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September 18, 2009

Labor Pains

(Photos by Robin Holland)

In this week’s JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with labor experts Michael Zweig and Bill Fletcher about the prospects for organized labor in the United States.

An annual Gallup poll conducted in August delivered sobering news to supporters of organized labor, finding that public approval of unions has declined to the lowest point in more than seventy years since the poll began:

“Gallup finds organized labor taking a significant image hit in the past year. While 66% of Americans continue to believe unions are beneficial to their own members, a slight majority now say unions hurt the nation's economy. More broadly, fewer than half of Americans -- 48%, an all-time low -- approve of labor unions, down from 59% a year ago... The 48% of Americans now approving of unions represents the first sub-50% approval since Gallup first asked the question in the 1930s. The previous low was 55%, found in both 1979 and 1981... There has been an even larger jump in the percentage saying labor unions mostly hurt the U.S. economy, from 36% in 2006 to 51% today.”

Michael Zweig said that organized labor has become overly willing to accommodate power rather than challenge it:

“The labor movement had a very militant, very aggressive stance in the '30s, '40s, '50s that challenged capital [and] that got tremendous benefits... Let's not forget, the labor movement is what got us the eight hour day and Social Security and all the other things that we think are so very important, but are just natural. That came out of a labor movement that was led and fueled by people who understood that there was antagonism, that there was a battle that they were involved in. This was not just, 'let's sit down and have lunch and figure out what's the best thing to do for America.' This was, 'here's a group of people who run the country and run businesses, and they have a certain set of interests and they do not have our interests at heart...' We have to be organized and be a contrary force that's a real force, that isn't just a debating society, that doesn't just have resolutions that it passes.”

Bill Fletcher said that organized labor needs to foster a broad social justice movement that looks beyond individual workplaces in order to gain more mass support:

“The question for organized labor is whether or not it can actually become a class movement, a movement of workers, and not simply unions representing people in different workplaces because I think that speaks to some of the anger that’s out there among workers who feel that they’re unrepresented [and] that the society is crushing them. They’re looking for a vehicle. They’re looking for someone to be their champion, someone to channel their anger. If it’s not unions, my fear is that right-wing populists are going to just grab onto this... We have leaders now that are paying more attention to getting access to political leaders or holding hands with the head of Wal-Mart rather than actually getting and inspiring workers, irrespective of whether they’re our members right now, to engage in a struggle for justice.”

What do you think?

  • In your view, why has organized labor been losing the public’s confidence?

  • What role, if any, should labor unions play in movements for social and economic change? Explain.

  • Do you think labor unions have historically been good for America’s economy? Are they good for it today? Why or why not?


  • January 9, 2009

    Employees' Free Choice?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week, the JOURNAL explored the present state – and potential future – of America’s unions.

    As of 2007, approximately 12 percent of America’s workforce was unionized, down from 20 percent in 1980 and a height of more than a third of U.S. workers in the mid-1940s. Last year unions spent heavily on campaign contributions for Democratic candidates and to promote controversial legislation known as the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT summarized EFCA as follows:

    “The key provision of the Employee Free Choice Act could make it more feasible for the workers of smaller businesses to unionize. Under current law, in order for a union to be recognized at a business, 30 percent of the workers of the business in question must express support for joining a union. This is then followed by a secret ballot election where half of the workers must vote in favor of joining. The Employee Free Choice Act would make this election unnecessary and allow the union to be recognized through a process known as "card check." A majority of workers simply need to sign cards expressing their intent to join the union, and this process need not be secret.”

    Supporters of EFCA contend that larger unions might empower workers and help rebuild the middle class, while opponents argue that scrapping the secret vote could subject workers to coercion and intimidation. Former Senator George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972, explained his opposition to EFCA in a column for the WALL STREET JOURNAL:

    “As a longtime friend of labor unions, I must raise my voice against pending legislation I see as a disturbing and undemocratic overreach not in the interest of either management or labor... There are many documented cases where workers have been pressured, harassed, tricked and intimidated into signing cards that have led to mandatory payment of dues. Under EFCA, workers could lose the freedom to express their will in private, the right to make a decision without anyone peering over their shoulder, free from fear of reprisal... To fail to ensure a vote free of intimidation and coercion from all sides would be a betrayal of what we have always championed.”

    Responding to critics' objections, JOURNAL guest and EFCA supporter Leo Gerard, International President of United Steelworkers, said:

    “What is a greater vote than putting my name on a card, signing my name and saying I want this union?... The fact of the matter is that kind of myth is the myth that's created by the union busters... [Bosses] come into the workplace now and call the worker into the room and say, 'you know, buddy, if you join this union we're gonna move this plant to Mexico. Now go out and decide to vote.' What are you going to do when your family and you are making $9 an hour, $10 an hour, and the boss is taking home $10 million? What are you going to do with your so-called 'secret ballot' vote?"

    What do you think?

  • Do you support the Employee Free Choice Act? Why or why not?
  • Would larger and more powerful unions have a positive effect on the U.S. economy? Explain.
  • In the global economy, Americans increasingly compete against workers from nations with lower wages and standards of living. To what extent can unions protect American workers from these pressures?


  • December 12, 2008

    An Act of Civil Disobedience amidst the Economic Crisis

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week's JOURNAL reported on the laid-off Chicago workers who successfully occupied their shuttered former workplace, Republic Windows & Doors, for several days to procure money and benefits.

    Bank of America had eliminated Republic's credit line because the company was unable to operate profitably in the current economic climate. In the face of political and public pressure following broad media coverage of the workers' sit-in, Bank of America restored Republic's credit to cover the severance and benefits to which the workers are legally entitled.

    Bill Moyers talked with legal and economic scholar Emma Coleman Jordan about the federal government's bailout efforts and asked her about the workers' actions in Chicago. Jordan said:

    "It is an opportunity that these workers took to stand up directly, and it's interesting because they targeted not just their employer, Republic Windows & Doors, but they targeted Bank of America. If you saw those signs, they explicitly understood the connection between finance and the closing of the plant. Bank of America -- $25 billion [recipient from the federal government] Bank of America -- cuts off the line of credit to Republic Windows & Doors... And the workers simply said, 'This is not fair. We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore.' And they took direct action. I think that's a healthy thing for our democracy."

    Some critics have suggested that Bank of America acted irresponsibly to extend credit to a failing business that will not be able to repay the loan. Andy Busch of BMO Capital Markets wrote:

    "This is the path the United States is heading towards as the recession takes its toll and government reaches further and further into the private sector to stabilize the economy. Initially, the moves are welcomed as workers are looked after, jobs are created, and big business vilified. However, the government forcing banks to make loans to companies that can't make the payments perpetuates the weak credit problem and keeps the cycle going. This cycle deploys capital to non-productive uses and keeps it from flowing to solid companies that can create new jobs."

    What do you think?

  • Was the Republic Windows & Doors workers' civil disobedience an appropriate reaction to their situation? Why or why not?
  • Did Bank of America make the right decision to restore the credit line? Is it sustainable to continue doing so with other failing companies in the future?
  • Are there limitations of using civil disobedience to work toward a better society?


  • June 13, 2008

    The American Dream In Reverse?

    (Photos by Robin Holland)

    Are we living in a second gilded age? Yes, according to historian Steven Fraser, one of Bill Moyers’ guests on the JOURNAL this week.

    “Basically, we left the financial marketplace largely unregulated – a tendency which had begun under Reagan and continued at an accelerated pace all through the years since Reagan, including under the Clinton administration... When push comes to shove, businessmen and their financial enablers may talk the talk about the free market. But when times get tough, they turn to the government to bail them out... That is this close, almost incestuous relationship between business and government.”

    Bill Moyers also spoke with columnist Holly Sklar about the difficulties many workers face in trying to earn a living wage. She said:

    “We’ve been living the American dream in reverse... Adjusting for inflation, average wages are lower than they were in the 1970s. Our minimum wage, adjusting for inflation, is lower than it was in the 1950s. One of the things going on is that income and wealth inequality have gone back to the 1920s. We are back at levels that we saw right before the Great Depression.”

    On the ground in Los Angeles, the JOURNAL introduced Jaron Quetel, a young union member struggling to make ends meet. He said:

    “Working the best job I’ve ever had in my whole life, I’m still a breath away from drowning. I’m $20 away from being on the street. I am one car payment away from being re-poed. I’m barely surviving. I’m leading a substandard lifestyle because I make substandard wages... If I wasn’t trying, if I was a screw-up, if I was taking advantage of things, I couldn’t complain. But what more can I do at this point?”

  • Are you feeling pinched by today’s economy? Are people in your community?
  • What economic policies would you like to see put into place? Do you expect politicians to enact any of them?

    [Please note we have provided a list of sites related to clean elections and you can find sites and research related to economic disparity and the work of Holly Sklar.]


  • January 25, 2008

    Assessing The "Economic Growth Package"

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Ordinary Americans and the media alike have been astir this week with discussions of the looming recession and the “economic growth package” Washington quickly assembled in response. In her conversation with Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL, sociologist Katherine Newman shared her thoughts about their plan:

    “It's a bad news situation out there for millions of Americans who are really going to worry about their futures and their children's futures... I think they'll be pleased to hear that Congress and the President have found some way to cooperate with one another. But a lot of people will be left out and left in the cold.

    I'm more encouraged than I thought I would be, because it provides rebates for people lower down the income spectrum that I thought it would. But I am very concerned about the long-term unemployed, which is rising, not only in general, but as a proportion of the unemployed. And that's one of the disappointments of the stimulus package... I think if we built more infrastructure, we would see a greater long term benefit from the money we're investing, because we will improve our roads, our schools. And you know, that's exactly what Franklin Roosevelt thought. And that’s why he put millions of Americans to work.”

    What do YOU think?

  • Do you support the “economic growth package” announced this week? Why?

  • Are you “pleased to hear” that the quick formulation of the “economic growth package” is the result of bipartisan cooperation?

  • Do you think it is a good idea for government to expand public employment in areas like infrastructure maintenance and education as a means to mend our economy?


  • August 31, 2007

    Respecting the Dignity of Labor

    In her interview with Bill Moyers, lifelong activist Grace Lee Boggs, a champion of labor and civil rights, says:

    Well just don't expect the system to catch up, the system is part of the system! What I think is that, not since the 30s have American have the American people, the ordinary Americans faced such uncertainty with regard to the economic system. In the 30s, what we did, was we confronted management and were able, thereby to gain many advantages, particularly to gain a respect for the dignity of labor. That's no longer possible today, because of the ability of corporations to fly all over the place and begin setting up all this outsourcing. So, we're gonna have people are finding other ways to regain control over the way they make their living.

    Continue reading "Respecting the Dignity of Labor" »


    August 3, 2007

    A New American Dream?

    It was James Truslow Adams who first coined the term "The American Dream" in his book THE EPIC OF AMERICA written in 1931. He writes that the American dream is:

    "...that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.

    It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."

    But Barbara Ehrenreich, who has lived, worked and fought along side low-wage workers has witnessed the growing disparity of wages between the rich and poor. The hopes and dreams of many of the workers she's been hearing from seem to differ from the definition above. Says Ehrenreich:

    "There was one woman who said something to me that was so poignant. Speaking of her hopes for the future, she said, 'My big wish would be to have a job which if I missed work one day, like for a child home sick or something, I would still be able to buy groceries for the next day.' And I thought, yeah, that's quite a hope."

    How would you define the American Dream?

  • Has it changed for you over time?
  • Do you think your children or even your grandchildren will define it the same way?

    Photo: Robin Holland


  • June 6, 2007

    Preview: High-Flying Executives


    Watch the video

    This Week on Bill Moyers Journal:

    Beginning to trade on the NYSE last week, Northwest airlines dodged the bankruptcy bullet.

    But while a $1.4 billion a year cut in labor expenses has ensured lower costs for Northwest, why are airline executives still flying high on salaries, stock options and benefits while workers and retirees see cuts in pay and compensation?

    Check Your Local Listings here and we'll see you on the blog after the show.


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