The state of the unions (1995) | THINK TANK

Ben Wattenberg: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. The recent AFL-CIO election brought new leaders
to America’s labor movement. What happens next? Joining us to discuss the state of American
labor are Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers; Barry Bluestone,
professor of political economy at the University of Massachusetts and author of “Negotiating
the Future: A Labor Perspective on American Business”; Samuel Estreicher, professor
of labor and employment law at New York University and author of “The Law Governing the Employment
Relationship”; and Leo Troy, professor of economics at Rutgers University and author
of the forthcoming book “The Twilight of Private Unionism.” The topic before this house: the state of
the unions. This week on “Think Tank.” Unions have a proud tradition in the United
States. They fought for better wages and working conditions
for workers in the first half of this century, led by activists such as Samuel Gompers. From 1945 to 1973, a period of strong union
participation, the median paycheck of American workers doubled. But unions are now in decline. Shortly after World War II, almost 36 percent
of all workers were in a union. That number has dropped now to only 15.5 percent. And as union membership declined, so did confrontation
with management. In 1970, 2.5 million workers participated
in 381 strikes. Twenty-five years later, 182,000 workers walked
out in only 35 strikes. But all that may change. The AFL-CIO recently voted in new leadership
vowing to revitalize organizing and activism. It has been characterized by some observers
as a victory for the left wing of the trade union movement. Unions have a tough road in front of them. Many businesses are relocating to right-to-work
states, where workers have the right not to pay union dues even in a unionized workplace. The 21 right-to-work states have gained 2.7
million manufacturing jobs since 1960, while states that maintain pro-union laws have lost
1.4 million jobs. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us here. President Al Shanker, let’s go around the
room once beginning with you. Al, is indeed the American trade union movement
in decline? Albert Shanker: Well, the private sector has
been in decline, but the public sector has been growing, so the overall effect over the
last three years is that the actual number has remained pretty constant. Of course, since there are more and more jobs,
it does mean that it’s a smaller percentage of the workforce. But there’s still a lot of effective organizing
going on in the public sector. That in itself is a problem because if the
union movement should become all public sector — 80 percent public sector, I think that
the union movement will be in very serious trouble. Ben Wattenberg: Leo Troy. Leo Troy: Yes, the private-sector union movement
has been in decline, in fact, relative to the workforce since 1953 — in terms of the
total number of members, since 1970. They have shed over seven million members
in the private sector. This is an international event, by the way. It’s not limited to the United States. Every single major industrial country is experiencing
this same consequence. And I forecast that for the US, the percentage
of the private-sector union movement which will be unionized come the new century will
be what it was at the beginning of the 20th century, 7 percent of the workforce. Ben Wattenberg: Okay, Sam Estreicher, is it
a real decline? Samuel Estreicher: The union movements have
two problems. One is they haven’t organized sufficiently
to keep pace with the changes in the workforce, and it appears that the Sweeney slate will
be addressing that. But the more fundamental problem is they have
to come up with a product. Ben Wattenberg: The Sweeney slate is the — Samuel Estreicher: The new slate at the AFL-CIO. Ben Wattenberg: — the new slate at the AFL-CIO
led by — Samuel Estreicher: John Sweeney. Ben Wattenberg: — John Sweeney. Samuel Estreicher: Of the Service Employees. Ben Wattenberg: Right. Samuel Estreicher: And he promises a good
deal more organizing, and that remains to be seen. But the second problem, which is a much more
fundamental problem, is that the union movement has to come up with a product that makes sense
to private-sector workers, that meets the needs of firms in an increasingly competitive
environment and provides effective voice for those workers. And that’s where the new thinking has to
go on. Ben Wattenberg: Okay, Barry Bluestone, you
have written about the labor movement for many years. Barry Bluestone: I think Sam’s got it right. The union movement is obviously in decline
in terms of the numbers. I think probably even more importantly, it’s
in decline in terms of its political strength, both with the changes in what’s going on
in state legislatures and what’s going on in Congress. The union movement doesn’t have as many
friends as it used to have, and therefore politically it’s not as strong. But I think Sam is also right. It really — the struggle for the trade union
movement is to win back the hearts and minds of the workers of this country, and that’s
going to require a reinvention of what the trade union movement is like. At the bottom of the income distribution,
of the low-wage workers, we’re going to see some real exciting new organizing campaigns. At least Mr. Sweeney and the new leadership
have promised that. The real question will be: For the vast number
of workers in the economy, from those who are in white collar, those in blue collar,
those who are professional and technical workers, is it possible for the trade union movement
to create a new kind of trade unionism which appeals to the modern worker? Ben Wattenberg: Okay, at this AFL-CIO convention
that is supposed to design us or move us into a great era of prosperity, the new number-two
man, Richard Trumka of the Mine Workers Union, had been quoted as saying if his slate is
elected — and it was — that it would be “business’ worst nightmare.” Now, is that what labor ought to be doing
now? Leo Troy: The change in the leadership — the
French have an expression covering that. “The more things change, the more they stay
the same.” I don’t think it makes any difference what
he uttered or it makes any difference what Sweeney has promised. The economic, the market, the international
forces, and the weakness that Barry has pointed out — the political weakness of organized
labor in this country — make it clear to me that we’re going to have more of the
same. I mean their rhetoric is not a substitute
for results. Samuel Estreicher: If I can speak to Trumka’s
rhetoric, I think that he has never read Gompers 101. Sam Gompers, who was the former and founding
member of the AFL, understood that unions could only survive if they could spread the
cost of unionization across all competitors, and that was sort of his fundamental insight
that brought the AFL to the place it once had. Ben Wattenberg: They never brought it to all
competitors. At their high point, they were only a third
of the working force. Samuel Estreicher: At their high point, they
were a third of the working force, but where they were strong, they organized virtually
the entire product market. So, for example, in automobiles, you know,
the CIO organized all of the automobile manufacturers and the construction beforehand. Leo Troy: What about the Japanese transplants,
Sam? I mean, competition still works, and it — Ben Wattenberg: The Japanese auto transplants
— Leo Troy: — are basically — are nonunion. Ben Wattenberg: — are nonunion. Leo Troy: Honda, Nissan. As a matter of fact, the UAW sought to organize
the Nissan plant in Tennessee several years ago. They lost by two to one, and this is a major,
powerful, well-organized, well-led, well-financed union, and they flopped. Barry Bluestone: But I think the reason why
they flopped, Leo, was that they were still coming with the old organizing strategy. And what I’m hoping will come out of the
new AFL leadership are some new strategies, some new ideas as to how to appeal to workers. You’re also going to see that the international
cooperation is going to be important. You’re going to have the Metalworkers’
Federation in Germany helping the UAW organize the BMW plant here in the States. Ben Wattenberg: Is it — Barry, is it wise
for the new union management to talk about making a nightmare for American business? Does that make any sense? Barry Bluestone: I think — I don’t think
it’s wise, and I think it’s taken out of context. I think what Rick Trumka was saying, what
the leadership has been saying is that for those firms who think they can roughshod over
labor, they’re going to have a new strengthened labor movement out there to contend with. But I’ve also seen leaders all through the
AFL-CIO, from George Becker of the Steelworkers to Steve Yokich of the UAW, sitting down with
responsible management and developing new forms of unionism which both focus on raising
the productivity and quality and innovation of the firm to make them internationally competitive
and give the employment security to workers as a result. Ben Wattenberg: Al Shanker, we have heard
about Gompers 101. What is Shanker 101 on what happened really
in that convention, the emblem of which might be this sort of very tough sort of language
that Trumka used? Is this — was this a move to the left? Was it a fair convention? Albert Shanker: Well, let me say that I think
we ought to not necessarily take campaign speeches too seriously. We don’t in the general politic, and I think
we ought to exercise the same judgment insight of union elections. I don’t know whether — I think some of
the unions in the coalition that won are further to the left, traditional or old left, than
the labor movement has been in the past, but not all of them. And I think it remains to be seen whether
the whole movement goes that way or not. Ben Wattenberg: Let me just question you on
one thing. As I understand it, you feel that the actual
operation of the convention was unfair or rigged. Could you explain what your grievance was? Albert Shanker: Well, it was a very unpleasant
experience because, first of all, everybody came with — the people on the Sweeney side
had manuals, actually, which said, “Cheer at this point,” or “Make this statement,”
or — et cetera. We have a copy of the manual. We managed to get one. So the whole thing was scripted, and each
day a different shirt, a different uniform, a different cheer, and so forth. But there were 500 delegates that came from
unions that pay a lot of money — they pay dues, and there were 500 delegates rounded
up from very central labor bodies. Basically, these were sort of bought votes. They were central labor bodies that never
sent anybody before and — Ben Wattenberg: Bought by the Sweeney side. Albert Shanker: Yeah, they were brought there. And by having 500 people in the hall who were
not dues payers, that was enough to prevent a roll-call vote on issues, so that one of
the things that people left the convention with — of course that we’re all going
to try to make it work, we’re all trade-unionists, we’re all in trouble, and we’re not going
to continue a whole bunch of infighting. We’re going to pull together, and on some
issues we’ll differ. But people did leave with somewhat of a bad
taste — namely, that you couldn’t get up and make a statement without being hissed
or booed and that you couldn’t really get a roll-call vote because 500 people were brought
in who don’t pay a nickel to the AFL-CIO. And they had enough votes, really, on the
floor to outvote those who pay millions and millions of dollars. Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Barry. Barry Bluestone: I think it’s important,
Ben and Al, to note that there was need for change in this organization. The AFL-CIO did not have the allegiance of
most workers in this country. I’m a union member. I’m a member of the UAW, and I’m also
a member of the National Education Association, which is a union outside the AFL. And I think a lot of people voted for the
Sweeney slate, the one that won, on the basis that they wanted to see real change. And they saw the need to send a message to
workers in this country that there were new people in charge. And that’s what it basically came down to. Leo Troy: Could I pick up on this point of
change? We heard from Barry before about new ideas,
new leaders. Let’s take one of the new leaders. The central new leader — let’s call him
the operating general in this — and it’s Trumka. What has he accomplished as the leader of
the United Mine Workers? Here’s a union which today if it has 30,
maybe 40,000 members, it has a lot. Once upon a time, the United Mine Workers
had 600,000 members. This is the person that’s going to lead
this new onslaught to organize workers? The union’s been fined numerous times. I mean, this is the new leadership of the
new ideas. What are the new ideas? When you say new ideas, Barry, what is a new
idea? Barry Bluestone: What am I talking about? Well — Albert Shanker: This is the Gary Hart approach,
“new ideas.” [Laughter.] But where were they? And it was a Simon-esque campaign. There were no new ideas in the campaign. Furthermore, all the people who ran for office
were sitting at that table with me, as a member of the executive council, for 5, 10, 15 years. If they had a new idea, I would have heard
it. [Laughter.] But there may be new ideas that come out of
this now because there are a lot of promises that were made in the course of the campaign,
but there weren’t any so far. Ben Wattenberg: Your position, as I understand
it, is a trend in motion will stay in motion. I mean that it’s gone down in the private
sector and it’s going to — Leo Troy: Exactly. Nothing has changed. You see, look, the international competition
which has brought down the private-sector union movement is not only continuing; it’s
gaining power. You mentioned movement of companies to the
right-to-work states. What you ought to also mention is that companies
are moving below the Rio Grande River. Companies are moving to the Far East. Samuel Estreicher: Leo, isn’t it a mistake
— I mean, the market forces are very important. I believe in them. But you have this view that they are 100 percent
and there’s no room for human behavior to change some outcomes. I think that it’s a mistake to focus on
the AFL-CIO level. The AFL-CIO is a service provider for the
national organizations. We ought to be focusing on what the national
organizations do and whether they’re meeting the needs of the companies that they have
organized. The problem is companies compete with other
companies. Companies don’t have an alliance of interests. The international represents a force, a multiemployer
force, that doesn’t correspond to the interests of the particular companies they organize. Ben Wattenberg: So you think that in this
day and age, simply put, unions are not useful? Samuel Estreicher: Unions as multiemployer
organizations that are fundamentally seeking to push an industry wage pattern, that is
I think a thing of the past. It is not — and the problem is that the
existing AFL organizations believe that that is still fundamentally what they are about. That’s what Richard Trumka believes he is
fundamentally about. And that has to change, or some other organization
will develop. Ben Wattenberg: Barry. Barry Bluestone: What you’re finding is
it is changing, and it’s changing because of the market forces that Leo talked about. But what you’re finding is that those same
trade union leaders who presumably weren’t making any change are starting to develop
whole new ways of dealing with management. You take a company like Magma Copper, a big
copper producer out in Tucson, Arizona. This is a company that was going bankrupt
in 1988. A new relationship between the union and the
company, 15-year accord to put some employment security and get that company going, 86 percent
increase in productivity, in large measure because the union workforce has helped do
that. The CEO of that company, in fact, ran a full,
you know, quarter-page ad in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times praising the
union for their help in rebuilding that company. That’s a small, little example of what could
be done. I think Leo is absolutely right: The future
looks bleak — unless we see those kinds of changes on a larger scale. Ben Wattenberg: You know, why does Al Shanker
say that he has sat for five, 10, or 15 years with the very people at the executive council
table who are now in charge, and he wonders, you know, where are all those new ideas? I mean, he was there. Barry Bluestone: On the board that Al sits
on and that he voted for, last year the AFL-CIO board passed a magnificent statement, “The
New American Workforce,” in which they laid out a blueprint for the kinds of changes that
we’ve been talking about here. The problem is that we’ve just not seen
it — Leo Troy: Look, they laid out a blueprint
back in 1984 or 1985. They had the Lou Harris Associates do a study
for AFL-CIO. And they had a program, and they were predicting
how this is going to turn things around. You know, again, I hate to repeat that French
expression, but the more things change, the more they’re still staying the same. Nothing has changed. Ben Wattenberg: You have been concentrating
sort of on facts — and very elegantly and, it sounds to me, very accurately. What is your opinion of those facts? The fact that private unionism is diminishing
in the United States, is that good, bad, or indifferent? Leo Troy: I would like to rephrase your question
to this extent: Does it make the United States economy more competitive? And I’ll answer that question. If you want me to say it’s good, I’ll
say it’s good because it makes the American economy more competitive. And that’s a fact. Barry Bluestone: I totally disagree, Leo. The fact — Leo Troy: Well, naturally. I mean, you know, we heard previously that
unions tried to establish a uniform wage across the economy, which they never succeeded in
doing. I mean, some unions were successful to a limited
extent, like the steelworkers. But what really counts in addition to the
wage level is just the productivity of those workers, union labor costs. Barry Bluestone: And productivity of union
labor in general is higher than nonunion labor. Leo Troy: That is a — Barry Bluestone: The work that’s been done
on this shows it over and over again. Leo Troy: I know, but I have a lot of reservations
about the authors of those studies. They’re the same authors who for 10 years
said that the Canadian union movement was booming; the American union movement was collapsing. Ben Wattenberg: I mean, you think they are
in labor’s pocket, those scholars? Leo Troy: Oh, there’s no doubt about it. I don’t think there’s any question about
it. Barry Bluestone: They’re not necessarily
in labor’s pocket, but even they concede that unions are bad for the profits of a firm. And if unions are bad for the profits of a
firm, capital moves out of the union sector and builds up the nonunion sector, goes to
the South and elsewhere, so that even they concede that point. And there are measurement questions about
productivity. Ben Wattenberg: Al, your favorite institution
is being attacked. Albert Shanker: Let me say, there are two
— at least two new ideas as to how the union movement can ultimately grow. One is to temporarily forget about selling
the union and in the body politic develop rights for workers as workers, not in terms
of unions. The right of all workers to, let’s say,
organize their own little thing in their workplace, to have meetings; the right for them to elect,
just for their own group, a representative who would speak to the employer, and that
employer is required periodically to talk to that person. Not a union. These are just a bunch of people there. Now, so that’s not unionism coming in. This is, hey, these are a bunch of people. If they want to meet there to discuss their
problems, why shouldn’t they? If they want to talk to the boss, it becomes
a very different issue. Now, ultimately that does, in some places,
lead to unionism. So that’s one new idea which would be a
road for building. There’s a second one. Almost every poll shows that about 35 percent
of working people say that they would like something like a union. That would be a lot of people. Ben Wattenberg: What percentage? Albert Shanker: About 35 percent. Now, the trouble is it’s hard — in order
— the way the union movement has been organizing up to now, you go into a shop and if you don’t
get 50 percent plus 1 in election, you don’t have anything, because nobody is organizing
the 35 percent who don’t conveniently — you know, aren’t in places where they’re in
appropriate bargaining units, and in an election you get 51 percent. So if the union movement were to go out there
and start organizing on a different basis, in other words, organize the way the American
Association for Retired Persons does, say, “You’re a worker. All right, you don’t have 51 percent, but
you’re a worker. You want to join the AFL-CIO or you want to
join the American Federation of Teachers” — we’ve started doing this — “join
as an individual.” We will have discount benefits — Ben Wattenberg: The American Federation of
Teachers. Albert Shanker: Yes, and it has helped us
in our regular organizing drives because if you organize people as individuals because
they want discount insurance, they want travel, they want an identification — by the way,
they also want conferences, they want training, they want all sorts of things that professional
associations provide. Now, when we get a certain concentration of
these people, we write them and say, “Hey, do you know that there are 85 people in your
community who are members of the AFT? Would you like to have a meeting and get together?” We have actually organized very extensively
in both Texas and Louisiana using that technique. Ben Wattenberg: All right, Leo Troy looks
as if he’s going to jump out of his seat here. Leo Troy: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity. Look, that 35 percent figure was — as an
ancient history tool. It was most recently regenerated by the Dullop
Commission. And what they forget to tell the world is
that means that 65 percent said they don’t want unions. That’s exactly what the Lou Harris survey
found for the AFL-CIO. They didn’t get wide notoriety, but 65 — actually,
it was two-thirds, said they would not vote for a union in a secret-ballot election. So the point is that, as far as this other
form of representation, it reminded me, Al, of the 1920s and early ’30s, of the employee
representation plans — of course, not with the employer in charge of that plan. These ideas — Albert Shanker: That’s a big difference. [Laughter.] Leo Troy: Well, at this moment, they’re
not legal because the — the National Labor Relations Board has said that these plans
are employer influence. Albert Shanker: The only — Ben Wattenberg: All right, now listen, hold
on a minute. We are running out of time, and I want to
take the opportunity — I’m going to give Al Shanker the last question here. Al, you started out in the labor movement. You were regarded as quite a radical when
you organized the New York City teachers. There’s a Woody Allen movie that talks about
the future where when Al Shanker is president of the world, he’ll blow up an atomic bomb. Albert Shanker: Drop the bomb. Ben Wattenberg: Drop the atomic bomb, right. Albert Shanker: “Sleeper.” Ben Wattenberg: Right, “Sleeper,” right. You are now regarded as an eminent and tough
moderate, if I may characterize — eminent, tough, and activist, but moderate in this
fight that recently happened, certainly. What happened in the intervening year? And why were you what you were then, and why
are you what you are now? Albert Shanker: Well, I think am what I was. [Laughter.] And, you know, if this were a different program,
I’d make the case as to which of the — you know, and if this were before the AFL-CIO
election, I’d make the case as to who really stood for change. Ben Wattenberg: Right, that the traditionalists
really stood for change, and you do. Albert Shanker: Yes, because first is that
the proposals that I just made, which would really transform the labor movement substantially,
were by and large rejected by the people who are now the winners. I mean, these were ideas put forward by Donahue
and by Kirkland and which I supported, and we lost on them. So there have been quite a few changes proposed,
but not by the side that won. Now, of course, they’re up to bat, and we’ll
see what changes they propose. Ben Wattenberg: Right. Let’s just end this now quickly, going around
the room, starting with you, Barry Bluestone. Let’s look into the future five or 10 years. Are we going to see a big change for the better
or the worse? Barry Bluestone: Well, I think if we continue
to have trends in wages down, trends in insecurity up, there’s a chance — there’s a chance
— for the trade union movement to organize lots of workers. But they’re going to have to change their
stripes and give us a new kind of unionism before that’s going to happen. Ben Wattenberg: Okay, Samuel Estreicher. Samuel Estreicher: Well, I agree with what
Barry said. They have to change. They have to organize more, and they have
to change their product so that in fact we see more labor-management cooperation, we
see a provision of voice for workers that takes account of the needs of the firm. Ben Wattenberg: Okay, Leo Troy. Leo Troy: I don’t see much change coming
out of this new leadership and the AFL-CIO in general, and I foresee a continuing decline
of the private sector and continued stability with a little growth in the public sector. Ben Wattenberg: Al Shanker. Albert Shanker: I don’t know whether it’s
going to come, but there is an opportunity there and the pressure is there. A lot of promises were made, and I think there
will be an effort to fulfill those promises. So I think it will be an exciting time. Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Thank you, Albert Shanker, Barry Bluestone,
Leo Troy, and Samuel Estreicher. And thank you. We enjoy hearing from you. Please send your questions and comments to
New River Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20036. Or we can be reached via email at [email protected]
or on the World Wide Web at For “Think Tank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Inc., in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.

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