Monday, September 3, 2007

Labor Unions – Reflections on Labor Day

I am not against labor unions, I was a union member myself once and come from a union family. [My father, a shoe maker by trade, was an officer of the International Shoe Workers of America union, my mother, a factory dress maker, was active in the International Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and my sister was an officer of ‘Local 1199’, representing nursing and hospital workers, until her death of Leukemia in 2004.] But labor unions today are not what they once were. Today labor unions are political tools with peculiar agendas, not the crusaders for workers rights they started out to be.

Few know that the ‘father’ of the labor union was Samuel Gompers (who incidentally, like my father, was also was a shoemaker). Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and held the position as president of the organization for all but one year from 1886 until his death in 1924. He promoted harmony among the different craft unions that comprised the AFL. Labor leader Gompers focused on higher wages and job security, he fought against both socialism and the Socialist Party. Gompers would surely feel out of place with labor unions of today that promote a socialist Democrat agenda. For clinchers, Gompers opposed Eugene V. Debs and other leftists who were opposed to America’s entry into World War I. It is not likely Gompers would align himself and the union workers he fought for with the Union leadership elitists of today that scramble for more political power and do not always represent their members’ political interests or views.

Gompers once said:

“.. . One of the main objects of the organization," is the elevation of the lowest paid worker to the standard of the highest, and in time we may secure for every person in the trade an existence worthy of human beings." [Mandel, Bernard. Samuel Gompers: A Biography (1963) p. 22].

His philosophy of labor unions centered on economic ends for workers, such as higher wages, benefits, and job security. His goal was to achieve these without political action. Gompers was against political affiliation and radicalism in the AFL. Like most labor leaders at the time, Gompers opposed unrestricted immigration from Europe because it lowered wages and opposed any immigration at all from Asia for the same reason and also because "it brought an alien culture". The AFL was instrumental in passing immigration restriction laws from the 1890s to the 1920s, such as the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and the Immigration Act of 1924, and seeing that they were strictly enforced. The link then between the AFL and the Democrat Party at the time was in large part based on immigration issues; the owners of large corporations wanted more immigration (as they do now) and thus supported the Republican party [Greene, Julie, Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881-1917 (1998)]. Big business may still nominally favor the Republican Party but certainly there is support for the majority of Democrats today calling for open borders and, unfortunately, misguided ‘Rhinos’ and the Bush administration as well.

Recent examples that unions have strayed from the earlier AFL tenets of seeking better wages and working conditions are the law suit by union leadership (with ACLU help) to stop the Social Security Administration (SSA) from noticing employers that they have illegal aliens in their employ and union efforts to deprive workers of a secret ballot when deciding if they want union representation.

The Social Security Administration currently sends what are called “no match” letters to workers and employers when there are discrepancies between names and social security numbers but the information is not shared with other government agencies. Under the new SSA rules employers who do not make a determination of citizenship status after receipt of a ‘no match’ letter could incur hefty fines and criminal prosecution because employers are prohibited by law from hiring illegal workers. The plan to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants is opposed by labor unions because “it will violate workers’ rights”. However, if anything, reducing the pool of illegal labor would seem to benefit workers because their services would be in greater demand and their wages would likely increase, but union leadership opposes the enforcement of worker-benefiting laws anyway.

The secret ballot has been a basic right of Americans seemingly forever but labor unions oppose maintaining this right when it comes to a worker deciding if they want to join the union. Right now there is a bill on California governor Schwarzenegger’s desk to remove a present requirement that there be state-supervised secret ballots when employees vote as to whether or not they want to be represented by a union. The change in these labor rules obviously opens up worker voting to union intimidation, a practice not foreign to labor unions in the past.

In both of these cases labor unions are acting more in the interests of union leadership rather than in worker interests. How far have unions strayed from the original intentions of labor union founders like Samuel Gompers?

With union leadership promoting self interest rather than worker interests and worker fairness, it is easy to see why union membership has decreased over the years. In 1950 union membership in the United States was estimated at 35%; in 1983 20.1% of workers were members of a union and according to current statistics fewer than 12% of the wage-earning work force belongs to a union. Government work force union membership is of course growing because government workers union spend a lot of money for organizing and there is little fiscal accountability; government union recruiting efforts are five times that in the private sector. Moreover, the government as an employer has no interest in responding to union organization efforts.

Presently, 21 states have ‘right to work’ laws that do not allow unions to force employees to join a union; that means in 29 states workers are not protected against pressure to join a union. If the secret ballot is eliminated, what can be expected to happen to workers’ free choice?

Unions are currently a major source of funding for the Democrat Party. Not only do Democrats oppose legislation that might interfere with political donations from unions, they also oppose informing union members how their dues are spent; let’s not forget that a significant proportion of union members are Republicans but their dues money is spent against their political views. Maintaining a secret ballot is the only way workers can decide on their own without responding to union pressure.

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