The state of the unions, 2006
By Michael M. Bates
Especially around Labor Day, union leaders like to act as though they speak for all workers. The truth is they don't even speak for all members of their unions. Organized labor's most treasured value, solidarity, has been smashed. Six million union members have left the 15-million-strong AFL-CIO for the more militant Change to Win breakaway group.
"Look for the union label" was a song featured in an advertising campaign of the late 1970s. Americans by and large have stopped looking for the union label, on jobs as well as clothing.
Years ago, saying something was made in America meant more than it does now. Items that are higher priced than goods from overseas and only marginally better in terms of quality, if that, make such products less attractive to the consumer. Half a century ago, more than one-third of American workers belonged to unions. Now, among private sector employees, membership has fallen to under ten percent.
The expanding U.S. economy has shifted from industries that traditionally have been strongly unionized. There are, though, other reasons for declining membership.
On average, union members earn more than other workers. This isn't all the result of negotiated contracts. Even without representation, craft workers like carpenters and electricians would earn above average wages because of their above average skills.
And while members are often doing very well, some union bosses are doing even better. The leader of the National Education Association earns over $400,000 a year. The head of the Service Employees International Union, comprised of janitors and other service workers, pulls down almost $250,000 in total compensation while the secretary-treasury receives over $220,000. The president of a California United Food and Commercial Workers local made just under $195,000 in 2004.
Fringes aren't too shabby either. An Ironworkers' local ponied up more than $52,000 to buy its retiring president a new car.
In May, the National Education Association and its Alaska affiliate agreed to pay $750,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit initiated by three former NEA-Alaska employees. The NEA has money to burn. It spends millions of dollars every year on political activities and in "contributions, gifts and grants." Some of the fortunate recipients are the Democratic Leadership Council, the Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network, the Reverend Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the National Women's Law Center, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and Norman Lear's People for the American Way.
I'll bet the average teacher, who earned slightly under $47,000 in the 2003-2004 school year according to the NEA, wonders why dues are going to such organizations. Probably for the same reason that the AFL-CIO is going to shoot $40 million to elect Democrats this fall.
Many unions either don't realize that their members aren't left leaning or the unions simply don't care. There's a huge gap between organized labor's leaders and members whose dues are going to causes and candidates the rank-and-file doesn't support.
One of the few bright areas for organized labor is government workers. Already earning more than their private-sector counterparts, and with unrivaled job security, a significant number of government workers have decided they need a union to get them even more.
And unions are now interested in helping illegal immigrants gain amnesty. Obviously, there's a hope that these workers can be organized and turned into dues paying members. In the end, "undocumented workers," as organized labor prefers to call them, may well represent the future of unions in the United States.
Mike Bates is the author of Right Angles and Other Obstinate Truths. This Michael M. Bates column appeared in the August 31, 2006 Oak Lawn Reporter.
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!