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  • What Makes A Union Successful?

    Written on September 5, 2011

    On Labor Day, we reprint the following passage from Al Shanker's "State of the Union" speech at the August 1992 AFT convention in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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  • Grand Bargaining

    Written on September 2, 2011

    With Labor Day upon us, I’ve found myself thinking about three apparently unrelated pieces of sociological research, and how all point to the role of laws, policies, and institutions as "signalers" of the social values that we share.

    First, in an unpublished paper, Stanford University’s Cristobal Young examines the role of unemployment insurance in encouraging prolonged job search effort. Second, in a talk earlier this month at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Shelley Correll (also at Stanford) discussed how greater awareness of laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) make it harder for employers to discriminate against those who take it. Third, a recent article by Bruce Western (Harvard University) and Jake Rosenfeld (University of Washington) argues that unions contribute to a moral economy that reduces wage inequality for all workers, not just union members.

    I think that these three pieces of scholarship tell a similar story: policies, laws and institutions have impact beyond their primary intended purpose. Unemployment benefits are more than the money one receives when jobless; laws pertaining employment rights are more than rules enforced by the imposition of sanctions; and unions are more than organizations seeking to improve their members’ wages and working conditions. These policies, programs, and institutions also have a symbolic importance—they signal a consensus about what we value and desire as a society which simultaneously shapes the lens through which we judge our own behavior and that of others.

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  • Big Labor?

    Written on August 3, 2011

    As you may know, Congressional Republicans have stalled legislation to reauthorize the operation of Federal Aviation Administration, partially closing down the agency since July 25 at the cost to the U.S. government of $30 million a day in lost tax revenue. This state of affairs will continue at least until Congress resumes in September. What you may not know is that the source of the dispute is whether airline and railroad workers in the  private sector should have the right to organize unions by winning a simple majority of votes (the way elections are conducted in every other public- and private-sector union election). Republicans are against this, and are instead insisting that unionization should require a majority of all possible votes within the unit, irrespective of turnout.

    For me, at least, this was objectionable in and of itself, but it's always a little odd to hear the rhetoric used by some Republicans in these types of situations, specifically when they are reported to see themselves fighting off an advance by "big labor" in the private sector.

    Big labor. The pejorative is beginning to carry the ring of someone living in a time warp. What do I mean?

    Most people know that union membership in the U.S. has declined over the past few decades, but it seems that many aren’t aware of the extent and breakdown of this trend. So here are the basic data on union membership over time.

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  • A "Decent Work" Solution To America's Jobs Crisis

    Written on July 21, 2011

    Decent work? Some days, it sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? It also brings to mind an old saying, favored by the AFL-CIO’s late president, Lane Kirkland, that if work were so great, the rich would have kept it for themselves.

    But the truth is that work is one of life’s realities. For most people, it is the sole source of income. Work also can bring great personal satisfaction. Whether self-employed or working for a large multinational corporation, we all aspire to jobs that are interesting, safe, and pay a good wage with benefits – a job that can support a family, with something left over. Even these days, when people are happy to have ANY job, we still want THAT kind of a job: Decent work at decent pay.

    But "decent work" is much more than a daydream – it is a concrete social and economic policy issue that is at the heart of a decade-long campaign by a major United Nations agency, the International Labor Organization, (ILO). Since 1999, the ILO, with support from member governments as well as employer and labor representatives, has pushed the "Decent Work Agenda". This document declares that "work is central to people's well-being." Not only does work provide income, it can bring about broad "social and economic advancement" and strengthen "individuals, their families and communities", in other words, "decent work" creates "upward mobility" or as Americans often put it, "raises all boats."

    But these broader "social and economic" gains don’t come with just any work, the ILO argues.

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  • Q: Do We Need Teachers' Unions? A: It's Not Up To Us.

    Written on June 21, 2011

    I sometimes hear people – often very smart and reasonable people – talk about whether “we need teachers’ unions." These statements frequently take the form of, “We wouldn’t need teachers’ unions if…," followed by some counterfactual situation such as “teachers were better-paid." In most cases, these kinds of musings reflect “pro-teacher” sentiments – they point out the things that are wrong with public education, and that without these things unions would be unnecessary.

    I’d just like to make a very quick comment about this line of reasoning, one that is intended to be entirely non-hostile. The question of whether or not “we need teachers’ unions," though often well-intentioned, is inappropriate.

    It’s not up to “us." The choice belongs to teachers.

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  • Who Doesn't Trust Unions?

    Written on June 16, 2011

    In a previous post, I noted that confidence in organized labor really hasn’t changed that much over the past 30 years, even though union membership has been declining steadily.

    This got me thinking about what kinds of factors (such as individual characteristics) are associated with being anti-union, and I decided to run a couple of simple, rough models to get an idea (keep in mind that this is a very quick treatment). As you might recall from the previous post, respondents in my dataset (the General Social Survey) were asked whether they had “hardly any," “only some," or “a great deal” of confidence in organized labor. In 2010, 60 percent said that they had only some confidence, 30 percent hardly any, and a mere 10 percent asserted a great deal of faith in unions. For the purpose of simplicity, I will refer to those with "hardly any" confidence as “anti-union."

    I have to start with a few quick, optional-reading details about my data and analysis (read the notes in the graphs below if you want more information). Because so few people expressed “a great deal” of confidence, I collapse this category into the “only some” response, creating a two-category outcome variable measuring whether or not the respondent had “hardly any” confidence. The models I use (binary logit models) control for a variety of factors that might influence union attitudes, including marital status, party identification, income, race, parenthood, education, gender, age, year, labor force status, and whether or not one (or one’s spouse) is a union member. I limit the sample to respondents 21 or older, and to increase sample size, I pool data from the 2006, 2008 and 2010 surveys, for a total sample of 3,849.

    The results were a bit interesting.

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  • As Membership Has Declined, Have Attitudes Toward Unions Changed Too?

    Written on May 26, 2011

    The sharp decline in U.S. union membership over the past 30-40 years is well known, but does it reflect a change in attitudes towards organized labor? In other words, is decreasing union membership accompanied by decreasing support for labor?

    Of course, if attitudes have in fact changed, they might be both exogenous (membership declines because support decreases, leading to fewer unionization drives and less political support) as well as endogenous (support decreases because membership declines, as fewer people are exposed to unions and to the benefits of membership) to unionization levels. And, to some degree, attitudes and membership likely change independent of each other.

    In any case, it’s worth taking a look at how attitudes towards labor have changed over the past few decades. In the graph below, I present simple trend data from the General Social Survey (GSS), which has been administered either annually or semi-annually since 1972. Every year, the GSS queries respondents’ confidence in a number of major societal institutions, including organized labor. Granted, there is a difference between having confidence in unions and supporting them per se, but I think it’s safe to assume that the former is a decent indicator of the latter.

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  • Public Employee Unions And Voter Turnout

    Written on May 10, 2011

    During the recent debates over public employees’ collective bargaining rights, especially around the Wisconsin protests, I heard a few people argue that Republican governors are intent on destroying public sector unions, at least in part, because union members are more likely to vote – and to vote Democratic.

    The latter argument (union members are more likely to vote Democratic) is generally true (also here) – although the union "effect" on candidate/party choice is of course complicated. The former argument (more likely to vote in general) is also valid, but there is some underlying public/private variation that is both interesting and important.

    As is almost always the case, isolating the effect of a given factor (in this case, how being a union member affects the likelihood of voting) requires one to compare how this factor “operates” on people who are otherwise similar. For example, in a previous post, I compared public and private sector workers’ earnings. In order to uncover the “effect” of public sector employment on earnings, I used models that controlled for other relevant, measurable factors, such as education and experience. In doing so, I was able to (imperfectly) ensure that I was comparing public and private employees who were similar in terms of skills and qualifications.

    The same basic concept applies to voting.

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  • Seize The Day?

    Written on March 2, 2011

    Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s determination to destroy collective bargaining rights for his state’s public employees has generated a lot of hyperbolic rhetoric from both sides. Some conservatives have taken particular umbrage at demonstrators’ signs likening Walker to Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Hosni Mubarak. They are right that Walker is not akin to these brutal, murderous dictators, who solidified power by crushing independent unions. Indeed, they need not look overseas at all to find anti-union inspiration. The U.S. has its own rich tradition of union-busting – albeit considerably less fierce than in these particular dictatorial regimes.  

    This information is just a mouse-click away. Anyone with access to the internet can easily trace the history of violent state and business response to unions and union organizing in America, dating back 150 years. It’s not just the infamous Pinkertons and other thugs hired by business. Police, the National Guard, even federal troops have been used to brutally suppress workers’ efforts to form their own unions. Homestead, Haymarket, Ludlow, Pullman, the 1937 Battle of the Overpass – all are storied examples of incredibly violent action against workers and their organizations.

    This sort of drama, punctuated by carnage and death, is pretty much a thing of the past. With the passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act, anti-union judicial decisions, global outsourcing, and the emergence of union-busting consultants, quashing unions has become, well, child’s play. America’s private sector unions have been on the defensive for better than half a century, with membership eroded to only seven percent of the private sector workforce. With Wisconsin, the attack against public service unions is well and truly launched.

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  • A Wisconsin Moment For Our Education Policy Debate

    Written on February 24, 2011

    There is an obvious, albeit somewhat uncomfortable connection between what’s happening in Wisconsin and what’s been happening in education policy discussions.

    A remarkably high proportion of the discussion is focused – implicitly or explicitly – on the presumed role of teachers’ unions. The public is told that our school systems are failing, and that teachers’ unions are at least partially to blame because they protect bad teachers and block “needed” reforms such as merit pay. In this storyline, unions are faceless villains that put the interests of adults above those of children.

    Wisconsin represents a threat to this perspective in at least three important manners.

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