From its beginnings, the union movement has worked on the principle of unity or solidarity. Union leaders recognized that they would succeed or fail based on their ability to get their members to understand the need to support union workers in other companies.
Union workers were expected to honor picket lines set up by other unions. The phrase “Look for the Union Label” was used to teach union workers to buy union-made items even if they cost a little more. The principle was clear. United we stand – divided we fall.
This worked well while all unions had basically the same interests and purposes. Sadly, that is no longer the case. There are now two groups of unions with conflicting goals and aims. One benefits at the expense of the other.
The peak of the union movement in private sector industries occurred in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Their decline coincided with the rise of public sector unions. That is not just happenstance.
There are now essentially two types of unions. The first is the traditional factory or extraction union. These include steel workers, auto work workers and miners. The members of these unions work for companies which face financial reality. Other companies, union or non-union, compete on price and quality. If a company prices itself out of the market, it goes bankrupt.
The union leaders negotiating with these companies understand limits exist. They will differ with the company on exactly where those limits are, but they understand there are constraints.
The second type of union has government workers. Here the constraints are less clear. The public must deal with various government agencies regardless of their efficiency or the quality of their work. If there is too little money, the cry goes out for higher taxes. If private schools compete too effectively with public schools, the teachers unions work to make it illegal or at least difficult for people to have or afford this option.
Inefficient and over-priced government services hurt private sector employees and their unions in many ways. Wage increases in a new labor contract are meaningless if they don’t surpass tax increases. Other government fees also impact the cost of living of private sector employees.
The worst damage comes from inefficient or deliberately obstructionist government programs. These programs may benefit government workers, but they hurt everyone else.
In many cases, the permit issuing and regulatory agencies at all levels of government are growing by the day. This helps government workers and their unions, but the added costs and delays in starting a business or keep it going leave less money for employee salaries, even when a factory is built.
The current efforts to use the EPA to effectively stop the building of power plants and raise (even double) the costs of energy will be a disaster for the private sector. Factories will close, companies will move – probably out of the country.
Traditionally, private sector unions needed the help, or at least neutrality, of the government in their organizing efforts. They have worked to have minimum-wage legislation and workplace-safety laws. It is easy to see why they would resist seeing the government as the enemy. The public sector unions have been able to take advantage of that.
The time has come for this to change. Private sector union members are supporting candidates and elected officials like Chris Christie who are taking on the government unions. I believe the membership is ahead of their leaders on this.
The other area where the members are leading is party affiliation. Union members are increasingly indifferent to party label. They are looking for candidates who at least seem to share their concerns about jobs. This is shown by the large swing in their votes from one election to the next.
Union leadership feels itself locked into the Democratic Party. This is reasonable since the Republicans are, on most issues, in opposition to labor’s position. The problem now is that neither party supports the private sector.
Union leadership is boxed in. They can’t support a party which in many ways still opposes them. But, the party which helped them in the past is now actively working to reduce private sector jobs in all the areas the unions have been able to organize.
The idea of a third-party in American politics is probably unlikely. But, the time has come for the private sector union leadership to join their members in opposing candidates and political platform planks (like environmental proposals) which work to destroy private sector jobs.