The Real Weakness of Unions
MAY 01, 1963 by MELVIN D. BARGER
Mr. Barger is a public relations representative in
Trade unions are in trouble. Not serious trouble, yet. But clouds are spreading over the union movement, and it seems to be losing its place in the public favor. There are loud clamors for putting stricter government curbs on unions and perhaps revoking their longtime immunity from antitrust laws.’ Meanwhile, unions are steadily losing their membership in key industries. They are also making only token progress in their struggle to organize the growing work force of white collar workers and other potential members such as teachers and the textile workers of the South. And the situation is worsening.
The press is taking note of this. Last September, an ordinarily pro-union journal of opinion featured an article entitled "Labor’s Ebbing Strength."2 The story had a decidedly pessimistic tone. The ink was hardly dry on this one before a leading general magazine published a story under the heading, "Is Labor on the Skids?"3 Not long after that another large circulation periodical jumped on the same bandwagon in a two-part series that began by asking, "Has Success Spoiled Big Labor?"4
The thread of reality weaving through all these stories is that trade-unionism is in a phase of steady retreat. "Union membership, continuing its descending curve, has shrunk to new lows for the last twenty-five years; still worse, perhaps, the enlistment of new members has ground to a frustrated halt on almost all fronts," said one writer.5 And the facts confirm this. The United Auto Workers, for example, has skidded from a membership strength of 1,418,000 in 1953 to 1,136,000 in 1960. The Steelworkers, despite their strategic hold on the nation’s economy, fell by 10 per cent between 1956 and 1960. Other big losers have been the Machinists (95,000 members in two years!), the two big textile unions (289,000 in the past decade), municipal transportation employees (75,000 gone), and the Carpenters (104,000 in six years). And these losses in membership don’t tell all the story. There is also the significant fact that organized labor is slipping in relation to the total labor force. In 1954 it was 35.1 per cent of the total nonfarm work force, but by 1960 it had dropped to 32.1 per cent.6
Still, union power is an awesome force to be reckoned with in the
Compulsion and Intervention
There is. Stated briefly, that weakness is an excessive reliance on compulsory practices and other federal interventionism. That is to say, the very policies that brought unions to great heights of power may now be working in subtle ways to destroy them. Yet labor leaders cannot abandon these policies, for the entire system of trade-unionism in the
At first glance, however, it is difficult to see the weaknesses involved in the compulsory approach. It would seem to be strength that enables organized labor to develop tremendous political power and force the passage of legislation favorable to union interests. It would also seem to be strength when most of the heavy manufacturing industries and all the transportation and communication systems are organized under union shop agreements, as they now are. It appears to be strength to have millions of workers paying their dues under the check-off system and actually being signed up for union membership by company personnel departments. But in all these things there is weakness, and it must have its day, too.
Wagner Act Concessions
It is often forgotten today that unions did not come to power by conventional means—i.e., by competing for the loyalty and support of workers and winning bargaining rights under free market conditions even in the face of stubborn employer resistance. The tremendous upsurge in unionism came only after 1935, when Congress passed the Wagner Act and effectively stripped employers of the means to resist union activity. "The justification for this position was that only through government support could labor meet management on anything like equal terms in our industrialized society, and that the time had come when the scales, always so heavily weighted in favor of industry, should be redressed in favor of the workers. Every unfair labor practice banned in the Wagner Act applied to employers and it imposed no restraints whatsoever on the unions."’
The result of tipping the scales in favor of the unions was that union membership tripled in the late 1930′s. Under the watchful eye of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), companies were prevented from issuing antiunion propaganda, hiring labor spies, establishing company unions, or interfering with picketing. Blacklisting and "yellow dog" contracts were outlawed. A revolution in labor relations was underway, and significantly the new conditions gave a powerful boost to John L. Lewis and the C.I.O., which in a whirlwind organization period of only a few years emerged as an aggressive, centralized union with strong vested interests in national politics.
A.F.L. vs. C.I.O.
From the very start, there were strong differences between the old-line union officials like the A.F. of L.’s William Green and the dynamic Mr. Lewis. "Lewis and Green are both for the New Deal," wrote H. L. Mencken in September 1936, "but it is easy to see that the New Deal wizards favor Lewis as against Green. He is, indeed, far more their kind of man. Green is a respectable Baptist, Odd Fellow, and Elk, and if he had been born on the other side of the street he might have turned out a bank cashier. or a college president. But Lewis is essentially a revolutionist."8 (Italics added).
In one year, Lewis’ C.I.O. was able to pass in membership figures all that Samuel Gompers’ A.F. of L. was able to build in 40 years! But, as Lester Velie has noted, "the difference… was that Lewis had the government with him while Gompers had the government against him."9
A Federal Responsibility
The revolution wrought by John L. Lewis and the New Deal made a complete change in traditional labor relations. The most radical change was that labor relations became a federal responsibility. Since then all other labor legislation—i.e., the Taft-Hartley Act and the Landrum-Griffin Act—has been merely varying forms of federal intervention. Ironically, the proponents of remedial legislation to discipline unions are actually arguing for more federal intervention, not less (a national Right-to-Work law, for example, would simply continue to strengthen government’s hand in labor affairs, and would probably put off the day when labor and managements can contract independently).
Having soared to power through the compulsory approach, union leaders were unable (or unwilling) to abandon it, or even to limit it. One of the sacred canons of union policy, for example, is the union shop, where all workers in a bargaining unit are compelled to belong to the union and pay dues. It is regarded as being necessary to union security, even though it does violence to the individual’s freedom of choice and endorses a principle that we would be bound to reject in many other matters.¹º
Compulsory Membership for Those Who Won’t Join Voluntarily
But there are also boomerang effects in this kind of a situation. By demanding compulsory union membership, union leaders are in effect admitting that they can’t endure the presence of even small pockets of dissenters who don’t wish to embrace their program. They have admitted that their ability to persuade and attract workers into the movement is ineffective and must be backed by coercion to succeed. They have even admitted that unionism isn’t really as popular with workers as it is claimed to be, for what need would there be to compel a worker to join an association that he wishes to affiliate with anyhow?
That is, they are admitting weakness—the weakness of being unable to promote and maintain voluntary unionism. Even a warm ally of the union movement saw excessive reliance on compulsion as a sign of weakness: "The insistence on the part of some American unions on the rule of the ‘union shop’ according to which the worker must become a member in good standing of a union in order to keep his job, is… more understandable as an indication of organization weakness. A strong union movement does not need to be provided with such pressures." This was writtenabout 20 years ago by Gunnar Myrdal, in some side observations on the labor movement in An American Dilemma, a massive study on the status of American Negroes) 1
In fairness to Myrdal, it should be noted that he apparently approved of the provisions of the Wagner Act, and may have felt, as many did, that it "redressed the economic imbalance which was previously on the side of employers." What he and others evidently did not see was that unions were practically invited to press for the "union shop" under the Wagner Act.’ Weakness or not, union leaders have seized the concept of the "union shop" as the fastest and most thorough method of concentrating power and getting membership dues.
The compulsory approach has also been applied to managements. Using their political power, trade unions are openly seeking to alter the political climate to the disadvantage of companies and to the immediate advantage of unions. (This is, of course, a game that many other organized pressure groups also like to play). Only recently Walter Reuther urged that the President be given power to seize industries and their profits when an employer balks at effective bargaining and creates a national emergency." Unions are also heavily committed to minimum wage legislation, legislation to prohibit employers from moving to other regions, and similar compulsory tactics.
A Long-Run Liability
In relying on government-sponsored advantage, trade unions are not unlike industries that seek special protection in the form of tariff or subsidy. While the legislation may seem to protect the industry at a certain stage, it must someday become a liability to the very group it is trying to protect, for it leaves them perpetually dependent on the tariff or the subsidy, and unprepared for the voluntary approach. Also, the advantages of special favors tend to disappear when other groups win the right to share them. Unions as a group have received special privileges from legislation. But now strong voices are demanding that legislation be enacted to curtail the privileges of unions. After that occurs, what will unions have to sustain them?
Well, certainly not the evangelical zeal that it would take to recruit the millions of workers still outside the union fold. At some point in their history, unions lost this. Perhaps much of that loss occurred when it became policy to accept the compulsory approach instead of the voluntary one. In the long run this may certainly prove to be a grave weakness of unions.
1 The traditional union immunity from antitrust is said to have begun with the passing of the Clayton Act in 1914.
2 By George Kirstein in The Nation,
3 By Thomas B. Morgan, in Look,
4 By Harold H. Martin, in The Saturday Evening Post,
5 George Kirstein, op. cit.
6 Harold H. Martin, op. cit. Foster Rhea Dulles, Labor in
s From H. L. Mencken on Politics, edited by Malcolm Moos (New York: Vintage Books, 1960).
9 Lester Velie, Labor
10 It should be remembered that federal intervention and compulsion of the individual worker are often one and the same thing. The union shop is an arbitrary arrangement, frequently brought about when a majority of employees in a bargaining unit vote under an NLRB election to have a union certified as their bargaining agent. The dissenting employees are then automatically forced to join the union as a condition of employment (except, of course, in the states where Right-to-Work laws supersede the federal statute). Without the NLRB, dissenting workers would not have to join the union unless they chose to.
11 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1944).
12 Under the Wagner Act the "union shop" existed in a more drastic form called the "closed shop." The latter was outlawed by the Taft-Hartley Act. Both forms involve compulsory membership.
13 According to an Associated Press dispatch of
No lasting gain has ever come from compulsion. If we seek to force, we but tear apart that which, united, is invincible. There is no way whereby our labor movement may be assured sustained progress in determining its policies and its plans other than sincere democratic deliberation until a unanimous decision is reached. This may seem a cumbrous, slow method to the impatient, but the impatient are more concerned for immediate triumph than for the education of constructive development.
SAMUEL GOMPERS, From final presidential address to AFL Convention, El Paso, Texas, 1924