John Buell

Unions, Worker Rights and Economic Progress

A friend of ours, a recent college graduate who now lives in Germany, just emailed some good news: "Yesterday, my employer presented me with a written job offer. A monthly salary of E3,000 [circa $4,000] before taxes, a title of Manager in Marketing/Communications, a provisionary time of 6 months (during which I can technically be fired with a notice of 4 weeks), 30 vacation days per year, and the possibility for a bonus that is calculated on the number of projects that we complete annually that I think, could reach as high as E5,600." If you only read George Will (See his early March syndicated column, "Dwindling Unions Seek Employer Muzzle"), your immediate reaction might be to repeat the standard business press mantra: Europe is going down the tube because workers have too much power. A rookie employee must get a month's free vacation and even in the first six months has to be given a month's notice before you sack him! Though our friend's position is not covered by a union, he and many other European workers have achieved comparable benefits and protections due to heavy union density and laws enacted by union-backed social democratic parties.

Here in America, workers and bosses are cut out of tougher stuff. Not only do bosses not want unions, so, we are told, most employees don't want them either. Unions, Will suggests, have used the excuse of anti-union pressure by employers to explain their declining presence. He contends that "such supposed pressure is one of organized labor's alibis for declining membership. There are, however, ample protections against employer pressures that really are abusive. Today's work force is marvelously flexible. People entering the labor market at age 18 will have, on average, 10 employers by the time they are 38. Such mobile workers often do not see what value union membership would add to their lives."

One wonders what Will means by abusive practices? For a law-and-order conservative, Will takes a curiously lax attitude toward lawlessness on a massive scale. Even George Bush's National Labor Relations Board, the most conservative and pro-business in the board's history, has found illegal management activity, usually firing suspected union supporters, in one of every four union elections. The kind of free speech of which Will claims to be so solicitous evokes employer intimidation because the penalties are trivial. In a recent email exchange, Matt Beck, an organizer for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, pointed just how heavily the cards are stacked against union activists here in my home state of Maine: "I have to warn these union activists that there is a fairly good chance that they will get fired for their organizing activities. If they do, we will fight to get them their jobs back, but in the meantime all of their co-workers will be so freaked out that the union campaign is likely to fail."

In recent years, American workers have been very productive, but they have been unable to recoup their fair share of productivity gains. In the last three decades, the period in which corporate employers have been conducting their most systematic attacks on unions, worker compensation gains have trailed gains in their productivity by fifty percent. Many Maine and US workers are aware of these facts. Polls conducted over many years show that more workers want some form of independent voice in the workplace. As Beck points out, union members aren't getting rich but "at least they are earning a respectable wage. And they have a voice at the table, which is something conservative ideologues such as George Will clearly resent."

European economies have problems, but their performance belies the simple conservative notion that low taxes and "flexible", i. e. non-union, workplaces are the key to prosperity or competitiveness. A recent study by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives shows that European nations have not had to sacrifice economic gains in order to afford a reasonable level of protection for the most vulnerable and basic workplace rights for all employees. Unlike the US, Europe runs a consistent balance of trade surplus.

The Nordic states are especially strong along such economic performance measures as unit labor costs and high GDP per hour worked even as they have achieved greater income equality, more leisure time, and higher levels of social satisfaction.

American corporations now enjoy inordinate privileges in our law. They are legal persons with guarantees of limited liability that protect their investors against any loss greater than the amount of their initial investment regardless of how socially or environmentally destructive their corporate performance.

Corporations that deny basic rights of self-protection to their workers should lose their corporate charter. American corporations function best both for their investors and the larger society when they face some effective countervailing power. US workers, no matter what their level of education, are unlikely to enjoy the kind of job our friend has recently been offered as long as US managements can so easily crush efforts to discuss let alone commence unionization.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2007

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2007 The Progressive Populist.