Why Unions Do Politics

Organizing Matters

Volume CVIII, No. 6June, 2008

Joel LeFevre
Click for full size.
Unions improve lives! This chart shows some differences between strong union states (in black) versus weak union states (in grey).  Scan your eyes over the full sized version to look at the differences. Unions matter!

Worldwide, the basic purpose of every union is to advocate for the interests of the members. That means demanding respect for your skills and time in the form of better wages, respect for your body in the form of comprehensive health care and a safe place to work, respect for your future income in the form of pensions and retirement plans and respect for your dignity and the right to be free of harassment while working or participating in union affairs in the form of due process and grievance protections in contracts and bylaws.

Eighty-eight percent of the U.S. population do not have these rights at work. The union needs you to help develop the political power to change the law. Today, every union in the country is asking its members the same thing: get active! This is the year to save the American middle class.

The chart on this page depicts 14 points of comparison between states where unionization rates are the highest versus states where unionization rates are the lowest. The center measure is the “public health indicia,” which is maintained by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Working family economics are at the heart of the difference between the healths of these areas. The largest single factor in common to the ten states with the highest public health ratings is a unionization rate double that of the states with the lowest public health ratings.

That fact is one you will never read in the corporate press.

Industrialized countries that have high unionization rates have longer vacation periods, health care for all through national plans, better retirement systems, higher ratings for their economies based on sustainable resources, higher scores in public education at all levels, more press freedom and other measures of liberty, better human rights records, better mass transit and more.

Also, the standard amount of paid time off in a country closely tracks unionization rates.

This should come as no surprise, but it’s another fact you won’t see in the corporate press.

The United States is number one in wealth: primarily the very rich becoming the super rich. We are also number one in military and prison expenditures.

The fact is that when working people have a voice, life gets better for everyone. The union movement brought the American people the weekend, overtime and retirement plans. But the U.S. middle class is in trouble. Medical costs, education costs and debt service costs are higher, and income is not keeping up. Millions of people need more opportunity to make more money. They cannot do what millions of Americans did after World War II — unionize and create a middle class. Fiscally stressed school districts cut music and art and after-class programs first. The fiscal health of arts organizations and educators depends on the viability of school programs where the stimulation of music performance in the young brain creates the seeds in students who become the older audiences.

In the last six years, the National Labor Relations Board (made up of majority Bush appointees) has issued 61 legal decisions in a row against the interests of working families. The anti-worker decisions include exempting 17 million workers from the law’s jurisdiction, enshrining double standards for intimidation, and making it as easy as possible to get rid of a union.

The enforcement mechanisms of labor laws covering union organizing are so broken down that Human Rights Watch has named the United States as a human rights violator four years in a row. The United Nations labor body, the International Labor Organization, is investigating the AFL-CIO complaint against the U.S. government for violations of the fundamental freedom of association: the right to organize a union.

That single factor — the effort governments make to protect the right to join or form a union — is the measurable statistic that stands in support of societies leapfrogging over American living standards in everything from juvenile health to broadband speed. It leads the decline of economic opportunity here in the U.S. We want a better society and everything that comes with that so we must change the laws that protect the freedom to organize. 

The corporate consultants are campaigning hard against card check legislation. They use an inaccurate analogy to defeat the bill. Internet and TV advertising attacks this legislation with union organizers depicted as characters from “The Sopranos” accompanying voters in the voting booth. The corporate spin is that to do anything other than a secret ballot is un-American. The spin is slick and completely false. If U.S. elections were like labor board elections, the challenger would never be allowed in the district, could never talk face to face with the voters or advertise in the district and would always lose. It’s a wonder unions ever win.

Soviet-style democracy included elections. There were just as many elections in the old Eastern bloc nations as here in the U.S. The politburo incumbents never lost at the ballot box in elections supervised by the party and the secret police. The billion-dollar-a-year anti-union consultant industry gives employers the ability to bring an Eastern bloc-style election to the American workplace, including electronic surveillance and intimidation. Corporations have come to love this style of election, as the campaigns are choreographed by the anti-union consultants and supervised by the labor board. For 50 years, it’s been the employer’s choice to begin bargaining based on signatures or going through an election process. The Employee Free Choice Act, also called the card check bill, will reverse that process and allow the employees to decide.

Making organizing relatively easy will increase the market share of unions to a critical mass, forcing even nonunion employers to compete for labor by offering better conditions. This makes bargaining gains in the union sector easier to accomplish without confrontations or strikes.

When you are asked by Local 802 to volunteer some of your time to work on politics this year, please consider how vital it is for American unions to develop the political power to change the laws protecting the freedom to organize. It’s our future: help shape it.