2.8%: That is the difference between the rate of union membership and the rate of unemployment in the US. Union membership in the US is so low that many Americans aren't even familiar with unions. What are they? What do they actually do?
Unions are institutions in which workers organize together to bargain collectively with their employers. Instead of employees being bound by individual employment contracts, unions bargain on behalf of all the workers in a workplace. These contracts are typically called collective bargaining agreements, and they set wage levels, working conditions, and provide structures for workplace discipline, how workers are promoted, fired or laid off, as well as structures for resolving workplace grievances. Typically unions take two forms. They will organize workers within a given craft (for instance, electricians, teachers or basketball players), or they will organize workers in an entire workplace of different trades (for instance, all employees, of all trades, in a factory). Unions traditionally bargain on behalf of their own membership, but they also work to establish minimum labor requirements for all workers through law. Minimum wage laws, overtime provisions, parental leaves, mandatory workplace insurance schemes are just a few examples of things unions have won through their lobbying efforts over time. While unions have a long and storied history in the United States, today, as the numbers show, unions are in deep trouble.
You wouldn't know that unions were in such trouble by following the news, though. This year is an especially active news year for unions—first the death match between public service unions in Wisconsin and now the high-stakes drama of the NBA lockout. This coverage, combined with the regular, and massive, contributions of unions to political campaigns suggest that unions are fit and healthy.
But don't be deceived. The news coverage and political contributions are nothing more than rouge on the cheeks of a very sick union movement. Unions today are a sallow and pale reflection their past selves.
Why is this so, and why should we care? And, if we should care, what is to be done?
You typically hear two diagnoses. The narrative you'll hear from the union movements typically involves a marriage of big-business, conservative politicians, free-trade and trade and labor policies which emphasize movement of capital, and a business mindset which views workers as equivalent to coffee beans—a commodity to be bought at market prices.
On the other side you'll hear stories about how business developed in such a way as to meet the needs of workers while unions focused on protecting their own institutional interests while costing jobs, their members' money and, often, their members' freedom.
Each side will point to symptoms which confirm their diagnosis. Unions point to labor policies which undermine trade union rights, or trade policies which have seen American jobs bleed to places like Mexico, China or anywhere else where labor is cheap and unprotected as cause for their decline.
Business will point to corruption of union officials, an unwillingness to consider productivity in bargaining and progressive HR policies within business as proof that the need for unions is over.
Sadly, this is about as far as the discussion goes. People who support unions—and I should note at this point that I am very much one of them—and those who are opposed to them, spend more time disagreeing with one another, and more effort and money attempting to trump the other side through politics, than they do in earnestly, and in good faith, wrestling with three profound questions which lie at the heart of the great divide between the pro and anti-union side. This failure has led to both a decline of trade unionism and a bastardization of business. These questions are as follows:
In my work as a trade unionist—at the local, national and international levels—I found that the answers given by both business and trade union advocates to the first question were eerily similar. Too often the discussion began and ended with economic answers. Too often, business doesn't spend the time asking itself those questions. Sadly, trade unions—whose role it should be to ensure that business is mindful of these questions—spend very little time on a dialog between those with capital, and those who grow capital through their labor, about the deep, even religious, questions behind the daily grind of work. Instead, they limit themselves almost entirely to the fight over dollars and cents.
There was a time when these questions were discussed, and were highly influential in shaping world history for the better. Christian trade unionists such as Bill Doherty, organizations such as the World Confederation of Labor (a global, Christian, trade union body) and great people such as Abraham Kuyper, Leo XIII, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, John Paul II and Lech Walesa have all provided both intellectual and practical responses to these questions.
Each was able to afford a proper place to business while challenging the underlying and harmful assumptions that work is simply an economic activity and that workers exist as individual cogs in a morally neutral economy. They recognized, in their words and in their actions, the fundamentally human and social nature of work.
Today's labor movement would do well to revisit some of these thinkers and actors and to sift through their work to find innovations which would reorient and reinvigorate the union movement. It might be a smaller movement, but it would be better.