America’s National Labor Relations law as amended governs private sector unions, but not public sector unions. Public sector unions organize and operate under state enabling legislation. Some states like Virginia do not permit public sector unions. In 2011 the state of Wisconsin repealed legislation that allowed public sector unions and cut health insurance and pension benefits at the same time.
In an article from the Washington Post author Robert Samuels reported membership in unions of Wisconsin public school teachers dropped by 50 percent; Wisconsin public employee unions plummeted by as much as 70 percent. [Wis. Unions crippled by clash with governor, WP, 2-23-15] A local AFSME member quoted in the article is out knocking on doors trying to get former members to rejoin and telling them dues will be reduced from $59 a month to $36.
A union has to negotiate and administer a collective bargaining contract to serve its members. Few employers agree to an employment contract when they hire employees. Without a written contract employment is said to be “at will,” a euphemistic term for a job with no rights at all. At will employees can be fired, demoted or laid off at anytime and without recourse.
A union collective bargaining contract establishes written procedures for internal due process and terms for dismissal for cause and seniority in addition to a wage scale and other rights. Without recognition by management or a contract, there is next to nothing that remains of the unions to justify taking $36 a month in dues from members. Maybe those who have dropped out of Wisconsin unions understand that, but it is less clear what those who hang on hope to accomplish.
Without labor law, unions can only get recognition if they have the economic power and the solidarity to strike. Before 1935 and the passing of the National Labor Relations Act the government took no formal role in labor relations. There were strikes and boycotts that tested a union’s economic power to fight the dictates of employers. Win or lose strikes disrupted the economy and cut production.
The National Labor Relations Act created an official body with the National Labor Relations Board to administer and interpret the law. Several specific aims and policies emerged in just a few years and continue today. Government primarily aims to prevent strikes and economic disruptions. In that role government helped create union contract administration that eliminate strikes with a union bureaucracy that can and does act with little or no involvement from the rank and file membership.
The Washington Post article mentioned above has several quotations to illustrate working class isolation and indifference to unions. “If you do a good job everything will take care of itself. The money I’d spend on dues is way more valuable to buy groceries for my family.”
One quotation expressed bitterness with “Everyone knows teachers’ insurance was some of the best you could get. They do fairly well around here, and they do a good job teaching. But everyone in this town has had to tighten their belts. They should too.”
The Federal government and many states offer collective bargaining rights as a voluntary and practical concession to organized labor. Governor Walker and the Wisconsin legislature repealed their voluntary offer to bargain in good faith, but that does not prevent union organizing. Labor laws like those in Wisconsin suggest to the unwary they need a special law to grant rights they already have in the constitution: the right of free speech and free association.
In effect Governor Walker and his promoters want to debase the working class for personal or political purposes, but they did not acknowledge that doing so turns the clock back to the days when unions had to strike, picket and rampage to force bargaining and recognition. Governor Walker cannot eliminate the right to organize a union or its ability to disrupt the economy.
There was a time when unions did not worry about labor law. From 1905 to 1917 it took military force to end picketing and break strikes of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). They worked for One Big Union of all workers. Men and women of any race, creed, color or immigrants of any national origin found low fees and dues, immediate rank and file participation, and direct action on wages and working conditions.
The IWW rejected dues check off as a conflict of interest for leaders who might compromise member interests for a steady income. The IWW did not promote legislation or worry about elective politics. They wanted negotiations at the work place, not legislation, seldom enforced.
The IWW considered strikes as a necessary test of their economic power. Strike early and strike often; use mass picketing, parades and demonstrations as a show of solidarity for themselves and others.
The IWW had no use for grievance procedures that replaced rank and file action with private negotiations between employers and labor leaders. Everyone was a leader in the IWW.
The IWW did not worry about a signed contract. They expected employers to repudiate contracts unless the union had the economic power to enforce them. No terms with an employer were ever settled or final; the IWW regarded every battle as a continuing part of a working class struggle they lived with day to day.
There were plenty in business and politics in the last century who liked to taunt organized labor exactly like Scott Walker and the Koch brothers do today. In some of the more celebrated strikes in mining, railroading and steel the tycoons of industry like Henry C Frick, William R Grace, and Elbert H Gary got the working class so angry their strikes could not be broken without the armed intervention of state militia and the federal government.
At least the working class of 1910 and 1920 understood they were working class and what solidarity could do them, even when they lost. The limp and pathetic response of the people in the Samuels piece describes a divided class of people embarrassed to admit they are working class. People without an identity cannot fight; instead they slobber on the people who cheat them.
If the defunct unions of Wisconsin understand their circumstance they will change their name to “Union of Wisconsin” open to everyone who works for wages. They will lower their dues to a dollar or two a year and organize rank and file participation while accepting there cannot be full time paid staff. They must organize and support a selection of strikes. Pick out some chains or a school district to walk out and shut down for a day, or longer, and be ready to give financial support to those with the courage to do it. Of course, this assumes solidarity. What class are you in?