Two other readers respond to my column on the decline of private-sector unions.
I was a labor attorney for the government for a number of years, and have generally followed their path since. I would beg to differ with your analysis as to the basis of Union's failures. It is not that there isn't employee fear and desperation--it is out there--see “outsourcing” for example. No, the Unions did this to themselves by taking the easy way-- they relied on politicians to make their agenda. Instead of bargaining minimum wages, safety, discrimination, etc. etc.-- they lobbied the Labor Department to enforce the Fair Labor Standards Act; instead of bargaining to get safety, they got Congress to pass the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); Instead of hitting the bricks for pensions--they lobbied through the Employee Retirement Income Securuity Act (ERISA); the list goes on. In doing so, they also put all their eggs in the Democratic basket, which to no ones surprise is not always the party in power. To the victor go the spoils, and the victor lately has been Republicans, who promptly de-emphasized OSHA, Fair Labor Standards, etc. - and the Unions don't know what to do about it. Well, actually some do. Witness the recent rift in the AFL-CIO, with one faction saying let’s go act like unions and organize and demand benefits, the other traditional factions sticking with the failed policy of courting politicians.
I had a phone call from a retired business representative of a local craft union that had friendly relations for many years with the Teamsters. He recalled a luncheon when Teamster leader Dave Beck, then retired, spoke about the problems of unions. By this man’s account, Beck said, “The problem with unions is that the business reps are too lazy to get off their butts and go organize. You’ve got to organize! Organize anything! But organize!”
Organizing is hard work, and the benefits mandated by law to all employees, organized or not, make it more difficult. So do the benefits in the nonunion sector, which are better than they used to be. Maybe that’s why the SEIU (Service Employees International Union)—the union that left the AFL-CIO—concentrates on organizing some of the lowest-paid workers. Yet it has always been tough organizing the bottom.