Monday, April 25, 2011

Unions, What Are They Good For?

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
The WSWS reports that the big three automakers, after slashing 250,000 jobs and receiving billions of dollars in taxpayer bailout money, scored record profits in 2010 of $11 billion, due primarily to declining wages, factory speedups and downsizing. The big three are now planning to hire 35,000 new workers. With the full complicity of the United Auto Workers (UAW) who negotiated a sell-out contract, new hires will be paid less than $15 per hour, less than half the traditional wages of auto workers and many will be hired as temporary workers who can be fired at will.  The two-tiered contract also slashed existing employees’ wages.

A Union Loved By Bosses Is A Useless Union
The big three weakened the UAW (and increased profits) by shipping thousands of jobs overseas, resulting in high unemployment and declining wages in Michigan. Now, with a large army of unemployed workers desperate for a steady income, the big three can start hiring locally again, but this time at low wages, and still remain competitive with foreign auto producers. The U.S. has so decimated its labor movement that its labor force has become attractive to European companies seeking to increase their profits. Fiat, for example, is planning on shifting production of several models to North America in order to lower production costs, with a resulting loss of 16% to its domestic workforce in Italy. Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said, “It’s a pleasure to negotiate with U.S. trade unions,” indicating that the UAW has served the interests of capital well, not labor.

A strong union should be feared and despised by the bosses, not loved or enjoyed, and it should help drive up wages and working conditions locally and abroad, not lower them. Consider that the Mirafiori Fiat plant near Turin forced its employees to accept dramatic rollbacks by threatening to ship even more production to the U.S., where labor is cheap (see Reuters, “Fiat’s Italian Investment Rests on Union Vote”). The new Mirafiori contract forbids workers from striking, forces 10-hour work shifts and triples mandatory overtime.

Stockholm Syndrome: Union Leaders Who Love Bosses
UAW President Bob King said “Relationships with Marchionne are extremely positive, we believe in him a lot,” reports the WSWS. Of course, union bosses and capitalist bosses have a symbiotic relationship not shared by workers. The union bosses want to maintain their jobs and their six-figure salaries and their opportunities to hob nob with politicians, philanthropists and wealthy liberals. This can only happen if their unions continue to exist and continue to funnel members’ dues into their coffers. Capitalists like Marchionne are only too willing to allow this so long as the union leaders serve as their bulldogs and enforce their demands on the workers.

This can be seen in a resolution passed last month by the UAW bargaining convention (quoted in the WSWS) which said “In order to promote the success of our employers, the UAW is committed to innovation, flexibility, lean manufacturing, world best quality and continuous cost improvement… We are moving on a path that no longer presumes an adversarial work environment with strict work rules, narrow job classifications or complicated contract rules.” In other words, the union agrees to enforce factory speedups, increased productivity, downsizing and anything else that will increase profits, regardless of how that affects working conditions and wages.

Of course it is not really a Stockholm Syndrome. The union bosses are not being held captive by the capitalist bosses. They are birds of a feather. Consider that the UAW has assets of $1.13 billion, according to the WSWS, paying out $3.4 million to its top 24 officers, who earned an average of $142,000 last year, plus another $80 million salaries and perks for 1,000 staff members who also averaged more than $100,000 each.

The relationship between the UAW and other mainstream unions with their members is a dysfunctional codependent relationship that is detrimental to the interests of workers. In the name of “saving jobs” or “collective bargaining” the unions continue to keep their members dependent on them, while whittling away at wages and working conditions for the benefit of the bosses. The unions, thus, are complicit in the downward spiral of living conditions that has plagued the majority of Americans for the past forty years (e.g., the minimum wage in 1968 had 25% more buying power than it does today, while the purchasing power of the average 1972 wages was higher than today’s average wages).

Many argue that unions continue to provide a few important services, like fighting for members’ due process rights. However, when we look at the bigger picture, it is clear that many unions have actually become workers’ class enemy, as they give away more and more wage and benefits concessions and contribute to workers’ pauperization. What use are rights when one cannot afford rent, mortgage, healthcare or nutritious food? What use is due process if it just keeps one in a job that is dangerous and abusive and that barely (or doesn’t even) pays bills? Why fight for collective bargaining if it is only used to win contracts with declining pay and benefits?


  1. The above poignantly points of that the IWW preamble is just as true today as when it was written: "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common."

  2. The author of this piece is still living in 1905, with the IWW, "A strong union should be feared and despised by the bosses, not loved or enjoyed..."

    We currently have a union density problem, and a hostile House of Representatives to deal with. This affects the ability to have a strong bargaining position.

    Ralph Lyke
    Local 624, UAW
    Upstate New York

  3. Thanks for the history, Anon, and the news that fellow worker Ralph Lyke is alive and well.