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A Tough Year For Unions, With Few Bright Spots Ahead

Dec 30, 2012
Originally published on December 30, 2012 5:55 pm

This year was a tough one for organized labor.

In June, Scott Walker — the Wisconsin governor who banned collective bargaining for public employee unions — survived a recall election.

And, despite huge protests in Michigan, the union stronghold became the 24th right-to-work state, banning unions from requiring workers to sign up. That came just 10 months after Indiana passed a similar law.

Harold Meyerson, editor-at-large of The American Prospect, says it's only the latest in years of mostly union defeats. Despite some bright spots, Meyerson tells weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden that the future for organized labor in the U.S. looks gloomy.


Interview Highlights

On the state of unions after years of defeats

"A lot of unions have gone into a somewhat understandable fetal curl. Organizing for most major unions has dried up. Meanwhile, wages, even at unionized companies are going down, because when you represent one unionized company in an ocean of non-unionized companies, you don't have much leverage."

On the effects of organized labor's diminished power

"Companies are sitting on well over a trillion dollars of their own cash. And the chief use their making of their cash is, chiefly, to buy back their own stock. This is happening at a time when wages have either been stuck or declining for some time, but no one is even raising the prospect of using some of their cash to give raises. And the reason for that, in large part, is that there's no bargaining table anymore at American corporations."

On unionizing low-wage workers

"There are efforts afoot to at least get some action in industries that people have long thought impossible to organize. Wal-Mart in particular, also fast-food chains in New York. I would expect to see more efforts along the Wal-Mart supply chain — for instance, the warehouse workers. That would probably be the way to impact a company like Wal-Mart, because Wal-Mart is just too big and too spread-out to do anything frontally."

On public employee unions

"One of the things unions have to hope for is that they don't suffer massive loss of members in the public sector unions because that's really their remaining area of strength. Public sector workers are unionized at a rate way higher than the 7 percent in the private sector. And those are the unions that can still wage very effective political campaigns during the elections, can still get decent benefits and wages for their members. So they have to really work on making sure that laws like the ones in Wisconsin that just eviscerated those unions don't spread to other states."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

If you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

This year was a tough one for organized labor. In June, Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor who banned collective bargaining for public employee unions, survived a recall election.

GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER: Tonight, we tell Wisconsin that voters really do want leaders who stand up and make the tough decisions.

(APPLAUSE)

LYDEN: And despite huge protests in Michigan...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

LYDEN: ...the union stronghold became the 24th right-to-work state and banned unions from requiring workers to sign up. That was 10 months after Indiana passed a similar law. We asked Harold Meyerson, editor-at-large of The American Prospect, to come back to this program for his predictions on the future of organized labor. He wasn't optimistic.

HAROLD MEYERSON: A lot of unions have gone into a somewhat understandable fetal curl. Organizing for most major unions has dried up. Meanwhile, wages, even at unionized companies, are going down because when you represent one unionized company in an ocean of nonunionized companies, you don't have much leverage.

I'll give you one example of the way this is playing out right now. The press is full of stories about how companies are sitting on well over a trillion dollars in - just their own cash. And the chief use that they are making of this cash is to buy back their own stock. This is going on at a time when wages have either been stuck or declining for some time, but no one isn't even raising the prospect of using some of their unexpended cash to give raises. The reason for that, in large part, is that there's no bargaining table anymore at most American corporations.

LYDEN: Harold, one of the things we saw this past year was, of course, the recall election in Wisconsin that was over the revocation of public sectors unions and also that, of course, Michigan has now become a right-to-work state. I have heard members of those unions say, hey, unions sometimes are their own worst enemy. They don't represent everyone's best interest. Isn't that (unintelligible) of that to some degree?

MEYERSON: While there are certainly individual members of unions who are not crazy about their unions, the aggregate effect of union shrinkage makes it absolutely tougher for workers, and there's an absolute correlation between the weakening of unions and this decline of wages.

I mean, in 1970, wages came to about 52 percent of the entire national economy, the gross domestic product. As of last year, they were 43 percent. That money is going into profits, into retained earnings. It's a shift of national income from workers to owners.

LYDEN: What do you expect to see next year in terms of organizing at the lower end of the spectrum?

MEYERSON: This is a really fascinating development. There are efforts afoot to at least get some action in industries that people have long thought were impossible to organize. Wal-Mart in particular, also fast-food chains in New York. I would expect to see more efforts along the Wal-Mart supply chain - for instance, warehouse workers. That would probably be the way to impact a company like Wal-Mart, because Wal-Mart is just too big and too spread out to do anything frontally.

LYDEN: So what do you think that portent with this decline that even if unions were able to be more robust in, say, turning back some of the right-to-work laws in various places or organizing somewhere along the supply chain for Wal-Mart that's still only be back where they began 15, 20 years ago?

MEYERSON: They'd settle in a nanosecond for being back where they were 15 or 20 years ago. They had twice the share of the workforce that they have now. One of the things unions have to hope for is that they don't suffer massive loss of members in the public sector unions because that's really their remaining area of strength. The public sectors workers are unionized at a rate way higher than the 7 percent in the private sector. And those are the unions that can still wage very effective political campaigns during elections, can still get decent wages and benefits for their members. So they have to really work on making sure that laws like the ones in Wisconsin, which just eviscerated those unions, don't spread to other states.

LYDEN: That's Harold Meyerson, editor of The American Prospect and a columnist for The Washington Post. Thank you again.

MEYERSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.