding some references to recent investigations involving the leadership of the UAW and its relationship to automakers.

Let’s celebrate all of labor on Labor Day, but let’s give some love to unions and the work unions do every day as well, and maybe for a change try to really understand the challenges they are facing in an environment and politics committed to their demise and dissolution.

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Building Trades Unions Playing Role of Roaring Mouse

AFL-CIO_Headquarters,_Washington,_D.CDenver   Hey, give ‘em a break, the Democrats can’t stand to have the Republicans getting all of the attention for their splits, factions, and divisions, so it was only a matter of time before they got in the act. Perhaps not surprisingly it’s a family fight that starts with an argument about money and the company other parts of the family are keeping, and then ends up with demands about getting a job and working for a living. The difference is that the family is the fractious house of labor, which is pretty much always a house divided among itself, the bad company are billionaires and environmentalists, and the jobs are a spat over work now on such controversial projects as the Keystone pipeline coupled with a devil may care view of any future consequences.

All of this was so predictable. Once there was a big announcement that the two big teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) had joined with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the three big, almost exclusively public worker unions, along with billionaire, environmental funder, West Coast political aspirant, and former hedge fund operator, Tom Steyer, to create a get-out-the-vote bankroll for certain battleground states in November, you could just smell trouble. The Service Employees had reportedly considered joining and then opted out, which was another sign of dark clouds building, since they had frequently been in alliance with Steyer on other projects and a comfortable part of the Democracy Alliance, a prominent political player among rich liberals. The ante to get in the game was one million dollars for each player, and Steyer was going to throw in five million to match it up to more than ten million.

Stopping for a second, what did any of the labor unions have to gain? The big union political players would have ponied up anyway, along with the AFL-CIO unions, big and small, to try and put $60 to $100 million into the election one way or another. SEIU certainly will spend a pile regardless. In recent years, Steyer has leveraged his money more and more around climate issues, so his interest in pledging to move more money with his own is clear, and his interest in publicity for a possible race in California is a matter of wide speculation. I suspect that’s part of why SEIU bowed out, but that’s just a guess.

Now we have a mess. The building trades unions not only have their own federation within the larger AFL-CIO federation through the Building Trades Council, that works as a world unto itself, but really should be in a federation of their own since most of the unions operate in a night to day different fashion compared to the industrial, service, and public unions. Nonetheless, the trades couldn’t seem to stop themselves from bringing their sense of permanent grievance to the table. They are only truly happy when they are the small tail wagging the dog. So, they joined behind the largest of their number, the Laborers, to pen a couple of protest letters to Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, complaining about billionaires, hedge funders, job killers, and the enviros. Not that Trumka seems to have had much to do with this from what anyone can tell. The point was to get to pout in the press at the public unions and the company they keep.

What they seemed to have achieved was simply a widespread, public notice of the accelerating weakness of labor even in the political arena which, until recently, had been one of the last bright spots for unions. So, sure none of this GOTV PAC money deal makes any real sense, but that still doesn’t justify the trades’ tactics. With little ability to relieve themselves outside of the tent, they seem more than happy making a mess inside it.

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