Today’s labor unions are not the violent mobs of the past. Compared to present corporate America, labor unions are docile. There are far more recorded incidents of illegal and unethical practices by American corporations, such as tax evasion, price fixing, bribery, and fraud, then there are of labor unions. But accusations of improper and questionable behavior of labor unions appears to be more of a media focus.
Unions have had to overcome a reputation as corrupt. Past union leaders have been associated with mob bosses and the misuse of union funds. The mention of so many corporations that have raided employee’s retirement funds is evidently overlooked. It wasn’t the few examples of union misuse and abuse of funds that led to the establishment of the Employees Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), an act that establishes standards for private sector pension plans, as much as it was the failure of private companies to maintain its fiduciary duties to keep those plans fully funded.
A 2022 Gallup Poll shows that 84 percent of households in the United States have no union member living within the home. Yet, the same poll finds that 71% of Americans approve of labor unions.
United Auto Workers at three targeted automobile assembly plants of Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis (Chrysler) went on strike at midnight on Friday, September 15. In the past, public reaction to the strike would have been heavily negative toward the union and union workers. However, according to Morning Consult Pro: “By a 2-to-1 margin, U.S. adults surveyed said they would support [the strike] by the UAW if they are unable to reach an agreement with the Big Three.”
Of course, there’s a caveat to those figures. Fewer than fifteen percent of the people surveyed had considerable knowledge of the issue. Still, it’s good news for organized labor. Labor’s rotten reputation since the Haymarket Affair riots of 1886 have been a burden with a small exception throughout the 1950s. In the eyes of some Americans, union leaders are seen as goons and thugs; leaders are referred to as bosses, although the ultimate boss is the collective voice of members.
Why have so many people in the past hated labor unions? A labor union is not much different than the Farm Bureau, your local chamber of commerce, the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, the Iowa Bar Association, and the Iowa Judges Association to name just a few. Each of those associations of people and entities are organized to protect and advance the rights and interests of its members. That’s the definition of a labor union. Sort of. A labor union in Iowa must also protect and advance the rights and interests of employees who are not members of the union.
A labor union, as an association like the aforementioned organizations, works to protect and advance the rights and interests of its members in a particular trade or profession. It accomplishes this goal in a similar manner as so many other entities, through legislation, negotiation, and if necessary, the courts.
Fair Share is the concept of charging non-union workers a fee to compensate the union for costs incurred by the union to represent them. I made a remark about how it was difficult for anyone to not understand the concept. Immediately, a Farm Bureau lobbyist jumped out of her seat and attacked me for my comments. I was left to point out that unions are the only organizations that have to represent people who are not members. On the other hand, if I want benefits offered by other organizations, for instance, the Farm Bureau’s health insurance, I have to become a member of the Farm Bureau. Why is it different with unions?
“Quarterly profits have surged by more than 80 percent over the last two years.” In a recent social media post, President Barak Obama wrote that “when the big three automakers were struggling to stay afloat, my administration and the American people stepped in to support them. So did the auto workers in the UAW who sacrificed pay and benefits to help get the companies back on their feet. Now that our carmakers are enjoying robust profits, it’s time to do right by those same workers so the industry can emerge more united and competitive than ever.”
If you’ll recall, two out of the three auto makers’ CEOs took the money, with no oversight, paid themselves and filed for bankruptcy.
What is it in a memory that allows a person to recall negative aspects of one entity (unions) but not the other (corporate greed)?
I anticipate that with today’s intelligent and ethical labor leaders, tomorrow’s unions will not only grow exponentially beyond the participation of the 1950s, but will gain the respect they deserve.
This article first appeared in the Fall issue of the Prairie Progressive. The Prairie Progressive is Iowa’s oldest progressive newsletter, founded by Jeff Cox in 1986.
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