Labor Debates Its Future — And Ours!

Recording Vice-President's Report

Volume CV, No. 1January, 2005

Bill Dennison

A critically important debate has begun in the union movement about its future, its structure and the direction and focus of its activity in the coming period. The debate has been prompted by the continuing decline in union membership and the stark prospect of another four years under a president and Congress who have been hostile to the economic interests of working people.

Today unions represent barely 8 percent of the private sector work force and only about 13 percent of workers overall. Total union membership is under 16 million. At its peak 50 years ago, unions represented nearly 35 percent of the workforce.

Global corporations are more powerful than ever and the wealthy are more obscenely wealthy than ever. The average CEO now makes an estimated 600 times what the average worker makes, up from 150 times a workers’ wage only 20 years ago.

While the ownership class has been driving down the wages and living standards of millions of U.S. workers, too many voters in this last election were convinced to worry more about who was sleeping with whom in America’s bedrooms.

Still, union members voted nearly 2 to 1 for John Kerry. There were just not enough of them to elect the Democratic candidate.

Hence the deepening crisis we face and the need for some serious soul searching.

What’s the relevance of this debate to the members of Local 802 and how are you as a union member likely to be affected by its outcome?

If you’re concerned about health care, pensions and Social Security, nothing could be more relevant.

If you depend in any way on union agreements, on union benefit plans or on the strength that comes from collective bargaining, you will be affected by this discussion.


Professional musicians are disproportionately represented among the 46 million Americans who have no health insurance.

That number will grow during the next four years as the cost of health care soars and as more employers seek to evade any responsibility for shouldering the cost.

Since the 1950’s when the steel and auto unions forced their employers to pay for health insurance coverage, health care in this country has been tied to employment. At the peak of the union movement’s strength, most major employers paid for their employee health insurance. Not so today!

We’re seeing the “Walmarting” of workplace benefits. (Walmart has become too big to just be a noun.) Walmart is now the nation’s biggest employer. Its workers make barely over minimum wage and most have no benefits — none — zip. Walmart is rapidly forcing its competition to also eliminate benefits or be driven out of business.

A 12-week supermarket strike in Southern California last year was over this very issue. It will continue to spread throughout the economy unless or until Walmart and employers like it are organized and forced to provide a living wage and benefits for their employees.

Several national AFL-CIO unions are calling for a massive nationally funded organizing effort to confront Walmart. They argue, correctly in my judgment, that every employee’s workplace benefits are threatened unless such steps are undertaken.


The union movement has spent several generations fighting for secure retirement programs — what are called defined benefit plans. Simply stated, these plans define the pension you will receive regardless of the ups and downs in the economy or the market at the time you retire. The AFM pension fund — and the Social Security system — are defined benefit plans.

Based on your income over your working life and your contributions to these plans, you can calculate your retirement benefits, which are then typically guaranteed for as long as you live.

These kinds of plans cost employers real money and it’s no surprise that with a weakened labor movement they are under attack.

The Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) was set up in the 1980’s to protect pension funds, including the AFM fund. Over the years it has salvaged pension benefits for thousands of pensioners in several troubled industries. It is, however, grossly underfunded and to make matters worse the beleaguered airline industry is attempting to dump its union pension programs. If the PBGC has to shoulder those added burdens, it will almost certainly collapse completely.

The growing numbers of beneficiaries who depend upon the PBGC will get little if any help from the incoming Congress or the Bush administration.

According to recent news reports, the largest pension fund in the nation, CALPERS, the huge California public employees fund, is considering ending its defined benefit pension plan and limiting future retirement options to a 401 (k) plan — essentially a savings plan that would put everyone at the mercy of the stock and bond markets.

The Bush administration is expected to attempt to move ahead with its plan to privatize Social Security. While it will face huge opposition, if they succeed such a step would not only be a huge monetary drain on the system threatening the current level of benefits, it would also subject this critical part of many working families’ retirement plans to the vagaries of the market.

The bottom line is this: Social Security and secure pension plans cannot be protected without a stronger labor movement.


The right of working people to have a voice in their workplace has never been more threatened.

In many parts of the country and in thousands of workplaces, unions have for all practical purposes been outlawed.

Today 15 states, in violation of international labor standards, ban public employee unions. And in violation of U.S. labor law an estimated 100,000 workers over the past 10 years have been fired for attempting to organize their workplace.

The power of global corporations in many cases outstrips the power of state and national governments.

To confront this power, several national union leaders are suggesting a radical restructuring of the labor movement. Instead of more than 60 international unions, most with fewer than 100,000 members, they are calling for a dozen or less consolidated unions organized by industry.

For us the logic of their proposal would be one large entertainment industry union composed of the 14 unions who represent workers in our fields.

While there are many obstacles to such consolidation, it can certainly be argued that this would give us real clout in dealing with the film, television, theatre and recording industries.

The issue of consolidation and restructuring is one the AFM has unsuccessfully grappled with for a number of years. It remains high on the agenda and, in my opinion, is crucial to the AFM’s survival as an effective voice for musicians.

It may now be overtaken by this larger debate and discussion about restructuring the labor movement as a whole.

All of this is not an academic debate. It will most certainly affect you and your family’s life and future. I would be interested in your views. In the meantime, if you would like to follow this debate, check out the Web site,