This article gives a graphic picture of the problems facing unions in the US. However, similar problems face unions in all developed capitalist societies because of the increasing strength of capital versus labor partly caused by globalisation although I am sure there are multiple factors. Labor has not seemed to be able to develop any powerful international organisations of the sort that they need to confront increasingly globalised capital.
Minus Members' Power, Unions Face Mounting Bargaining Woes
Mark Brenner, Mischa Gaus and Chris Kutalik
William Ehman got acquainted with the current direction of collective
bargaining in his industry from the back of a squad car. The former
president of Steelworkers Local 1537, Ehman led a group of nine
a mid-September union meeting to discuss current negotiations with
After the last contract six years ago, the local had stopped providing
transcripts of negotiations with the Pennsylvania specialty steelmaker.
Ehman knew the company's current offer included a two-tier wage
and a shift from defined benefit pensions to a 401(k) plan. Meanwhile
checkbook issue, a retiree health care allowance whose value had
over the past few years, wasn't going anywhere in current talks.
The local had said retirees were excluded from the meeting, despite a
provision in the bylaws that guaranteed them access. Union
told the retirees to leave, but Ehman stood his ground. Soon six police
arrived, and Ehman was hauled away from his union hall in handcuffs,
a criminal trespass complaint.
"It went beyond the pale," he said. "When you start dividing your
against itself, it's just a recipe for disaster."
A PATTERN OF A SORT
The situation of Local 1537's retirees is all too common. Indeed, if
anything the story of widescale givebacks under the gun of employers,
courts, and (yes, even) union officials has been told and retold
hundreds of workplaces in the private sector in recent years.
Two-tier agreements, double-digit wage cuts, health care cost shifts,
rule changes, and defined benefit pension and retiree health care
have occurred in one major contract settlement after another with
speed in the past six years. In one industry alone, airlines, wage and
pension concessions given back to employers since 2001 by union pilots,
flight attendants, mechanics, gate agents, and other ground crew
totaled over $15 billion.
Beyond the obvious freefall in bargaining outcomes lie nagging
labor activists. What trends drive these givebacks? What continues to
the power balance away from workers at the bargaining table?
Behind the simple answer of declining union density, lies another more
fundamental loss, the drop off of strikes, shopfloor organization, and
member-centered levers that were the heart of earlier union victories.
Though these setbacks have all been bitterly felt, they come at the end
long trailing off of the once-strong pattern bargaining agreements that
spurred economic gains for U.S. workers. Forged in the fights of the
and 1940s, the pattern agreements-codified in master contracts-grew
in most industries decade after decade until the 1980s, when the first
concession wave struck.
WHO'S THE MASTER?
Unfortunately master contracts continue to unravel in many industries.
their controversial 2007 contract with UPS, the Teamsters agreed to
44,000 UPS members out of their multi-employer Central States Pension
in exchange for organizing rights at the company's non-union freight
division. In addition to weakening a key institution of pattern
bargaining-the multi-employer pension fund-new UPS Freight Teamsters
work under a contract substantially below National Master Freight
Similar declines in master contracts have been seen in auto, grocery,
carhauling. The once-strong master contracts held by the United Food
Commercial Workers in Southern California provide a striking example.
care givebacks were so steep in the wake of the 2003-2004
that the number of workers with health care coverage fell from a
level of 94 percent to its current level of 54 percent.
Worse yet, was the break up of the UFCW Southern California master
itself. In spring of 2007 the union abandoned joint bargaining,
separate agreements between the three major chains and each of the
UFCW grocery locals in the region.
Other unions are moving in the opposite direction, attempting to
national master agreements in spite of heavy odds.
The California Nurses Association has fought to forge a master contract
13 separate agreements at hospitals in the Sutter health care chain.
Importantly, they have flexed their workplace power, launching two-day
strikes in mid-October and again in mid-December. In similar fashion
HERE's 2006 Hotel Workers Rising campaign was an important first step
towards standardizing work at large hotel chains. The Service Employees
International Union (SEIU) has also aggressively pursued industry-wide
standards in healthcare and building services, among other sectors,
sometimes resorting to controversial means such as the nursing home
'template agreements' recently abandoned in California.
The counter-trend can also be found in "old economy" workplaces. The
Steelworkers achieved a national deal with International Paper in
pulling 14 separate, staggered contracts into a uniform pact with a
expiration date. But the unity came at a cost: the national agreement
includes a no-strike clause, and introduces a lower wage tier for new
THE REAL LEGACY?
In recent years many employers have made it a top priority to shed
so-called "legacy costs"-the pension and retiree health care
long-unionized firms. Whether at the bargaining table or in bankruptcy
court, employers have waged a bruising battle to sidestep these
Pensions have been hard hit. Since 2001 corporations have dumped
for almost a million workers onto the Pension Benefit Guarantee
the government agency responsible for insuring the nation's defined
pension plans. In other cases, corporations have transferred some or
these costs onto unions through the formation of Voluntary Employees
Beneficiary Associations (VEBA), a key feature in the latest contracts
between the UAW and Big 3 automakers.
Often neglected are the substantial legacy costs associated with the
buy-now, pay-later management strategies of the last 20 years. In the
airline industry, the mergers and acquisitions boom of the late 1980s
$2 billion a year to the industry's debt service burden-and fed into
airlines crisis of the early 1990s.
After recovering ground later in the decade, carriers repeated the
binge, scrambling to expand routes and add capacity. A similar buying
took place in the California grocery industry during the 1990s, as
chains like Kroger, Albertsons, and Safeway gobbled up smaller regional
outlets. Both industries suffered in the 2001 recession.
While their creditors rarely felt any pain, debt-strapped companies
hard line with their unionized employees. The UFCW's
strike in 2004-2005 brought two-tier wages and widespread health care
shifting into Southern California's grocery industry. This pattern will
deeper, as auto-parts manufacturers, steelmakers, and others cry "me
and seek to use the moment to cast off obligations to workers.
A SUBSTITUTE FOR POWER
Caught between a declining membership and tough-minded employers, many
leaders have turned to labor-management partnerships as a solution to
current difficulties. The UAW-among the first to bat its eyes at
management-has staked its future on keeping the Big 3 automakers
competitive. As UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said last summer, "We
interest in tearing down employers. Just the opposite-we want employers
succeed so that workers have a chance to share in that success."
Despite tough talk during this fall's auto negotiations, the union
to Gettelfinger's words, accepting a less-than-fully-funded VEBA
with a two-tier wage system that sinks union earnings beneath the
manufacturing standard, as part of a package of givebacks designed to
the Big 3 afloat.
But even when unions aren't faced with shrinking numbers or non-union
competition, the promise of partnership has proven seductive. And no
champions dropping "confrontational" approaches to employers more than
President Andy Stern.
Stern explained to the Los Angeles Times on December 7 the kinds of
partnerships he seeks. "I'm talking about appreciating that [members']
employers live in a competitive environment and unions can't be an
around their competitive neck. We understand we need to organize whole
industries or whole markets or whole sectors to not put union employers
BUCKING THE TREND
Despite the positive rhetoric, partnership has not paved the way to
high-wage jobs for unions like SEIU that organize in the low-wage
service sector. Nor has it preserved good jobs for industrial unions
the UAW. Other unions, however, have chosen a different path.
Through a two-year fight that included strikes, lock-outs, and an
boycott, UNITE HERE Local 2 in San Francisco beat back concessions and
gained new organizing rights. Hotel owners fought to impose pension
exclude new hires from the health care plan for their first five years.
Instead, the union won a 64 percent increase in health and welfare fund
contributions and a 69 percent increase in pension contributions,
solid wage increases.
Equally important, the local won a neutrality agreement from all of the
owners in the city's unionized hotels, enabling the union to organize
without interference at all hotels acquired or built by those owners in
New York's Teamsters Local 804 also successfully bucked the national
of partnership and concession. During recent contract negotiations with
United Parcel Service, Local 804 voted three-to-one against the
contract and the local supplement. Although the national contract was
ratified despite important concessions, Local 804 members voted down
plement in part because it eliminated the 25-year-and-out pension
for new hires. Local 804 members won this benefit almost three decades
through a 13-week strike.
Company officials and national union negotiators put strong pressure on
Local 804 members, warning that their pensions-cut 30 percent earlier
year-would be locked in place if they rejected the local supplement.
after negotiators returned from a second round of bargaining, the new
proposal preserved 25-and-out for new hires and restored their pension
benefits, along with several other key gains.
While there is no magic bullet for winning stronger contracts in tough
times, today's success stories stand out. Union activists and leaders
have been able to buck concessionary trends have fought to do it. They
also rejected the quick-fix of partnership, recognizing that employers'
loyalties lie first and foremost with the bottom line.
Militant strikes and other job actions, while abandoned by many unions
recent years, have proven successful when part of a larger plan. But in
cases, members remain the lynchpin. Where unions are making strides,
are at the center of the process-helping formulate strategy, getting
themselves and their co-workers prepared, and making their power felt
work and in their communities.