Labor is Not a Four-Letter Word

Several years ago, an upscale supermarket opened in Princeton, where I live. The store was non-union and members of the local UFCW were picketing. Not only did virtually all of my liberal Democratic neighbors cross the picket line as if it weren’t there, when I asked them about it later, they laughed at me.

There was a time when Americans, or at least Democrats, understood the importance of unions. That time has passed. While Democratic leaders support unions and the right to organize, many people who drive a Prius, are pro-choice, oppose the war in Iraq, and support gay rights don’t believe that unions are important. They believe that unions made sense in the 1950’s, in a mass production industrial economy, but that they don’t fit in with the new flexible information based economy.

They couldn’t be more wrong. As the song says, “the fundamental things apply as time goes by”. A fundamental rule of employment is that compensation is a zero sum game. Workers and management can cooperate to increase productivity and increase profits. But when it comes to dividing up the pie, a dollar that goes to management bonuses or shareholders is a dollar that will not go to workers.

Rule number two is that there is strength in numbers. While unions may have less bargaining power than in the past, workers negotiating as a group inherently have more leverage than workers negotiating on their own. Union members continue to earn significantly higher wages and benefits than comparable workers who do not belong to a union. This has always been important to working families. A few thousand dollars a year can mean being able to afford a modest vacation or building a college fund for their children. The extra income received by union workers is especially important at a time when wages are stagnating.

The other principal benefit of unions is less commonly recognized. Despite the greatly publicized exceptions, the law of employment at will reigns in the American workplace. Hard data is elusive, but after 10 years at the helm of the ACLU’s national employment rights office and almost 10 more as head of an independent workplace rights group, I have lost count of the workers who have called me after being fired for the most outrageous reasons imaginable. My personal “favorite” was the man from Pennsylvania who was fired for filing a policy report when he was assaulted by a co-worker who was a drinking buddy of the boss. Although one could argue that the man from Indiana who was fired for having a few beers in a neighborhood tavern after work (the employer was a teetotaler) or the woman from Alabama who was fired for having a “Kerry for President” bumper sticker on her car should win the prize. In virtually all of these cases (including these three), I had to tell the workers, “there’s nothing anyone can do to help you”. Everyone else I know in the field has comparable stories to tell.

This doesn’t happen in union shops. Collective bargaining agreements invariably contain a provision that allows discharge only for just cause, as interpreted by a neutral arbitrator. Just cause protection is like life insurance; there’s a good chance that you won’t need it, but having it when you need can save your family.

How we acquired our collective amnesia about the importance of unions is a mystery. Some chalk it up to well-publicized stories of union corruption. But Enron’s “Kenny Boy” Lay and other board room bandits have received equal coverage, if not more, without turning Americans against management.

What is clear is that Americans need to hear more about unions and how they help real people. Workers that belong to unions need to tell their friends and neighbors about how the union has improved their lives. And labor needs to tell these same real life stories in its public education programs.

The battle isn’t lost. Most Americans still care about what happens to ordinary people when they go to work. They just need to be reminded about how unions make people’s lives better.

About the Author: Lewis Maltby is founder and president of the National Workrights Institute, a not-for profit organization dedicated to expanding human rights into the workplace. Maltby has testified before Congress many times regarding electronic monitoring, drug testing, arbitration of employment disputes, the right to organize, and other issues. He is the author of 6 model statutes on which more than 40 state statutes have been based.

Maltby’s remarks on workplace rights have been featured the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Time, Newsweek, and other major publications. He has appeared on Larry King Live, Oprah, Crossfire, NPR, and other major television and radio outlets.

Prior to founding the Institute, Maltby was director of the ACLU’s national workplace rights project and executive vice president of Drexelbrook Controls, Inc., a leading manufacturer of industrial control systems. He began his career as a public defender in Philadelphia, Pa.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.