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Progress for Trade Unions in America

Progress for Trade Unions in America    Gerry O'Shea

President Trump was elated by the recent monthly report on the economy. He pointed out that he is presiding over the longest period of job growth ever - 94 months of unbroken success, not mentioning, of course, that 76 of those months happened under President Obama's leadership.

He boasted that the unemployment rate of 3.9% reveals a buoyant economy, a tribute, he claims to his tax-cutting budget. That budget gave big financial breaks to corporations and  top earners. The promised dribble-down increase in revenue for the national exchequer has not materialized; in fact, the deficit is projected to grow by close to a massive trillion dollars this fiscal year - debt that will have to be repaid by our children and grandchildren.

Still we are living in booming times - low unemployment and inflation, strong stock market  and reduced company taxation rates add up to a positive business environment.

 But, how are workers doing, men and women earning a living in offices and warehouses, in farms and restaurants? Unfortunately, the answer is that they are barely holding their own, standing still while those at the top are raking in fat salary increases and bonuses.

The last half century has shown big improvements in company profits mainly because of major developments in technology, but, during that period, allowing for inflation, ordinary workers' salaries have remained static.

The decline in membership of trade unions is correctly seen as  a major factor in allowing companies to pay stingy wages. In the past when around 25% of employees carried a union card, worker contracts were much better. Even non-union companies felt that their remuneration rates had to reflect increases  prevailing  in similar places of employment where the workers were organized.

Now  less than 10% of employees are unionized, meaning that in most businesses there is nobody representing the interests of workers when the decisions are made about who benefits from company profits. The  sad but predictable result is that workers get shafted and at a time of almost full employment  40 million Americans are living in poverty and 25% of children in the United States are deemed to be malnourished.

Even today employees with a union card earn significantly more and generally enjoy better benefits than their non-unionized counterparts. it is hard to understand why American workers are so meek and undemanding that they settle for a situation where their salaries and benefits are decided in boardrooms where they are not represented.

The Supreme Court now has a clear conservative majority and this summer it overturned a unanimous 40-year decision that permitted the collection of a service fee from workers who choose not to join the union where they are employed. This decision in what is known as the Janus case is a major setback for public service employee unions  because  it allows non-members to benefit from contracts without contributing financially to the negotiations  or the  arbitration process.

There is reason for some hope in the big support that teachers got when they marched for better salaries and employment conditions in so-called red states, Kentucky, Arizona, Virginia and Oklahoma. Stories of teachers working second jobs  just to pay their monthly bills evinced strong public  approval for their demands and resulted in legislators passing emergency bills that significantly improved educators' pay.

The results of a recent statewide vote in Missouri provide a further important boost for the trade union movement in America. A right-to-work law which was passed by the local representatives in the government  capital, Jefferson City, ended up on a statewide ballot in August because progressive groups got sufficient citizen signatures to put the issue to a referendum.

The dubious argument for right-to-work legislation centers on the allegation that workers are being compelled to join a union and to contribute money to liberal causes that they find offensive. In response to these fears, right-to-work laws have been passed in twenty seven states. These regulations seriously weaken trade unions by exempting non-union employees from contributing an agency fee to help cover the cost of contract negotiations.

No trade union forces workers to join its ranks or to contribute to its political fund, but it is only fair that employees who benefit from a union-negotiated contract should contribute to the costs involved. The Supreme Court decision in the Janus case applies to public service workers while right-to-work legislation has the same impact with private company employees  - in both cases these provisions are designed by right-wing groups to emasculate the trade union movement.

Missouri is a red state evidenced by the election of six Republicans and just two Democrats to the House of Representatives in Washington, and Donald Trump carried the state by a massive twenty points over Hilary Clinton in 2016. In addition, less than 10% of Missouri workers have a union card, so the accepted wisdom was that the right-to-work bill , already passed by Republicans in their state assembly, would be easily confirmed by Missourians in the August referendum.

The local unions and a few progressive groups argued that weakening workers' negotiating strength would have a negative influence on the living standard of employees, and they went door-to-door to make their case. The result shocked political pundits across the United States. The right-to-work law, promoted by Republicans and right-wing groups, was defeated by a resounding two to one majority in the statewide ballot.

This surprising result in Missouri as well as the success of mass action in favor of teachers in other red states suggests that trade unions may have the wind at their back.

The inarguable truth is that workers' salaries will continue to stagnate until they have representation at the highest levels of the companies where they are employed. That means some form of  strong trade union whose function is to make sure that employee salaries and working conditions are at the top of the agenda when the big economic decisions are made in the boardroom.

If trade union leaders, people of the caliber of the late Mike Quill or Cesar Chavez, get real negotiating power in corporations, we will not be facing fifty more years where the bosses continue to thrive while  ordinary workers'  pay barely keeps up with inflation.


Gerry O'Shea blogs and welcomes comments in







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