A Civil Right to Unionize
By Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit, New York Times, February 29, 2012
FROM the 1940s to the 1970s, organized labor helped build a middle-class democracy in the United States. The postwar period was as successful as it was because of unions, which helped enact progressive social legislation from the Civil Rights Act to Medicare. Since then, union representation of American workers has fallen, in tandem with the percentage of income going to the middle class. Broadly shared prosperity has been replaced by winner-take-all plutocracy.
Corporations will tell you that the American labor movement has declined so significantly — to around 7 percent of the private-sector work force today, from 35 percent of the private sector in the mid-1950s — because unions are obsolete in a global economy, where American workers have to compete against low-wage nonunion workers in other countries. But many vibrant industrial democracies, including Germany, have strong unions despite facing the same pressures from globalization.
Other skeptics suggest that because laws now exist providing for worker safety and overtime pay, American employees no longer feel the need to join unions. But polling has shown that a majority of nonunion workers would like to join a union if they could.
In fact, the greatest impediment to unions is weak and anachronistic labor laws. It’s time to add the right to organize a labor union, without employer discrimination, to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, because that right is as fundamental as freedom from discrimination in employment and education. This would enshrine what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed in 1961 at an A.F.L.-C.I.O. convention: “The two most dynamic and cohesive liberal forces in the country are the labor movement and the Negro freedom movement. Together, we can be architects of democracy.”
While embedding the right to unionize in the Civil Rights Act in the U.S. may well be needed, in Canada, the official right to strike is enshrined in law.
Our problem is that the public attitude to unions has suffered serious blows in the last two or three decades. This has resulted from many and various factors. Among them are a shift in the public consciousness towards favouring the private corporate capitalistic system, as demonstrated by our neighbour to the south, a shift of support away from public service unions where there are admittedly people taken advantage of the union security to do very little for much of the work day.
Another factor is the size of the public debt in most provinces, all of which pay substantial monies to unionized workers in education, health care, social service institutions like Children's Aid, transportation and of course, firefighters and police.
What we need in Canada is to include curricula in secondary schools about the contributions made by unions over the last century so that such subjects become part of the talk over the kitchen table; we also need for unions to be much more discriminating in their choice of strike targets, along with the timing of those choices. More public awareness of the need for a closer relationship between locals of various unions and the International Labour Organization would do some measure of repair of the reputation of unions in the public mind. Perhaps a decade in which both employers where workers are unionized and those same unions could declare a truce during which time the unions will not strike and the management will neither lock-out nor eliminate jobs.
That kind of mutual commitment, in the face of serious shifts in the global economy, would do much to restore confidence in the public mind that workers in unions and management in those workplaces can and will work together to solve their issues. That would mean a mutual commitment to grievances, to modest salary and benefit increases geared to both profit and revenues inside both the sector of the economy and the specific industry.
Both sides have much to gain from a decade of entente cordiale, during which time a generation of workers will graduate from post secondary education, and will take their place within those unions and inside those workplaces, benefiting from a more stable, secure and more compatible workplace culture generated by collaboration, co-operation and precedent-setting mutual respect, much of which has been lost and needs to be restored.