Friday, April 20, 2007

Final Essay

Here's my final essay for my Research Paper class from last quarter. I don't know what grade I got, but I know my teacher liked the essay. For 4 hours of work I don't think it’s that bad. Here it is:

Union Membership on the Decline


In July of 2005 the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations held its 50th anniversary convention in Chicago to celebrate their past accomplishments and to plan for their future. What was supposed to be a glorious week to commemorate the organized labor movement quickly turned into a nightmare for the AFL-CIO as factions from within the organizations formally severed ties, nearly breaking the union in half. What was originally intended to unite the unions together in solidarity for their cause drove leaders of six unions, including two of the largest unions in the nation to abandon the rest to pursue their own goals. The primary issue fueling the feud was the use of membership dues.
Andy Stern led the charge against the AFL-CIO as president of the Service Employees international Union, the largest union in the United States. Stern demanded that the AFL-CIO refund a large portion of members’ dues to the member unions to fund greater recruiting efforts to increase their numbers. The proposal would have refunded $35 million dollars back to the member unions for recruiting purposes (Tumulty 18). Deeply cutting
into the AFL-CIO budget would hamper their political activities used to gain political clout in Washington DC. But with declining union membership under AFL-CIO president John Sweeny opponents such as Stern believe that a change in focus is due.
The departing unions from the AFL-CIO formed their own coalition called Change to Win, spearheaded by the efforts of the SEIU and Teamsters unions. Four other unions broke away from the AFL-CIO to join Change to Win totaling six million members, nearly half of the AFL-CIO’s 2005 membership base (Prah 711). In a convention intended to address the issue of declining members within the AFL-CIO, losing nearly half of its membership came as a staggering blow.
Throughout the twentieth century Labor unions have played an important role fighting for fair treatment of employees and safe working conditions. An outcry to the federal government from unions in the early 1900s over unsafe and potentially deadly conditions in many factories led to the creation of the US Department of Labor to oversee aspects of workplace safety and to enforce the existing labor laws. The Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938 due to heavy lobbying from unions created the first national minimum-wage and the forty hour work week (Prah 718). The act also outlawed child labor in most industries and guaranteed overtime pay to hourly workers who exceeded forty hours per week.
Unions are currently becoming victims of their own historical successes. They championed against abusive employers who exploited American workers in sweat shops. They were instrumental in the formation of many governmental agencies which oversee workplace safety such as: the Employment Standards Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Bureau of International Labor Affairs, the Employee Benefits Security Administration, and the Women’s Bureau to name a few. They have fought for equal treatment for women and minority workers. Many workers now believe that there is no longer a need to join a union as much of what unions fought for in the past is now enforced by the Federal government. They see no need to pay dues to an organization that fights for something already guaranteed to them by law.
One negative stigma against many unions is compulsory membership. The state of Washington – along with twenty-seven other states – have laws which allow union membership to be a condition for employment in unionized jobs. Employees who do not wish to join the union are given no choice in the matter and are still required to pay membership dues or risk being terminated from their job. Unions support these laws as it keeps their membership higher than in states that do not require employees in unionized job sites to join unions. Opponents to these laws argue the unions are violating their right to choose whether they join the union or not. Some may believe that they derive no benefit from joining the union. Others may object to joining the union on moral grounds or because they disagree with how their dues are spent.
In 2006 the Evergreen Freedom Foundation filed a lawsuit against the Washington Education Association on the basis that it was violating the First Amendment rights of non-member teachers by using compulsory dues to fund political activity without consent. The argument before the Supreme Court is not whether workers can be forced to pay union dues but whether unions must seek permission from non-members to spend those dues for political activities (Greenhouse A24). The EFF argues that the union does not represent the political views of all of their members, but rather only those of liberal members who support the Democrat party. This issue arose during the breakup of the AFL-CIO; Andy Stern argued that the AFL-CIO was wasting millions of dollars unsuccessfully trying to get Democrats elected during the 2000, 2002, and 2004 elections when the money could have been better spent trying to recruit new members.
Unions have traditionally given millions of dollars to the Democrat party and Democratic candidates during elections. The unions also endorse candidates and encourage their members to vote with the unions’ politics. This gives unions extremely large levels of political influence from the local to federal levels of government. The unions preach that what is good for the union is good for the union member. The Democrat party has long been subservient to the leanings of the unions and pushes legislation favorable to unions. While this is reason to celebrate amongst union leaders, many businesses and union members do not support the policies being made in the name of their unions.
Manufacturing industries such as the American auto industry have long been seen as union strongholds in the US. Increased globalization has brought the Big Three to their knees as strong competition from around the world is consuming American car sales. Posting losses in the billions of dollars, Ford, GM, and Chrysler cannot compete against Japanese manufacturers such as Toyota and Honda, despite the American companies having lower prices (Naughton, 44). The Big Three have long been known for their substantial pensions for their retired employees, thanks to their unions; but these pensions are now driving the companies toward bankruptcy. American cars are now among the most expensive to produce due to high labor costs and benefits that must be paid out to current and former workers. American cars are also selling for less than their Japanese counterparts, driving the margins into the ground and often into the red.
The Ford Motor Company has taken staggering losses over the years losing $1.6 billion in 2005 and $12.7 billion in 2006. A company cannot survive in the long term by losing so much money and Ford is looking for any options it can exercise to stay in business. It has been buying out pensions from retired union employees as a way to save money in the long term. It has also announced that it will be closing several US plants and plans to lay off 25,000 American workers by the end of 2010 (McCracken, A3). In a blow to the United Auto Workers union, it has announced that it will be opening several new plants in Mexico in order to cut costs. Union officials are livid that Ford would close down existing plants in the US only to open new plants south of the border with non-union workers. Ford claims that it is too expensive to build vehicles in the US with labor costs consuming as much as 70% of operating costs (Prah, 714).
The age of globalization has had a huge impact on unions as competition is coming from every area of the planet. It makes little financial sense for any manufacturing company to assemble its parts in the US when it can operate in other countries where labor is a fraction of the cost. We have seen this in recent years with call centers being outsourced to India with the “…average hourly wage of a telephone operator in the U.S. is about $13, compared with less than $1 in India.” (WSJ 15) Unions cannot sustain the same practices that have been effective in the past by threatening to shut down an entire company with a strike in order to gain higher pay and benefits for its members. Companies now have the ability to move their operations elsewhere where it can operate at a fraction of the costs. Unions are having to adapt their views from an “Us vs. Them” approach to dealing with companies to cooperation attitude with companies (Prah, 715). Unions now have to work with companies in order to help the company remain competitive enough to keep its workforce within the United States. Despite efforts to work with employees and employers, unions are still facing a decline in members across the board.
Current union membership in the United States stands at 15.4 million as of January 2007 (BLS). This is the lowest level of membership since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting union membership data in 1983. Many union officials are quick to point out that automation and outsourcing are to blame for this decline as three million factory jobs were lost in the US between 2000 and 2003 (Prah 709) which would result in a loss of union membership. An article found in the Wall Street Journal counters this claim by stating that there has been a net gain in jobs in the US with “About 4.8 million jobs [having] been created since December 2001.” (WSJ, 15)
With Democrats being elected to majority positions in both the US Senate and House of representatives unions will regain much of their lost political clout. Favorable legislation from Congress could give unions the chance to regain much of their former power. Pending action in the US Supreme court also has the chance to damage their political contributions if they are required to seek permission from those paying dues before they can spend them for political activity. Only time will tell how the future will shape the influence and membership of unions in the years to come.
There is still debate as to the overall cause of the decline of union membership. Many believe that given the choice many workers will choose not to join a union either because they don’t like how their dues are spent, or because they don’t feel they are getting a good return on their money. Others would argue that union jobs are being lost in the US and exported to countries were labor is cheap. Still others would propose other theories. Whatever the reason, unions need to evolve in the 21st century if they are to be relevant in an emerging global economy.

1 comment:

SVC Alumnus Blogger said...

Respectfully, EFF prompted the AGO to file one of the lawsuits in 2000.

For my research on this conflict, you can go HERE and then go HERE and then click on older posts. A lot of reading yes, but some of the posts you can skip because they're ads to stop HB 2079.

Best wishes with your studies!