Is the Labor Union Strategy Dead?

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I ask about the survival of unions not because of the failure to unionize Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama in its first try, or any recent unionizing drive. Labor unions have never been successful in every drive, let alone in the first local attempt. Unionizing requires many bells and whistles to develop and organize effectively, as do many kinds of campaigns, or creation of a physical product from the idea up. It is not easy, and not always an initial success. My concern is based on the reality of the historical record, and future viability of the current structural labor union format to achieve escape-velocity growth, more than a need to schedule a funeral anytime soon.

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Before I launch into the main body of my essay, I want to say that labor unions are the best worker improvement strategy we have today. Unions empower workers to attain fair wages in a job market dominated by powerful corporations that influence our politics. These corporations, quite a few being monopolies, end up pushing their values, and policies acquired from their political influence, down to smaller employers over time.

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On the other hand, unions are currently best at getting their members basic benefits to pursue their lives without life crushing hardship befalling them that fair wages and benefits are more likely to prevent. While there is no way to prevent life crushing hardship in all its guises, no one should be working themselves to an early death due to their required level of work, or to attain a livable wage.

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Additionally, since it would take me days if not weeks to delve into labor unions in any type of scholarly way, I am going to stick with what I know from personal experience, my spouse being in a teacher union, and general reading about unions over the years. That may not be satisfying enough for some people, but I hope to show how union values should be continued with changes in how those values function in a systematic way in the current environment.

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Unions are a groundswell construction that must overcome various fears and concerns before there are enough excited participant workers to convince a much larger percent of the remainder to sign on, and vote in favor. Each area of the nation has different concerns, and each local community others. Like convincing a percentage of people to get their COVID vaccine, many have a long standing aversion to unions. Even if their aversion is born mostly of ignorance, the education process can be difficult, extensive in commitment and time.

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Family, church, and influential community groups can thwart almost any change in any area of society. Those groups may need to be approached, and some tipping-point portion convinced to make possible enough votes by workers. Punching threw a union vote requires an overwhelming process. The individual worker is pulled in many directions including by the employer, who can often utilize intimidating tactics without negative ramifications assessed by state or federal authorities.

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Various bills are constantly being proposed to strengthen the right of workers. However, many of these are policy clawbacks from legislation that was rescinded by conservative legislatures and Congresses in previous decades. Therefore, the precedents have already been reset to favor anti-worker rules. Reversing all of these rights or protections is likely a many decades fight. Much has also been ingrained into the psyche of Americans, which means getting a groundswell of workers to take up the union cause is required as well as convincing lawmakers. Some good progress has been made in the last decade, but the trend is not generous as of yet.

Where Unions Hit The Wall.

Labor unions are only a national patchwork as to non-union workers, and will always be as currently pursued. An overall plan is required to make the protection of all workers in America a permanent societal fixture rather than a stopgap measure, as unions are perceived due to corporate successes. Of course, today unions provide the best countervailing force to confront, and get noticed by employers, and finally achieve results that help millions of workers in America. Yet that ability is limited to only a small number of employees overall, less than 15 million union members nationwide in 2019, under 35% of government workers, and barely over 6% in the private sector.

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Current labor union organizing can be compared to the process of winning suffrage for women, or the NAACP attempting school integration city by city, or state by state referendums rather than as a constitutional amendment. When it works for your area, great. But if it never happens in your area, then what? There is no one union, as far as I can find, that represents every worker in a business sector throughout the country today, let alone all private sector AND government employees in one state, or many.

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Possibly there were industry wide unions when labor unions represented nearly a third of all workers back in the early 1970s, dropping to just over 12% in 2019. But that large rise over the decades before 1970, and the almost equal large drop over a similar number of decades afterwards, does not bode well for a solid future of huge successes. Although getting union membership to 60% or higher would be the best, returning even near to the 1970 level around 25% or 30% would likely improve the lot of most other workers in America.

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Unfortunately, the plan for reenergizing and repopulating membership numbers is already understood by union opponents (i.e. the corporate lobby) due to their aggressive actions in the last go around. That does not include all the years, likely decades of organizing, for unions to regain their past level of influence.

Workaround To Put All Workers On Footings Sound.

There are a number of intrinsic obstacles labor unions present, as currently devised, that dissuade participation, and guarantee a difficult road ahead. While organizing is a fairly straightforward concept, it requires herculean strength, people resources, and significant time to deploy, and then to hold ground for the long term. This is especially true with private sector unions.

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Below is a list of all the other intrinsic obstacles.

  • Eye-to-Eye Employee Encouragement around or overtop of management.
  • Membership requires crossing a line — some coworkers/managers are against, etc.
  • Management Intimidation, other tactics.
  • Any delays can disrupt the flow of a campaign.
  • Strike breaking of various kinds.
  • A vote to join must be cast.
  • After union is approved: accepting future votes for wages, benefit package, etc.
  • Not individual decisions but group decisions.
  • Labor laws weakened further.
  • Replay some or all if necessary.

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Workers that are recalcitrant about joining a union may find out a few years later it was the best thing for them, but they are only able to decide as a group. There will always be tension between the individualists, and those who understand the value of collective action. This tension is a key element in union forming and union busting. When someone has a dire need to keep their job, they do not want to rock the boat. Conversely, when that person does not have a job, and are in dire need of one, they will strike break.

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A better system would avoid the obstacles and conundrums upfront. Below is a list of processes that a new system should do, and elements it should have.

  • Make worker “decision(s)” individual and collective.
  • No confrontations with individual employers.
  • Every worker in America automatically becomes a member.
  • Make skills training, mentors, apprenticeships, education available to all.
  • Insure that job and career transitions are effortless.
  • End hiring discrimination, and root out internal discrimination and all kinds of harassment.
  • Be massive nationwide countervailing force, collectively take on the political structure of big business, lobbyists, monopolies.
  • Health insurance is provided to all.
  • Takeover unemployment insurance, but end long term unemployment, turn into no-worry work transitions.
  • Efficiently facilitate rehiring after major layoffs and severe economic downturns, while working to avoid their occurrence.
  • Facilitate the transition to clean energy future with prepared workers, effectively deployed.
  • Every service can be individualized.
  • Neither socialism or capitalism, but advanced We The People democracy!

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This new system would require one major organizing effort to solidify its continuous future as a nationwide entity. Approximately 60% of American citizens and-or workers would need to become active members. The number of active members should rise to 70% to 85% a few years after the system is up and running. Otherwise, every remaining inactive member worker and citizen, except those owning businesses with employees, or someone who is independently wealthy, will likely become active within a decade.

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I call it the We The People System because it will not only be a Jobs Development Platform but also a Civic Development Platform with other tangential elements to give it the strength and capabilities to effectively push back against the entire private sector, and dominantly influence our political system. It is a 21st century solution to age-old societal and economic problems that the current system fails to improve due to its weaknesses, conflicts of interest, indifference, and too often outright, willful negligence.

The Inclusion Conclusion.

Society is an enormous mass of old inertia. Changes cannot occur in the manner the most downtrodden require without significant alterations of our approach to solving problems, particularly as our already large population continues to expand. As the climate crisis accelerates, the challenges will multiply much faster than we can overcome if the same tools, and strategies we use today are employed. Workers and citizens will demand more, and more, faster, and faster than our tired, old systems can produce.

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Expecting people to respond more effectively than they have in the past to labor union organizing is unrealistic in the current, capitalistic-drowned environment. Changing the dynamic must occur to scale up fast enough. That dynamic can be produced by the We The People System. The technology is vital to making it happen efficiently and effectively, but it is The People who will make it real and powerful.

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By Richard The Chwalek.

***The countervailing path forward. Here are 3 essays (among others) where I also introduce the We The People System. Essay one, and essay two, and essay three.

Writer/Consultant. Wife/Two-20 something daughters. Flyover Midwesterner. RN/Engineer son, been there/done some, antiracist, feminist, ecotarotcardist, politics

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