No one in recent years has done as much to wreck the union movement in America as American workers. Yet another effort to unionize auto workers failed this week, as Volkswagen employees in Tennessee declined to join the UAW. This is the UAW’s second failure at the Volkswagen plant. It follows a series of high-profile unionization defeats, including rejection at a Nissan plant in Mississippi in 2017, at Target, Starbucks and Home Depot stores, Boeing and among FedEx employees in New Jersey.
FedEx drivers in North Carolina voted in 2017 to decertify their union. The last unionized group of FedEx drivers are 50 employees based in Stockton, CA. Last year farm workers in California rejected a unionization bid by a 5-1 margin. Hospital workers in Los Angeles voted to decertify their union this past February.
Ask a Democrat what America needs and broader union membership will probably rank in their top five. Ask an actual worker what they need, and you’ll get a very different list. Members of traditional labor unions, the ones that represent the actual working class, voted for Trump by staggering margins. Democrats do not represent working class Americans. Neither do unions. That has to change.
Old-line unions like the Teamsters and the UAW are in free-fall, with participation collapsing and the mental distance between their leadership and their dwindling membership widening to a chasm. A similar dynamic has played out in all of the most successful democracies. Trades-union membership in Germany has fallen by more than a third in just over a decade. The same dynamic is playing out in Japan, Germany and even France.
Amid this decline in unionization, who is forming new unions? Recent examples include grad students and journalists. Today, the largest block of union members in the US are educated, white-collar government employees. Union members today are not working-class, unless you include college-educated professionals in the proletariat.
Do workers still need unions? Depends on what you mean by a union. US workers, in the traditional sense of the word – meaning hourly wage-earners performing manual tasks, have suffered tremendously from eroding bargaining power. Unions as presently organized haven’t helped, and have often hastened the decline of workers’ power. Workers badly need the organizing power of institutions that bind them together, aggregating their power. Doctors, lawyers and accountants benefit from these kinds of organizations. Welders would as well.
One reason white collar professionals are now more likely than their blue collar cousins to form a union is that white collar workers are less vulnerable to exploitative, authoritarian paternalism. Lawyers have a very different relationship to their bar association than pipefitters have to their union. When Teamsters last year voted down a new contract negotiated by their leaders with UPS, the union simply overruled them.
American labor unions are particularly paternalistic and authoritarian, thanks to their unique history. American labor unions, as we know them today, were shaped and fostered by the federal government to win World War II and the Korean War. They have changed far too little to remain useful, instead acting as a persistent obstacle to necessary adaptation. Working people get better outcomes for themselves and their communities when they form organizations that let them collaborate. Modern American labor unions are obstacles to this kind of organization as potent and corrosive as any Koch brothers astro-turfing campaign.
Before 1935, unions had gained only a very tenuous foothold in the US. In much of the country they were treated as an illegal obstacle to commerce and there was no national protection of union rights.
Unions became a convenient tool of the mafia because of their authoritarian structure, the poverty and vulnerability of their members, and a partnership with Democratic electoral machines. In the model that developed absent official, legal union protections, criminal gangs provided the heft to maintain discipline in the ranks. Those ranks provided voters and volunteers for Democratic political organizations. And those Democratic political organizations delivered cover for the leaders of local mafias. It’s impossible to understand why today’s Chicago figures like Ed Burke or Jim Madigan enjoy such untouchable power without exploring this embedded organizational structure.
In the period between passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 and Truman’s failed effort to nationalize the steel industry, unions gained legitimacy at a price. US leaders took an exploitative, adversarial labor system and hardened it into concrete. The old worker-mafia-politician triad became impossible to dislodge, and American businesses lost the potential power of real employee representation.
This machine produced an environment in many northern states in which no one could hope to get a blue collar job without demonstrating loyalty to the unions, the Democratic Party, and their local Mafiosi. In many northern states it was illegal to work in most major industries without a union card. Get sideways with your local mob boss, and he didn’t necessarily need to beat you up or kill you. By getting you kicked out of your union, he could leave you penniless. In their successful campaign to win the right to unionize, American workers simply traded one authoritarian boss for another. That trade was an improvement, but not by much.
This labor arrangement was only sustainable so long as the US was alone in the world, the only major nation to escape the destruction of WW2. Once the slightest hint of competition began to emerge, this Democratic labor union house of cards quickly tumbled. US iron and auto industries collapsed in the 1970’s as nascent European and Japanese competition emerged. We forget now that NAFTA was a desperate effort to maintain some relevance for major US industrial operations, a short lifeline that extended US industrial profits for a few more decades.
The first Jimmy Hoffa commanded the Teamsters Union from prison for several years. After he was released, the union rewarded his silence with a cash pension that made him a millionaire. Despite a court order barring him from further union activity, in 1975 he’d begun to rebuild his power, threating the new leadership. His disappearance became a national legend. The Teamsters Union is still, today, led by a Hoffa.
There is an alternative model of worker organization that is more flexible, productive, and democratic than unions. Works Councils in the German and Japanese model are elected by employees, paid by the company, and have an organizational structure with representation on the corporate board. In this model, the labor organization is part of the company, rather than a separate entity with adversarial interests. This highly democratic and relatively flexible structure is illegal in the US, because it would threaten the power of our traditional unions.
German and Japanese labor organizations are a fundamental element of the company. Management relies on them for feedback, especially in the Japanese Kaizen productivity model. Volkswagen tried to bring workers councils to their US plants, but the Obama Administration and the UAW blocked them. They insisted that no workers organization could be formed at the plant outside the authority of the UAW. This alternative to American labor unions would have enhanced the power of workers at the expense of a sclerotic, corrupt bureaucracy, so worker-friendly Democrats destroyed it.
Thanks to a highly individualistic culture, a Calvinist religious heritage, and a reluctance to teach evolution to schoolchildren, Americans do not understand systems. Good and bad outcomes in politics are always seen as the result of personal traits – a fallacy that haunts our halls.
Americans resist changing systems because systems are invisible to them. If there’s a problem with Medicare, it can be fixed by appointing better people to manage it. If there’s a problem with the US military, it just needs better generals or a better Defense Secretary. And of course, nowhere is this blindness to systems more corrosive and powerful than in race relations.
In the real world, healthy systems produce healthy outcomes. You don’t need heroes in a healthy system. However, no system remains healthy for all times, in all circumstances. Build a healthy, accountable organization fit for the needs of a particular moment and it will work for a time. As the clock ticks and the world changes, it’s power will need to evolve. If it grows too sclerotic to change, it will need to be removed. Politics is a garden that must be tended. Once in a while, it benefits from a fire.
We’ve become so used to the notion that working people don’t understand their interests that it’s developed into a dangerous trope. Yes, working class whites trust Donald Trump more than the Democratic Party because he congratulates their racism. They also love him because he derides their affluent, educated cousins who ignore and despise them. Workers are telling the Democratic Party that they don’t want to become food for yet another disinterested bureaucracy. Democrats respond to this message by harping on their racism, falling back on the old missionary ethic that these benighted fools dwell in darkness and must be saved against their own objections.
One Democratic Presidential candidate seems to get it. Elizabeth Warren is proposing legislation that insure worker representation on corporate boards and increase employee ownership of their own companies. This approach to capitalism is a threat to our present union establishment, making them largely irrelevant. If her effort succeeds, she could improve the lives of tens of millions of lower income workers at the expense of traditional union bureaucrats. She’ll see her most dangerous opposition from her closest allies in the Democratic Party.
Labor unions, like political parties, are tools. Using the wrong tool makes jobs slower, and reduces odds of success. Workers are rejecting labor unions in their present form because they are the wrong tool. Instead of simply shouting at them louder, we should perhaps listen.