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Why Do Millions of Workers Reject Unions That Promise Higher Pay and New Benefits?

Disclaimer - The following article is reposted here because it is an issue with some relevance to the IWW. The views of the author do not necessarily agree with those of the IWW and vice versa.

By Harry Kelber ( First in a series of six articles)

They publish and distribute tons of costly literature that point up the strong advantages of belonging to a union. They provide evidence that union members earn more and have better benefits than non-union workers for doing essentially the same job, and that it applies equally to women and minorities.

As a union member, they will no longer be subject to the whims and unilateral decisions of their bosses. They'll have a union with lots of resources and influence to protect them. They'll have a "voice" in improving conditions in the workplace and deciding on the terms of the union's collective bargaining contracts.

That sounds like a pretty good deal for unorganized workers. So why aren't they rushing to union halls in droves to sign up? Are they so happy with their situation on the job that they don't need or want the generous help that unions can provide?

If we're going to continue to spend millions of dollars on organizing with such disappointing results, we should at least find out why the union message is falling on deaf ears--and then make significant adjustments to improve labor's appeal.

In the past ten years, the nation's top labor leaders have failed to come up with winning solutions. They've tried just about everything to coax non union workers to see the light. Unions have been pouring still more money into organizing and given it their highest priority in the hope that it will solve this vexing problem. They've been holding strategy sessions, workshops and meetings with their best organizers to find a magic formula that will enable them to grow. But nothing seems to work. (Maybe they should offer non-union workers a signing bonus to induce them to join.)

In the 1950s, the decade when the AFL-CIO was founded, union members represented 35 percent of the nation's work force. When one in three workers belonged to a union, organized labor had sufficient clout to negotiate improved contracts. Today, only one in eight workers (12.2 percent) belongs to a union. In the private sector, fewer than 8 percent of workers are union members.

Unless that trend is substantially reversed, organized labor will continue to shrink into an impotent and irrelevant institution in American life; workers will suffer reduced wages and living standards, as well as the erosion of their rights on and off the job. But with all the attention focused on this life-or-death problem, unions haven't come up with a clear, workable plan to rejuvenate the labor movement.

How Unions Explain Their Failures to Organize

Labor leaders don't take responsibility for their failures to organize. They place the blame squarely on "aggressive," anti-union employers and the timidity of their workers. To make their point, they publicize a series of intimidating statistics supplied by Cornell University researchers. A few samples:


  • 25% of employers fire at least one worker for union activity during organizing campaigns.
  • 75% of employers hire union-busting "consultants" to help them fight organizing drives.
  • 78% of employers force their workers to attend one-on-one meetings with their supervisors to pressure them against unions.
Such figures are enough to discourage not only workers but even union organizers. One wonders how 16 million workers ever managed to become members of unions.


Apparently, the only way union leaders think they can fight the employers is by "shining a light" on how they intimidate their workers. However, the publicity has not deterred employers from using every legal, and sometimes illegal, tactic to defeat union organizing campaigns.

Labor leaders have concluded they won't be able to recruit those 40 to 50 million workers who say they'd like to join a union, unless Congress enacts the Employee Free Choice Act that would give workers the freedom to join unions without fear of intimidation by employers, who would be subject to strong penalties for violating the law.

But while union members are urged to send e-mails and make phone calls to Washington in support of the pro-worker legislation, you won't find a single labor leader who believes that the bill has a chance of passage before at least several years, if at all. It's been years since organized labor had the clout to push through a major piece of legislation.

AFL-CIO's Organizing Director, Stewart Acuff, reflects the prevailing opinion and mood of the labor bureaucracy when he says: "As long as it takes an extraordinary act of courage for workers to join a union, we'll not be able to realize the dream of progressives." If it seems that hopeless, why spend time and money on organizing?

When Were Bosses Nice to Unions?

Were employers kinder and gentler in the 1930s when millions of workers from virtually every trade and occupation responded to the call to join the CIO? Here's a bit of labor history you may not be aware of:


  • There were more than 100 strikebreaking agencies in the country, on call for any employer faced with "labor trouble." They specialized in breaking up picket lines with lead pipes, baseball bats and the butts of rifles. (As a labor reporter, I witnessed a group of these goons bloody a picket line of middle-aged waiters during a strike at a famous New York restaurant.)
  • In 1936-37, the LaFollette Civil Liberties Committee reported that major corporations had accumulated "industrial munitions," such as submachine guns, tear gas, grenades and rifle ammunition that could be used in industrial disputes.
  • These weapons were used during the Little Steel strike in 1937, when Youngstown Steel and Republic Steel employed a uniformed police force of 400 men, equipped with rifles, revolvers and shotguns, to shoot at strikers if they did not disperse.
  • On May 30, 1937, the Chicago police opened fire on picnicking strikers and their families near the Republic Steel plant, killing 10 unarmed workers and injuring more than one hundred.
  • The LaFollette committee also disclosed that some 2,500 corporations had long followed the practice of hiring labor spies from agencies like Pinkerton and Burns, that specialized in industrial espionage. In a four-year period, industry hired 3,781 such agents who infiltrated 93 unions, with some actually becoming union officials. Those corporations spent a total of $9.4 million for spies, strikebreakers and munitions, with General Motors alone accounting for $830,000.
CIO leaders and unorganized workers weren't cowed by the fear inciting use of corporate power. The CIO went ahead to organize hundreds of thousands of workers into functioning unions. The CIO gave birth to a new crop of young labor leaders who could mobilize their members whenever militant action was necessary. Why can't today's union leaders follow their example?


Widespread Mistrust of Unions by Workers

Most workers get their news about the labor movement from the business-controlled media. What they hear and read about unions and their leaders emphasize their shortcomings: declining strength, corrupt officers, exorbitant salaries, a lack of democracy, lost strikes and legislative failures. Since labor leaders rarely respond to these charges, workers are led to believe they must be true. And unfortunately, many of the charges are true.

So what is the future of the labor movement? Is it doomed to decline into oblivion, as an organization that once served working people well, but has outlived its usefulness? Can the two labor federations reinvent themselves into a more attractive image to millions of unorganized workers? Are there other alternatives?