Tag Archives: Labor Day

Unions are Feeling the Love, While Weaker

Pearl River     Even here along the Gulf Coast and Mississippi River, the temperature has edged down a couple of degrees, signaling Labor Day’s arrival.  In my time this meant school was starting and no matter what the thermometer read, it was fall, doggone it, and time to pull out the long-sleeved shirts and get ready to hump it for another year.

Labor Day now means union-time for me, not school days.  At the Regional Transit Authority where we represent workers along with the Amalgamated Transit Union and the electricians, they are grilling hot dogs and hamburgers under the breezeway at the A. Philip Randolph RTA building.  Maybe the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO will try to have its picnic in City Park, a tradition we restarted when I was Secretary-Treasurer of that body, but given social distancing and Covid-19, maybe not?  Riding bikes in the evenings along the Mississippi Sound between Waveland and Bay St. Louis over the weekend, we saw lots of picnics, but no union banners.

For unions, these are contradictory times.  According to the new Gallup poll, we’re feeling the love with 65% public support, the highest in seventeen years.  Their poll shows that,

Democrats’ current 83% approval of labor unions is the highest on record since then. At the same time, 45% of Republicans and 64% of independents approve of unions.  In 2009, 66% of Democrats, 29% of Republicans and 44% of independents viewed labor unions favorably. Since the Great Recession, union approval has recovered among all three major party groups.

With huge unemployment underlining the fact that job security means almost nothing whether you are table server, an airline attendant, or a school worker, more workers are at least wishing that they had a union, and that’s good news.

On the other hand, 30 million on unemployment benefits with a lot of those union members as well, means unions are facing cutbacks in many cases as dues income drops.  Workers could be ringing the phones at union halls and find more answering machines and less follow-up on organizing plans.  Unionized janitors, casino workers, and a pile of manufacturing workers have found themselves on the unemployment line.  Salaried, professional, and office-based workers have largely been able to return to work, even if remotely, but service, industrial, and other workers remain on the bench as the economy still struggles with the pandemic and reopening.

We’re hardly in shape to muster the resources for great drives, even if workers were clamoring for help.  For all his faults, there are also no John Lewis-types out there ready to rally either the institutional unions or the unorganized to wave our flags.

Certainly, there are opportunities.  Teachers are standing up over health-and-safety concerns, but given the way the administration and OSHA have walked away from the issue, the same need – and demand – for collective action exists in all workplaces.  Joining with the unemployed, many of them union members, to demand more benefits and security, and leading the way is another obvious path we could pave.

Or not.

It’s unclear if hunkering down and hoping for the best is a winning strategy.  Certainly, it hasn’t proven to be over recent decades, so it’s unclear how well it will work in the current crisis we face now.

The good news is that people love us again.  The bad news is we may be in no position to return that love.

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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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