Labor Unions, What are They Good for?

By: Peter Larocque – June, 2011

As the City of Lawrence prepares itself to begin budget discussions on the FY-2012 Budget, I thought it would be good to review some background information concerning Labor Unions. According to Wikipedia, the Web-based free encyclopedia, labor unions in the United States are legally recognized as representatives of workers in many industries.

The most prominent unions are among public sector employees such as teachers and police. Activity by labor unions in the United States today centers on collective bargaining over wages, benefits, and working conditions for their membership and on representing their members if management attempts to violate contract provisions. Although much smaller compared to their peak membership in the 1950’s, American unions also remain an important political factor, both through mobilization of members, and through coalitions with activist organizations around issues such as immigrant rights, trade, health care, and living wage campaigns.

Today most unions are aligned with one of two larger umbrella organizations: the AFL-CIO, American Federation of Labor- Congress of Industrial Organizations created in 1955 and the Change to Win Federation, which split from the AFL-CIO in 2005. Both advocate policies and legislation on behalf of workers in the United States and Canada, and take an active role in politics favoring the Democratic Party but not exclusively so. American union membership in the private sector has in recent years fallen under 9% – levels not seen since 1932. Union membership had been steadily declining in the US since 1983.

In 2007, the labor department reported the first increase in union membership in 25 years and the largest increase since 1979. Most recent gains in membership have been in the service sector while the number of unionized employees in the manufacturing sector has declined. At the apex of union density, (the percentage of workers belonging to unions), in the 1940s, only about 9.8% of public employees were represented by unions, while 33.9% of private, non-agricultural workers had such representation. In this decade, those proportions have essentially reversed, with 36% of public workers being represented by unions while private sector union density had plummeted to around 7%.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics most recent survey indicates that union membership in the US has risen to 12.4% of all workers, from 12.1% in 2007. For a short period, private sector union membership rebounded, increasing from 7.5% in 2007 to 7.6% in 2008. However, that trend has since reversed. In 2009, the union density for private sector stood at 7.2%. There have been many studies made as to possible causes of the drop in union density; the following is a brief list of some of the findings.

* Reduced popularity of unionization among workers.

* Changing market structure.

* Receptiveness of unions, (where unions are responsible for distribution of unemployment insurance and centralized collective bargaining.

* Access to the workplace.

* Employer acceptance.

* Fluctuations of business cycles.

* Rise and fall of unemployment rates and inflation.

* Globalization. (NAFTA)

Now that you have before you a brief background and explanation concerning Labor Unions, what do you think? Are they still necessary?

Personally, I have never had the opportunity to work for a company that was unionized. The only hands on experience I have with unions was when I was a member of the Lawrence School Committee where I participated in some of the negotiations that took place. Of course the largest union we had to deal with was the teachers union. I can remember back around 2007-2008 when we were told that we were going to get a lot less Chapter 70 money and in order to meet the budget gap, the discussion of potential layoffs began.

All the unions came to the table and were willing to make concessions to avoid layoffs except one, the Teachers Union. The very first act by the executive board of the teachers union was to march down to the Human Resource Department and get the seniority list. The reason for this is because of their “last one in first one out” policy. This policy is reason enough for me to question their sincerity; I say this because it is in the “NEW” teachers where you find the excitement and enthusiasm which brings in the creative energy attached with “New Ideas” to effectively reach and motivate our children to learn. This is where the following quote comes from, “Teacher’s Unions eat their young”.

In my humbled opinion, I think the teacher’s union should take the lead and come to the table with a more efficient way to deal with and if need be, dismiss bad teachers. With the way the rules are today, it is next to impossible to get rid of bad teachers. My definition of a bad teacher is one who can’t or no longer can effectively motivate a child to learn.

For example, when a singer’s voice gets very weak and they keep singing well past the time they can reach notes that they were very capable of but now need a large orchestra to cover for them, it is time to stop singing! The same goes for teachers, if they need the Union to keep them at their job, it’s time to go!

In conclusion, concerning “Collective Bargaining” what’s the big deal? In the private sector, a company makes a job available, with that comes the pay scale and benefits. You are free to except the terms of employment or keep looking elsewhere. Why working in the public sector should be treated different is beyond me! Why do we as tax payers allow public employees to demand special treatment for accepting a job just doesn’t make much sense to me, maybe I am too naive? Don’t you just love city budget discussions?

God Bless!