Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, July 6, 7 or 8
Historically, conservative pundits and politicians have praised unions. Columnist George Will in 1977 said, “I think American labor unions get a large share of the credit for making us a middle-class country.”
In 1991, Republican economist George Schultz (Secretary of Labor under Richard Nixon and Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan) said a “healthy workplace [needs] some system of checks and balances” and unions provided an effective “system of industrial jurisprudence,” a check on corporations’ focus on profits.
In The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch recalls a 2016 brunch with conservative Eli Lehrer, who runs Washington’s Republican-leaning R Street Institute, and Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union.
“Lehrer believes the time has come for the American Right to reconsider its decades-long war on unions,” Rauch says. “Their collapse, he says, has fueled the growth of government and of the welfare state, which has stepped in to regulate workplaces and provide job security as unions have died out.
“Stern thinks unions cannot survive unless they innovate and change, but laws intended to protect and preserve them get in the way,” Rauch adds.
The journal National Affairs this summer published Lehrer and Stern’s essay about the need for change. In “How to Modernize Labor Law,” the two write, “The fundamental federal rules governing employer-worker relations were written for a different era.“
That era was the Great Depression. It resulted in 1935’s National Labor Relations Act, but it hasn’t substantially changed except for court rulings and sometimes-partisan National Labor Relations Board decisions since 1947’s anti-union Taft-Hartley Act.
Meanwhile, regular working people are worried about pay but also anxious, if not angry, about how they’re treated. Last year’s campaign showed that many workers feel voiceless and powerless, that unhappy workers are angry voters, and that angry voters can lash out against trade, immigration, and even democracy.
“Private-sector unions are close to extinct,” Rauch writes. “In the 1950s, more than one in three private-sector workers belonged to a union; today, unionization is down to 6 percent of the private-sector workforce, lower than it was a century ago – before the modern labor movement took off.
“The decline of unions is one of the country’s most pressing problems – and at least as much a social and political problem as an economic one,” he continues. “Old-style, mid-20th-century industrial unions had their flaws. But when unions work as they should, they serve important social functions. They can smooth the jagged edges of globalization by giving workers bargaining power. They are associated with lower income inequality. Perhaps most important, they offer workers a way to be heard.”
Other models exist for workers organizing, from Europe’s “works councils,” which give workers a voice in company affairs, to Germany’s permitting unions to organize sectors rather than employers, offering incentives to workers and companies to cooperate for better competitiveness.
“Unfortunately, in America in 2017, we don’t know how a truly modern union would look,” writes Rauch, “because it is mostly illegal to find out.”
Efforts to legislate reforms have fizzled (most recently, during President Obama’s first term, when Democrats had more power), and the GOP-dominated Capitol makes change doubtful. But Stern and Lehrer suggest a “workaround” like giving states authority to grant labor-law waivers permitting experimentation. For example, if employers and unions had an interesting model that met certain guidelines, they could try it.
“The Stern-Lehrer waiver idea is a no-brainer if we want to address the deeper causes of the malaise and distemper afflicting America’s lower-middle class,” Rauch writes. “Although income stagnation is certainly one culprit, another is the decline of the civic organizations and social institutions that help people feel connected. Service fraternities, volunteer clubs, youth groups, churches, political parties, widespread military service, unions and the rest in their prime all fostered social interaction … a sense of social cohesion even when times were much tougher. None matters more than unions.”
GOP President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s seem to know this, but also saw the relationship as unchanging.
“Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice,” Ike said. “I have no use for those – regardless of their political party – who hold some vain and foolish dream of spinning the clock back to days when organized labor was huddled, almost as a hapless mass. Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”
[PICTURED: Illustration from ctdevilsadvocate.com.]