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The New Face of Labor Unions
Nikki McArthur • No justice, no kidding.
October 2003

“Workers’ Rights are Human Rights.” So read one of the many brightly colored signs that peppered Yale’s campus during the recent strike. Clearly, the sign’s designer had not had the opportunity to talk with AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. If he had, he would have been informed that the noisy early-morning marches, the daily rallies, and the disruptive picketing carried on by members of Locals 34 and 35 had nothing to do with workers.

“This is a crusade and a cause that goes way beyond this institution of higher learning and low morals,” Shinzong Lee of the Yale Daily News quotes Sweeney. Even more to the point is another quote from the same article, in which Harold Aken, a member of a New York firefighters’ union, declares that “Union solidarity is what this whole thing is about. Unions are being decimated in this country, and we’re not going to be destroyed by outfits like Yale University trying to stomp on us.”

But is it really “outfits like Yale” that are responsible for the recent decline in union membership throughout the nation? Union leaders love to blame greedy capitalists and evil conservatives for their declining enrollment; however, they do so at the cost of ignoring changes in both the marketplace and the workplace that past years have brought about.

It is a common misunderstanding that all conservatives oppose any kind of unionization – a misunderstanding that is perhaps unclarified by free-market conservatives who eschew empirical arguments in favor of impersonal economic models. Many conservatives are willing to grant the point that unions have played an invaluable role in our nations’ history, securing safe workplaces and fair hours for overworked and abused employees. The time when unions were needed to secure such gains, however, is rapidly fading for several reasons.

Unions were especially useful when towns developed around companies – that is, when people had very few options as they searched for jobs. Unions offered workers a way to counteract the monopolies exerted by local company plants. Today, however, the prospect of driving 60 or 70 miles to a job in a nearby town is not infeasible for most workers. Thus, company plants can no longer sustain the local monopolies they once held.

In addition, for better or for worse, today’s federal government works hard to secure protections for American workers that could at one time only be attained by labor unions. The value workers once placed in the labor movement is slowly shifting to the federal government and its elected officials.

Now that the number of advantages secured by labor unions for their members is declining, the disadvantages brought upon workers by unions are becoming more apparent. Unions are coercive; they impede the ability of their members to act in their own interests. If 51 percent of union members agree to an action, all members of the union are expected to cooperate, no matter what the personal cost. Those who would seek to deny the coercive nature of unions need only to look at the recent strike here at Yale for a sound rebuttal. Union members who chose to continue working at their jobs during the strike, either because they did not think the strike was warranted or because they simply could not afford to live on strike pay for an indefinite amount of time, were shamed and terrorized by their fellow union members, subjected to name-calling, threatening phone calls, and physical intimidation.

Many will argue that those who do not think union membership is in their best interest can always refrain from enrollment in a labor union; however, this is rarely possible. Even in places where union membership is not mandatory, non-members are often threatened and coerced into enrolling by their union-organized colleagues.

A strike is not the only time when unions can act counter to the interest of their members.

Union membership rarely comes without the idea of equal pay for unequal work, an idea which is not overly problematic in the heavy manufacturing environment that originally produced labor unions but which is certainly insalubrious to clerical and technical workers. Unions exist to promote secure wages, and thus will consistently fight against a system where increases in wages are used to reward talent or hard work.

Union membership is declining because union membership no longer provides the advantages to workers that it once did. Why is it, then, that thousands marched in solidarity with Locals 34 and 35 on Saturday, September 13th? The answer to this question is found not in New Haven, Connecticut but in Washington, D.C. Although the unions’ share of the work force has declined every year for the past 20 years – from 20 percent in 1983 to 13.2 percent today – they are consistently gaining political power. Nine Democratic presidential candidates — all of the Democratic candidates at the time – attended the AFL-CIO’s August candidate’s forum, vying for the endorsement that should be announced this month. Why are these candidates so interested in attaining the support of labor unions? Because unions have been particularly effective in mobilizing voters, with 26 percent of those who voted in the 2002 elections either belonging to union households or union members themselves. Additionally, unions remain prime contributors to Democratic campaigns.

What does this increase in the political power of union leaders mean for union members? It means that they will have to forget about workers’ rights in order to hoist the banner of union solidarity. As union leaders rise to power not by fighting for justice but by participating in the complex power games of a political machine, the interests of union members are going to be pushed farther and farther to the side. The Yale strike, in which three weeks of hard sacrifice produced a surplus of publicity but a deficit of results, is just one example of this trend.

Nikki McArthur is a junior and Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Free Press.


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