Unions Back from the Dead

February 19th, 2015 by Phil Mattera

refinerystrikersRight-wing governors in states such as Illinois and Wisconsin, corporate front men such as Rick Berman, and an unholy alliance of the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Heritage Foundation are among those seeking to nail shut the coffin of what they see as a dying labor movement. Yet recent events allow unions to channel Mark Twain and declare that the reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated.

As the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that strikes last year sank to their second lowest level since 1947, workers at oil refineries around the country have been walking picket lines. A simmering labor dispute between shippers and members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union may result in a work stoppage at West Coast ports.

Discussions of wage stagnation, which all too often are devoid of references to declining union membership rates, are starting to acknowledge the importance of collective bargaining. Mainstream columnist Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times just published a piece headlined “The Cost Of a Decline In Unions” in which he cites research estimating that deunionization (which has brought membership levels below 7 percent in the private sector) may account for one-third of the rise of income inequality among men.

This comes after Kristof recites some of the obligatory criticisms (“corruption, nepotism and rigid work rules”), but he has seen the light in stating that “in recent years, the worst abuses by far haven’t been in the union shop but in the corporate suite.” He hedges a little bit at the end by saying “at least in the private sector, we should strengthen unions, not try to eviscerate them” but the column is remarkable nonetheless.

Also remarkable is the announcement by Wal-Mart Stores that it will raise the wages of all its U.S workers to at least $9 an hour. Wal-Mart, the country’s largest private sector employer, remains entirely non-union, but the move is an indication of the impact that labor groups such as Making Change at Walmart and OUR Walmart have had on the giant retailer. Their work is far from done; $9 an hour is still too low and there are many other reforms the company needs to make. But the fact that Wal-Mart, which has a notoriously intransigent history, has budged is a significant achievement.

The non-traditional organizing at Wal-Mart is just one example of alternative approaches to building worker power. Others include the minority union model being tested by the United Auto Workers at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee and the worker center model employed by groups such as ROC United.

Yet traditional collective bargaining still has a role to play, and not only in raising pay levels. The oil refinery walkout, for example, is not about wages (which are good, thanks to Steelworker contracts), but instead involve issues such as workplace safety. In an industry with companies such as BP, with its abysmal refinery safety record, that is no small matter. In fact, it can be a matter of life and death.

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New in Corporate Rap Sheets: Dollar General, the king (for now) of deep discounters is facing pressure over the safety of its cheap merchandise.

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