From the Introduction
What is a Union?
It is declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce and to mitigate and eliminate these obstructions when they have occurred by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection. —from the National Labor Relations Act
In early 2011, as I was flying from San Jose, California, to San Diego, I was engrossed reading Global Restructuring, Labour and the Challenges for Transnational Solidarity.
The woman sitting next to me was noticeably interested in my book, so we struck up a conversation. She was in her thirties and lived with her husband and two children in northern California. When she inevitably asked what I was reading, I explained it was about the global labor movement and the challenges of globalization. She looked at me intently while I explained, and when I finished she asked, “What’s a union?”
To say that I was startled by her question would be a serious understatement. But this woman was sincere, so I went on to explain what a union was and gave her a couple of examples, such as teachers’ unions. She nodded her head, and that might have ended the matter, but I suddenly realized that in spite of my explanation, she still didn’t entirely understand. It seemed I was explaining something with which she was, apparently, entirely unfamiliar. What made this both perplexing yet instructive is that this was obviously an intelligent individual, and I fear her ignorance is emblematic of many Americans who don’t fundamentally understand the raison d’être behind the labor movement.
A friend of mine, noted labor strategist and organizer Bob Muehlenkamp, has a simple answer: it’s an organization of workers. At one level, it’s that uncomplicated—an organization of workers created for a specific set of objectives.
At the same time, this definition is only an icebreaker. There are various sorts of worker organizations, ranging from sports clubs to industrial cooperatives. There are, however, a few distinguishing characteristics of a labor union:
1. It’s an organization based upon collective self-interest that focuses on issues relative to work, specifically, and to the economy, more generally. As such, it seeks to bargain on behalf of a group of workers to improve their living and working conditions.
2. It can be organized based on a specific workplace, a type of work, an industry, or in some cases, a specific geography, and seeks to build an identity of interests for these workers.
3. It attempts to take wages out of competition between workers who are fighting to improve their respective living standards, thereby opposing favoritism.
4. It seeks fairness for workers, and specifically, fair treatment by employers and governments. At their best, unions seek to democratize the workplace.
These are general characteristics, but each of them raises crucial questions. For our purposes, let’s just mention two: (1) Who are the “workers”? and (2) What is meant by “fairness”?
There’s no hard and fast response because the answers depend on your vision for what needs to be done and who you believe has a common interest. Confused yet? Perhaps a little background will help flesh out the picture. Where Did Labor Unions Come From?
In any workplace, there’s a power imbalance between those who work and those who hire workers, own the machinery, and give the orders. Workers, through their labor power, produce things to be sold. But these things (whether manufactured, services, or intellectual property) can’t be sold at cost (which includes the workers’ wages, heating/cooling, and raw materials) because the owner wouldn’t profit. Instead, they’re sold at a price that depends on both the amount of time, energy, and expertise put into the product, along with what the market will accept. The owner then takes a profit; some of it is reinvested into the business and some of that goes to the owner.
In a modern, democratic capitalist society, a worker can choose to leave their employment when they wish. However, the employer may also get rid of the worker. They may do this for economic reasons, for instance, a layoff due to a decline in business, or they may terminate the worker because they simply wish to get rid of them. In fact, termination or firing is often referred to as the “capital punishment” of employment law. Although an employer may suffer a temporary problem, such as work flow when a worker leaves voluntarily, a worker can suffer more dramatically by not being able to afford food and shelter. It’s vital to note this because there’s no equivalency between the employee’s ability to leave versus the employer’s ability to fire. Simply put, the consequences are considerably different. Added to this, there is no due process when there is a termination, unless the termination is specifically unlawful.
Most of us who have to work to survive recognize we’re in a constant state of competition with other workers. Let’s say you go looking for work. An employer may hire you based on criteria such as age, skills, race, gender, ethnicity, or what you are willing to accept as your wage or salary. Let’s focus on this last matter, for a moment.
There’s an exercise to use to see how competition works among workers, that is, how they have to compete and how that competition can be used against them by those with power. Think about a good salary and benefit package for a specific job. Now, ask the people in your group to, by a show of hands, indicate who would be willing to work at that rate. Probably most hands will go up. Then reduce the salary, wage, or benefit package by a little. Ask for another show of hands to see who would work for this amount. Keep lowering the rate. Here’s what you will most likely find:
1. As you lower the salary, wage, or benefit package, hands will stay up, but the number of hands will decrease.
2. There will be points where you yourself would probably not accept going any lower but someone else will.
3. There will come a time when no one will raise their hand, i.e., you have reached the point that the group has decided that it simply cannot accept such deterioration in their living standards.
What you have just seen is one important way that capitalism drives workers to compete with one another. There are frequently some workers who, because of their circumstances, are willing or compelled to accept a lower salary, wage, or benefit package than others. This is not a moral statement—it speaks to their desperation or life circumstances. Younger workers, for instance, tend to think less about pensions and retirement, whereas those are more pressing concerns for middle-aged and older workers.
Later I’ll discuss some of the other divisions that exist or emerge among workers, but let’s start with a basic point: because of different life circumstances, workers can effectively be pitted against one another by employers. Therefore, to decrease the likelihood that workers will be played against one another—that is, are victims of favoritism—the workers have to take measures to decrease the competition among them. One such measure is creating a labor union.
Throughout history, there has always been some form of worker organization, but with the rise of capitalism, there emerged certain organizations that aimed to decrease competition between workers. Known as “guilds,” these organizations evolved out of the Middle Ages in Europe and some parts of Africa and Asia as a means to control a specific skill. These guilds regulated how laborers were trained and, through apprenticeships, limited the number of laborers in any given craft, ensuring that those who worked would have a relatively stable income (at least in theory).
Employers responded to these guilds and other similar organizations by changing the way that work was done. Employers sought to reduce their dependency on a specific guild (or other such organization) and to weaken the control that those workers had over the production process. An example of this was the introduction of new technology for the production of clothing, making it possible to produce items faster but also with less reliance on a small number of skilled workers.
In addition to guilds, insurrectionary organizations challenged the economic system as a whole, rather than simply negotiating for control over work or better conditions. Examples of these include bond servant/indentured servant revolts in the 1600s that challenged indentured servitude, and also slave conspiracies and insurrections that challenged slavery. These insurrectionary organizations took various forms, but they and early labor unions often resembled one another and were often treated similarly by the powers that be: violent repression. In both cases, insurrectionary organizations and the early labor movement had to begin covertly. There were no laws protecting the early labor movement, and there were certainly no laws protecting indentured servants and slaves that revolted. Both of these forms of organization resembled secret societies, sometimes down to specific rituals that were practiced when new members joined. It, therefore, should not be a surprise as to the level of anti-worker violence that has been carried out throughout the colonial and postcolonial history of what came to be known as the United States of America.
Excerpted from "They're Bankrupting Us!" by Bill Fletcher Jr.. Copyright © 2012 by Bill Fletcher Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Beacon Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.