Local Labor, Still Left Behind
Unlike international unions, building-level unions give workers a voice.
Of late, the Biden administration has embraced the cause of the international unions. Its electric-car and Conservation Corps proposals contain provisions designed to foster unionization. It is suggested that unionization automatically means better jobs and better wages. But plant-level unions are no part of the agenda, which makes little progress. An international union's success in organizing an Amazon warehouse in New York is treated as a momentous event, as is the re-run of an election at a Walmart facility in Alabama.
But, with the development of free trade, the international unions have little to offer. The "union wage premium," sometimes advertised by such as former labor secretary Tom Perez as being 27 percent, is shown by careful studies to be 10 percent to 15 percent. In the manufacturing industry, it is literally non-existent because of the force of foreign competition. The premium exists chiefly in public service, not private industry, and for women workers, whose non-unionized sisters are a reserve army outside the labor force.
The bankruptcy of the Biden administration’s approach is revealed by a review of relevant history.
An indifference to the interests of the unorganized working class explained the fate of the Clinton-era Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations, under the chairmanship of former Secretary of Labor John Dunlop, which reported in 1994. This commission was jointly appointed by Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and the late Secretary of Commerce Ronald Brown, neither of whom were hard-shell reactionaries. It included two other Carter-era Democratic cabinet officers, Ray Marshall and Juanita Krebs, and William Usery, who served as Labor secretary under Gerald Ford.
The commission recommended relaxation of the case law interpreting the Labor-Management Relations Act’s ban on company unions to allow management-influenced employee-participation programs to discuss local productivity deals and other terms and conditions of employment, a privilege which had been limited to international unions more completely separated from management. Such employee-participation programs had been fostered by the National War Labor Board (which had former President William Howard Taft as its co-chairman) during World War I, and their growth presaged the later growth of the labor movement. Employee-representation committees met on employers’ premises with a representative of the employer present. Membership in the AFL increased from 2,072,000 in 1916 to 3,260,000 in 1919.
A bill called the TEAM Act, which embodied the commission’s recommendations, passed both houses of Congress with bipartisan support, only to be vetoed by President Clinton at the behest of the commission’s only dissenting member, Douglas Fraser of the United Auto Workers. Once again, President Clinton indulged his penchant for marching with the big battalions that helped his electioneering.
In 1973, there were still 7.8 million unionized employees in America's manufacturing industry, representing 38.9 percent of the industry's workforce. By 1998, there were 3.3 million unionized employees in manufacturing, representing only 19.3 percent of the workforce. By 2016, there were only 1.4 million such employees—less than 10 percent of all manufacturing workers.
At the time of President Clinton’s veto, there were still more than four million unionized workers in the manufacturing industry. Today, there are barely one million. Volkswagen declined to build a plant in Ohio because the European-style works councils with which it was familiar were unavailable in that state, preferring to locate in a right-to-work state where there would be no labor organization at all.
Get weekly emails in your inbox
Robert Taft, the principal framer of the Taft-Hartley Act, had no objection to company unions if they were really independent and self-governing with an independent board to pass on grievances, but a union-dominated National Labor Relations Board obliterated any prospect of a revival of employee-representation committees. By 2018, even Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO was making sympathetic noises about works councils as the next-best thing to fully independent and adversarial unions. By then, most of the American workforce, including hundreds of thousands of the workers of Wal-Mart (on whose union-busting board Hillary Clinton sat for nearly a decade), was totally non-unionized, proletarianized, alienated, and embittered, a condition ably exploited by Donald Trump in a campaign focused on Rust Belt states avoided by the Clintons. Those asking “upon what meat doth Caesar feed, that he is grown so great” can find the answer in President Clinton’s wastebasket.
Neither the unions nor the Biden administration are going to be able to re-create the 1950s, when the other industrial nations had bombed each other to smithereens and Walter Reuther could dream of a guaranteed annual wage for auto workers, based on John Kenneth Galbraith’s notion that "countervailing power” allowed unions to divide protected and monopoly profits with management. Those days are gone.
Building-level unions are the best we can now do; at least they give workers a voice in such matters as bathroom breaks, grievances against particular supervisors, and local productivity deals, as well as valuable civic and political experience. Revival of John Dunlop’s TEAM Act is called for. He was the leading labor mediator of his time and had a keen sense of what the political traffic would bear. He was betrayed by the international-union leaderships, with their shrinking memberships, Cadillacs, and conventions at Boca Raton, and their accomplice, Bill Clinton.