Some people must have been startled by President Obama’s decision to draw a line in the sand on collective bargaining in his jobs speech to the Congress last week. Specifically, the President said: “I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy."
Given the current anti-union tenor of many prominent Republicans, started by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, it seems pretty clear that worker rights is shaping up to be a hot-button issue in the 2012 campaign. Collective bargaining rights as presidential campaign plank? It wasn’t that long ago that anything to do with unions was considered to be an historic anachronism – hardly worth a major Republican presidential candidate’s trouble to bash. Times have changed.
The nation has just celebrated Labor Day, yet few Americans have any idea why. As high school students, most were taught little about unions—their role, their accomplishments, and how and why they came to exist.
This is one of the conclusions of a new report, released today by the Albert Shanker Institute in cooperation with the American Labor Studies Center. The report, "American Labor in U.S. History Textbooks: How Labor’s Story Is Distorted in High School History Textbooks," consists of a review of some of the nation’s most frequently used high school U.S. history textbooks for their treatment of unions in American history. The authors paint a disturbing picture, concluding that the history of the U.S. labor movement and its many contributions to the American way of life are "misrepresented, downplayed or ignored." Students—and all Americans—deserve better.
Unfortunately, this is not a new problem. As the report notes, "spotty, inadequate, and slanted coverage" of the labor movement dates at least to the New Deal era. Scholars began documenting the problem as early as the 1960s. As this and previous textbook reviews have concluded, our history textbooks have essentially "taken sides" in the intense political debate around unions—the anti-union side.
The impact of these textbook distortions has been amplified by our youth’s exposure to a media that is sometimes thoughtless and sometimes hostile in its reporting and its attitudes toward labor. This is especially troubling when membership in private sector unions is shrinking rapidly and the right of public sector unions to exist is hotly contested.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Those who wish to dismantle public services in the U.S. seem to share a general belief – accepted, to some extent, even by people who generally support public sector spending – that government is a massive, incompetent blob. At the federal level, I have always found this somewhat strange, since around two-thirds of federal spending goes towards Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and national defense, programs that are generally popular and widely regarded as successful.
Survey data indicate that people do trust state and local government more than they do federal government, but the level of confidence is still not particularly high. Americans also appear generally unwilling to pay higher taxes to preserve public services (except for education), and most accept that state and local government is too large and much of it is superfluous. But when people are asked about specific programs, they tend to respond favorably. This suggests, among other things, that people may have general perceptions of "government" without full knowledge of all the roles government plays.
So, I thought it might be useful to take a quick look at how public dollars actually are spent. After all, it’s our money, and it’s always good to keep track of how our elected officials are spending it.
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.
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.
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.