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What do unions offer American workers today?

February 26, 2014 at 6:43 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now two people who have followed these events closely.

Linda Chavez is chairwoman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank, and author of “Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics.”  And Kate Bronfenbrenner is director of labor education research at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University and editor of the book “Global Unions.”

Well, Kate Bronfenbrenner, let me start with you.

This was clearly a loss for the UAW and organized labor, but how big was it and do you see anything positive for the unions to take from it?

KATE BRONFENBRENNER, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University: I think people are making more of this loss than they should.

It was a close election. and it wasn’t a surprising loss, given that this was, as we see in many campaigns, a campaign where a union went in expecting to have neutrality, and ended up with an opposition campaign, a fairly aggressive opposition campaign, not from the employer, but from political figures and the business committee — business community that was, in effect, the same as an employer opposition campaign.

The problem was, the union didn’t run the kind of campaign that is needed when you have opposition.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me get Linda Chavez first to comment on, what do you take from what happened in Chattanooga?

LINDA CHAVEZ, Center for Equal Opportunity: Well, I think it wasn’t surprising. I think Ms. Bronfenbrenner is right about that.

What is not surprising about it is that we had seen a very precipitous decline of union membership around the country for the last 60 years. It’s down to less than 7 percent of non — of private sector workers are in unions. And the union movement would be almost dead if it were not for public employee unions.

So there wasn’t — it wasn’t terribly surprising that they lost this election. And I think it has much to do with what has happened to the labor movement, what their goals are, their shift away from organizing and into politics. And I think this really hurt them in a place like Tennessee.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, speaking of a place like Tennessee, Kate Bronfenbrenner, you have made a case in your writing that the South is actually — this goes against what we normally hear, but that there really are opportunities for unions in the South.

KATE BRONFENBRENNER: That’s right.

In fact, unions have had higher win rates in the South than they have had in the rest of the country. And that’s because the South is fertile ground, both because of the demographics in the South — the South is an area where the percent of workers of color, both black workers and Latino workers, is growing faster than anywhere else in the U.S. — and because the kind of occupations and industry that are in the South are the kind of jobs where workers are most likely to want to organize, low-wage jobs in manufacturing and service and jobs where there are a high percentage of women workers.

And low-wage women workers of color are the workers who are most likely to organize unions. And we see in the country that we have seen janitors in Houston. We have seen public sector workers throughout the South have been organizing. And we see have seen health care workers organize and manufacturing workers organize in the South.

Yes, the workers in Tennessee didn’t win, but those were primarily white workers and primarily white male workers. And they could have won, actually, if the union had not been thinking that there wasn’t going to be any opposition. If the union had actually run a comprehensive campaign, they would have won.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Linda Chavez, this goes to the changing demographics of the country, the possible changing demographics that affect unions in the South. What do you see?

LINDA CHAVEZ: Well, first of all, union membership among women is lower than it is among men. It is true that blacks are more likely to join unions than whites are, but Hispanics are not very likely to join unions.

And so the democracy has part of the explanation. But I think the real explanation is unions used to be able to provide something to workers. There was a time when if you wanted to have a safe working place, if you wanted to have decent benefits, joining a union made sense, and you were willing to fork over the two hours’ worth of pay that the UAW requires in order to be part of the union.

But now the unions really have seen that most of their activity is political. Many of the kinds of benefits that they used to provide are now guaranteed by law. Health care, which used to be a big, big plus for union membership, now with Obamacare, unions lose even that advantage.

And, in fact, the kind of Cadillac insurance plans that unions were very successful at getting for their workers are going to receive an excise tax.

And so you’re going to see that that is not going to be much of a plus for union members either.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you’re — but to stay with you, Ms. Chavez, you’re — you’re saying that this is the overarching issue generally for the larger picture for unions that goes beyond individual projects, such as at — in Chattanooga?

LINDA CHAVEZ: That’s right.

I mean, it used to be that — employers smartened up. They have to attract workers. There’s competition for workers. And so you have got employers now giving their employees the kind of thing that used to be won with very hard battle by the union. And, again, you have unions now focusing almost entirely on political activity.

They spend a lot more of their time, energy and money organizing politically. And the agenda that they support generally is quite liberal, very left-wing. Even though 40 percent of union households vote Republican in presidential elections, 90 percent of the money from unions goes to the Democratic Party. So this is — this is part of their problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Kate Bronfenbrenner, just in our last minute, you can respond both to the political issues she brought up, and also just the — what do unions have to offer today to workers?

KATE BRONFENBRENNER: Well, they must offer something, because we have workers who went all over the country who were willing to risk their jobs and go out on strike, and to strike for — at Wal-Mart and at McDonald’s and at car washes because they wanted a union.

And these workers were not — they were striking because they wanted better working conditions, because they wanted less arbitrary decisions by supervisors. They felt like the union is the way that they can get those things. And we had hundreds of strikes this year by workers all over. They were — and they wanted $15 an hour and a union.

We had hundreds of thousands of workers organize this year. And, in fact, more workers organized this year in the private sector than in the public sector. Union density increased in the private sector. So workers seem to want unions. It’s hard to do it. They have to jump through hoops of fire to do it because of employer opposition.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

KATE BRONFENBRENNER: But they’re still fighting for unions…

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, we do have to…

KATE BRONFENBRENNER: … today, just as much as ever.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, I’m sorry. We do have to leave it there.

Kate Bronfenbrenner and Linda Chavez, thank you both very much.

LINDA CHAVEZ: Thank you.