Economic Slump Brought a ‘Tough Year for Labor’

How powerful are labor unions in the U.S.? Ray Suarez looks at the state of labor unions -- on a day honoring Americans who work -- with the Heritage Foundation's James Sherk, AFL-CIO's Thea Lee and The New York Times' Steven Greehouse.

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    And to a look at the state of labor unions in the country.

    Ray Suarez has that.


    It's been an unusual year for organized labor. Sharp debates over the role of unions and workers' benefits have captured national attention and sparked major fights.

    On the public sector side, Republican governors in several states, including Wisconsin and Ohio, have tried rolling back collective bargaining rights and long-established benefits. Unions rallied with huge marches and public protests. In the private sector, unions struck against Verizon for two weeks and remain in negotiations over demands from the company about pensions, health care and work rules.

    The National Labor Relations Board has brought a case against Boeing, arguing it is retaliating against workers by opening another plant in South Carolina to avoid unions. The percentage of the private sector work force in unions is stuck in the single digits.

    We get an assessment of what's happening to organized labor with James Sherk, senior policy analyst for labor economics at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research institution, Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff for the AFL-CIO, and Steven Greenhouse, longtime labor reporter for The New York Times.

    And to get the overview, Steven, let me start with you. Whether you're doing it by counting noses or taking a look at the battles won and lost, how would we assess the health of organized labor on this Labor Day, 2011?

  • STEVEN GREENHOUSE, The New York Times:

    I think it's a difficult time for organized labor. It's out there. It's fighting. But it's also in many ways on the defensive.

    Take the Verizon strike, Ray. Verizon is a very profitable company. Yet, it's asking its union for — its unions for, you know, major concessions. It wants to, you know, make them start paying a lot more towards health coverage. It wants to freeze their pensions. It wants to reduce job security guarantees.

    And I think many companies nowadays, with the economy so weak, with unemployment so high, feel it's a time that they can, you know, wrest concessions out of unions. And the labor movement is trying very hard to stop that. And in Detroit now, with, you know, General Motors, Chrysler, Ford rebounding very nicely after the major concessions the unions gave a few years ago, they're trying to go on the offensive and say, you companies are doing so well. Why don't you pay us more? Why don't you provide us with better benefits?


    James Sherk, same question. What's your general diagnosis?

  • JAMES SHERK, Heritage Foundation:

    Well, the union movement is in a lot of trouble. Their unionization rates are lower now than when Roosevelt first signed the National Labor Relations Act.

    The reason for that, I think, is competition in the economy. When did Detroit start going downhill? Well, when you had Toyota and Honda and the like in many cases building cars with American workers, but non-union American workers, and came into the market in the '80s.

    That was when Detroit began its slide. Same thing with Verizon. Why were the landline workers on strike? You have got competition from the cell phones and the landline business has been declining. In a competitive marketplace, unions have very little power to raise workers' wages, because the companies can't pass it on to the consumers.


    Thea Lee, what do you think?


    I think it's been a tough year for labor. There's no question about it. The economy is in the doldrums. And the labor market is extremely weak. We have high unemployment. We have had it for a couple of years.

    And, in fact, we have had a couple of decades of stagnant wages and growing inequality. But I think this is why the labor movement is needed more than ever. And we need — workers really need to come together. I would say a lot of the challenges that workers and unions are facing come from an attack, a sustained attack on workers from business and from public policy, in that we haven't done enough to value work and value the people who do work.

    We're not going to be a strong country, we're not going to be a leading country in the global economy if we don't invest in our work force, if we don't really give people the kinds of living standards that they deserve and that they have earned. We're a wealthy country. We're not a poor country. And we shouldn't act as though workers having a decent pension, having decent health care, having a good job, having the right to form a union if they want one is a problem in our economy. That shouldn't be a problem. That's part of the solution.


    Steven Greenhouse, one of the most striking examples of the pushback against organized labor was seen earlier this year in Wisconsin. We saw a lot of marches in the capital, the occupation of the state capitol building. Did that end up in a win for labor?


    I think it ended up as a loss for labor both in Wisconsin and in Ohio, Ray.

    The — as you said, they really succeeded in rolling back collective bargaining rights for public employees. And the unions fought very, very hard to prevent that from happening. And, you know, there were — you know, Gov. Walker in Wisconsin, Gov. Kasich in Ohio, they are not in love with labor unions. And I think they were trying to do like a two-cushion shot.

    One, they think that, by weakening unions, they could help rein in their budget deficits, not just for the state budget deficits, but local budget deficits. And, second, I think they clearly want to weaken unions because they see that unions are perhaps the best and strongest friends of Democrats and of Democratic candidates.

    And to the extent they can weaken unions and deny them dues money, it will make it that much harder for them to really fight for Democratic candidates in elections.


    Thea Lee, we saw big crowds come out. We saw in public opinion polls a lot of spoken support for public employees unions. Yet, as Steven Greenhouse, observes, they didn't win the battle at the end of the day, did they?


    Well, that's a good question. And I think we maybe have to take a longer view of it than just whether — you know, sure, a lot of these bills, these very retroactive bills, passed that stripped workers of collective bargaining rights.

    But if you look at it a little bit differently, I think you saw that workers fought back. They fought back with their communities, with a lot of folks standing side by side with them. All these Republican governors who attacked workers and unions and collective bargaining rights have seen their popularity plummet.

    Most of them are in the toilet in terms of their popularity ratings because of their over — overzealous attack on workers and on unions. And I think what we're seeing is a turning point. And certainly we lost a lot of legislative battles. In Ohio, I think the jury is still out. We gathered 1.3 million signatures, working people did, to overturn, to do a citizens veto of the bill that Gov. John Kasich put in place.

    So, I think we will see what the long-term impact is and whether these governors really can stay in office with these kinds of unwarranted attacks on workers and on workers' human rights.


    James Sherk, as you mentioned, in the private sector, unions are now in single digits in membership, but one solid place had been the public employees unions. What do you see going on in Wisconsin and Ohio?


    Well, you're right. It's because there's no competition in government. If you live in California, you can't buy police services from Texas. And so you're stuck paying the taxes that the union gets negotiated.

    But it's a fairly new idea, that of having unions in government organizing against the voters and the taxpayers. Wisconsin was the first state in 1959. Before that, Franklin Roosevelt had said, this doesn't make any sense. George Meany, founder of the AFL-CIO, first president, said he didn't think it made any sense.

    And what we're seeing now is the tide starting to move back. We're in difficult economic times. And people are saying, wait a minute. Government ought to be run for the benefit of the voters and the taxpayers, and not those who work in the government. Unions have a place in the private sector, but, in government, it's quite different.


    Well, that's just ridiculous. Workers have a basic human right to form a union if they want to. There's no way in which — workers in the public sector, they're not the enemies of the taxpayer. They're not the enemies of the government.

    What workers are doing is saying they want a voice on the job, that they want the same kinds of protections that other workers have, not to be treated arbitrarily. A lot of workers in the public sector, whether they're firefighters or nurses or teachers or police officers, are fighting for safe workplaces, for decent conditions.

    Nurses need to fight for a decent patient load, so that they can give good service to their patients. Teachers need to fight for small class sizes, so that they can teach the kids. So this is something which is a basic human rights. Most industrialized, civilized societies do allow workers in public sector to form unions and to bargain.

    There's no pot of gold at the end there, that you can only get what is — you know, when the state runs out of money, the state runs out of money. And so the government can negotiate just like any other employer.


    Steven, let me take a look at some of the things that we're seeing around the country in private and public sector.

    Is it harder to enlist public support for whatever you're doing as a union when the economy is in such bad shape, when unemployment is so high? Is there very little public sympathy left for public workers who say they need a raise, when, in fact, a lot of people haven't gotten raises for one, two and three years?


    Ray, I think there are two competing trends.

    I think most Americans, including in Wisconsin and Ohio, support, you know, public employees to be in unions. And at the same time, though, when they're seeing their states and cities and counties and school districts have big budget deficits, and they see that, you know, their employers are taking away their pensions and are making them pay far more for health insurance, they in ways start resenting public employees, and they sometimes feel public employees have it too good, are being too truculent at the bargaining table.

    And I think Govs. Walker and Kasich have really played that. And Republicans, as I said, are not in love with unions. And they're very happy to try to wrest concessions out of unions and weaken them. But, at the same time, unions have been fairly successful in some other states, in New Hampshire, in Michigan, in Missouri, in stopping efforts to weaken private sector unions through so-called right-to-work bills that would allow — give many union members the ability to stop paying union dues whatsoever.

    And that would greatly weaken unions and I think also advance the goal of some Republicans to weaken unions at large.


    James Sherk, looking forward, we are coming up on a new round of UAW talks. And Steven mentioned earlier in the discussion that the auto companies have done pretty well. As a matter of fact, they held up the durable goods sales over the past couple of months.

    Is this an example of a mutual self-interest? Are we seeing a different kind of relationship evolving between car workers and car companies?


    I certainly hope so.

    Now, of course, part of the reason they're doing so well is they got an enormous taxpayer bailout. Without that bailout, it would have been a much more difficult situation for both the company and the other workers. Whether or not that was good for the taxpayers is a different matter.

    But as UAW president Bob King has admitted, basically, they can't negotiate wages higher than what the non-union workers get, or it will kill the car companies. And they have shown they recognize this. The wages of the union workers and the hourly wages are now only a few dollars higher than those of the non-union workers.

    And, so, as long as they're recognizing the competitive realities, they can probably work together. But it does raise the question, if the union can't get you higher wages, why would you want to pay to join?


    Thea Lee?


    Well, I think unions do a lot of things on the job that are really important to working people.

    And the basic thing is whether every worker has to go in by him or herself to the boss and beg for safety goggles, for a bathroom break, for a raise, for health care, for a pension, or whether workers have that basic human right — and the United States is still a member of the International Labor Organization. This is a right that we recognize, the right to come together at the workplace and to bargain together, instead of coming as an individual.

    So, those protections, I think, are important to workers. And I think we have to turn around the question and not ask, why should public sector workers have a pension or health care if I don't? The question is not, how do I take it away from the public sector worker? The question is, why doesn't everybody in America have a pension and health care? Isn't that something that, as a wealthy, industrialized country, we ought to be able to do?

    And so I think we have to ask ourselves on Labor Day — and happy Labor Day, by the way — what kind of a country are we? And what are our values? And I think we want to value working people, we want to value the middle class. And we have seen too many of the policies over the last couple of decades take us in exactly the wrong direction, where the rich are getting richer and richer and richer. The corporations are more powerful.

    They're using their political power, as Steve said, to bust unions. And they're hiring or buying politicians who will do that dirty work for them. And that is just intolerable. We're losing our own democracy.


    Thea Lee, thanks for joining us, James Sherk, Steven Greenhouse.

    Happy Labor Day.


    Thank you.