Labor Day: Why Unions Still Matter
August 31, 2012
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Bill Fletcher Jr. is the author of "They're Bankrupting Us!": And 20 Other Myths about Unions. Fletcher is a long-time racial-justice, labor, and international activist, scholar, and author. He has been involved in the labor movement for decades, and is a widely known speaker and writer in print and on radio, television, and the Web. He has served in leadership positions with many prominent union and labor organizations, including the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union. Fletcher is currently the director of field services for the American Federation of Government Employees. We conducted this Q&A with him via email in honor of the Labor Day holiday.
How have attitudes toward labor unions changed in the United States over the past few decades?
Attitudes towards unions have fluctuated depending, in part, on what segment of society you are talking about. More than half of non-union workers would like to be in a union or an association of workers. This has been fairly consistent. What has changed is that unions, particularly public sector unions, have become punching bags for politicians. This might be the result of trying to find ways of saving money that do not depend on raising taxes on the wealthy, or there might be very ideological reasons. In either cases, the elite in this society has turned on unions with ferocity. As unions have weakened, so too has their presence in the media. As regular people know less and less about unions, their opinions can be shaped and reshaped by anti-union forces in and outside of the media.
Was there ever a time that unions were viewed more favorably by the public and the media?
Absolutely. Here the answer depends, in part, on what part of the USA, but in general in the 1930s-the late 1960s, unions were viewed very favorably. In the 1930s and 1940s they were seen as being at the leadership of a movement for social and economic justice. This became less true after the Cold War devastated the unions and frightened them away from anything that was perceived as being left-wing. But that said, unions were seen as helping to raise all boats.
What are some of the greatest difficulties that public unions face today?
State, county and municipal budgets rely to a great degree on regressive taxes. As these bodies have allowed the wealthy and the corporations to pay less in taxes (and/or get tremendous tax breaks) the revenue had to be obtained elsewhere. Politicians began looking at public sector workers as a convenient target. Additionally, as private sector workers have found themselves to be victims of concessionary demands and, as a result, lose many hard-won gains, they have often found themselves focusing their anger and resentment on the public sector workers. Also, public sector unions face the constant threat of privatization of jobs, so there is a regular defensive battle to protect what they have. Public sector unions, in too many cases, stopped organizing, whether that was with regard to other public sector workers or organizing workers who worked in privatized facilities. In some respects, and quite ironically, one of the greatest challenges facing public sector unions is to figure out how to support the re-organizing of the private sector workforce. Federal workers face many of the same threats as state, county and municipal workers, and, as we have seen over the last few years, have been made scapegoats for budget deficits.
What do you see as the biggest benefit of unionizing a workplace?
It provides workers with an opportunity to gain a voice in the workplace; a possibility for raising their wages and benefits; and a means to begin to democratize the workplace such that the workers end up having real rights rather than being the subject of arbitrary treatment by employers.
What advice do you have for workers interested in unionizing?
First, make sure that there is not, already, a union at your workplace. If there is, speak with a representative of the union about it. Second, go to www.aflcio.org and read up on unions. Contact the central labor council—a body of unions from across the board who meet regularly and attempt to coordinate their work (central labor councils are usually at the county or municipal level)—and ask them which union would be most appropriate for the type of the job in which you work. Get some of your co-workers together and meet with a representative from the union. Even if there is no union that covers your sort of job, put together an informal committee of workers in your workplace who commit to working together for justice in your workplace...and then call me.