Landscape | Fall 2019 Issue

Unions Battle for Survival

Americans like unions, but labor is on the defensive. A note from the front

By Ted Rohrlich

Jono Shaffer stood in the parking lot. It was after midnight, dark as his chance for success.
At 2 a.m., janitors finished cleaning a nearby high-rise. About 30 of them gathered around him. Shaffer and a colleague told them about the advantages of unionizing.

Without warning, headlights from two cars stabbed through the night. The janitors’ supervisors climbed out.

“What the hell’s going on?” one shouted.

Shaffer’s audience fled.

The memory is burned into his mind. A veteran organizer for the Service Employees International Union, he knows about setbacks. His experience illustrates an employer-tilted balance of power in America, where workers say they like labor unions but don’t join them.

In the latest Gallup Poll, which has tracked public attitudes toward organized labor for many years, nearly two-thirds of Americans say they approve of unions.

But membership is in steady decline. At its peak in the 1950s, one worker in three belonged to a union. Now the figure is one in 10.

The decline is unrelated to how well labor performs its basic task: winning economic gains. For years, member paychecks have been fatter than those of nonunion workers, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But organizers who tout this “union difference” often find that it is not enough, particularly in the private sector, where threats are very real that an employer will fire activists or shut down and seek cheaper labor elsewhere. In the private sector, union membership is down to one worker in 16.

As they try to reverse this decline, unions are increasingly maneuvered into defensive stances that don’t work. They are losing a fight with businesses that are trying to suffocate them by choking off their income — members’ dues.

Anti-labor forces portray unions as hypocritical opponents of the most basic right of workers — the right to work. These activists define “right to work” as the right to benefit from a collectively bargained contract without having to pay union dues that make the bargaining possible.

Their argument that dues should be optional has carried the day in most state legislatures. Last year, businesses won a national victory in the Supreme Court. A conservative majority voted 5 to 4 to apply “right to work” to public employees — all federal, state and local government workers.

The impact remains to be seen, but the ruling seems likely to be a heavy blow, because it applies to nearly half of the nation’s 15 million unionized workers.

Public employees have become stars in labor’s fading firmament because they have less to fear. Civil service rules give them protections against employers inclined to retaliate, and it is hard to imagine a government responding to successful organizing by shutting down.

But the increasing prominence of unions in the public sector could be a pitfall. Public employees traditionally have been regarded as people willing to forfeit a shot at a bigger financial score in return for security — lower wages in return for higher benefits. But with private sector wages stagnating and jobs with benefits becoming scarcer, public employees might be seen as a privileged class — public servants doing better than many members of the public they serve.

For anti-union advocates, this is a dream scenario, offering a fresh chance to divide and conquer. They are focused on rolling back public employee pensions at a time when pensions are disappearing in the private sector.

Meanwhile, in the private sector, fears of joining a union have grown as heavily unionized manufacturing jobs have been lost to cheaper foreign markets and many service jobs have become entrepreneurial gigs without benefits.

In mid-September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill limiting the use of independent contractors instead of employees, which Newsom said “erodes basic worker protections like the minimum wage, paid sick days and health insurance.” But for unions, legal battles over exemptions are likely, and companies have contributed $90 million to an effort to put the matter on the 2020 ballot.

Organizer Jono Shaffer sees the gig culture as part of a broader “vertical disintegration” of American business, in which many workers who once would have been employed by an auto maker, for example, now work for a proliferating number of its subcontractors.

The traditional approach to unionizing such a workforce would require waging campaigns and winning elections at each of the subcontractors.

This was a challenge Shaffer faced with the Los Angeles janitors. The janitors didn’t have one employer. They had many. The high-rise owners didn’t hire them directly. They left that to subcontractors.

Ultimately, Shaffer and his colleagues used a strategy that has been a key to labor’s few private sector victories in recent decades.

They capitalized on widespread public approval of labor unions, noted by the Gallup Poll, and mobilized a broader community to help apply social and political pressures that forced the ultimate employers — the building owners — to the bargaining table.

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Ted Rohrlich

Rohrlich is a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He also is a former director of research and policy for the Service Employees International Union local that represents about 90,000 local government workers in Southern California.

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