Building-level unions are a way for workers to have a say.
The Biden administration is a strong supporter of international unions. The Biden administration’s proposals for the Electric Car and Conservation Corps contain provisions that encourage unionization. Unionization is thought to automatically lead to better job opportunities and higher wages. Plant-level unions, however, are not included in the plan. This makes for little progress. The success of an international union in organizing Amazon’s New York warehouse is considered a significant event. In Alabama, the election to rerun at Walmart is also considered a major milestone. But, international unions are now limited by the availability of free trade. The “union wage premium,” sometimes advertised by such as former labor secretary Tom Perez as being 27 percent, is shown by careful studies to be 10 percent to 15 percent. It is virtually nonexistent in the manufacturing sector due to the foreign competition. This premium is found in the public sector, not private industry. It also exists for women workers whose unionized sisters work as a reserve army. A review of pertinent history reveals the bankruptcy of Biden’s administration.
An indifference to the interests of the unorganized working class explained the fate of the Clinton-era Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations, under the chairmanship of former Secretary of Labor John Dunlop, which reported in 1994. The late Secretary of Commerce Ronald Brown and Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor respectively, appointed this commission. Neither of them were hard-shell reactionaries. The commission also included Ray Marshall, Juanita Krebs and William Usery who were Labor secretary under Gerald Ford.
The commission recommended relaxation of the case law interpreting the Labor-Management Relations Act’s ban on company unions to allow management-influenced employee-participation programs to discuss local productivity deals and other terms and conditions of employment, a privilege which had been limited to international unions more completely separated from management. Such employee-participation programs had been fostered by the National War Labor Board (which had former President William Howard Taft as its co-chairman) during World War I, and their growth presaged the later growth of the labor movement. Employee-representation committees met on employers’ premises with a representative of the employer present. Membership in the AFL increased from 2,072,000 in 1916 to 3,260,000 in 1919. A bill known as the TEAM Act that embodied recommendations of the commission passed both houses with bipartisan support. However, President Clinton vetoed it at the request of Douglas Fraser, United Auto Workers. Again, Clinton indulged in his love of marching with large battalions which helped him win his electioneering.
In 1973, there were still 7.8 million unionized employees in America’s manufacturing industry, representing 38.9 percent of the industry’s workforce. By 1998, there were 3.3 million unionized employees in manufacturing, representing only 19.3 percent of the workforce. By 2016, there were only 1.4 million such employees–less than 10 percent of all manufacturing workers.
At the time President Clinton’s veto was issued, more than 4 million workers were unionized in the manufacturing sector. There are only one million today. Volkswagen decided not to construct a factory in Ohio, as the European-style work councils it is familiar with were inaccessible in Ohio. Instead, Volkswagen chose to relocate in a state that allows workers to be self-governing and has no labor organizations.
Robert Taft, the principal framer of the Taft-Hartley Act, had no objection to company unions if they were really independent and self-governing with an independent board to pass on grievances, but a union-dominated National Labor Relations Board obliterated any prospect of a revival of employee-representation committees. By 2018, even Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO was making sympathetic noises about works councils as the next-best thing to fully independent and adversarial unions. The majority of America’s workforce, which included hundreds of thousands of Wal-Mart workers (on whose union-busting boards Hillary Clinton spent nearly a decade), had become completely non-unionized and proletarianized. This was a situation Donald Trump ably exploited in his campaign to focus on Rust Belt countries that the Clintons avoided. If you’re wondering “upon which meat does Caesar feed that he has grown so great”, then the answer is in President Clinton’s trashbasket.
Neither the unions nor the Biden administration are going to be able to re-create the 1950s, when the other industrial nations had bombed each other to smithereens and Walter Reuther could dream of a guaranteed annual wage for auto workers, based on John Kenneth Galbraith’s notion that “countervailing power” allowed unions to divide protected and monopoly profits with management. These days are over.
Building-level unions are the best we can now do; at least they give workers a voice in such matters as bathroom breaks, grievances against particular supervisors, and local productivity deals, as well as valuable civic and political experience. John Dunlop’s TEAM Act needs to be revived. His time was the most important labor mediator and he had an excellent sense of the political traffic. The international-union leaders, their declining memberships and Cadillacs and conventions in Boca Raton and their complicity, Bill Clinton, betrayed him.
George Liebmann is president of the Library Company of the Baltimore Bar and the author of numerous works on law and history, most recently the anthology Vox Clamantis In Deserto: An Iconoclast Looks At Four Failed Administrations.