Why do some people hate unions

America’s unions participation is a thing of the past

By Andreas Horchler

A member of the Boeing Machinists Union calls for a strike; taken in Seattle, Washington, in September 2008 (picture-alliance / dpa)

Powerful unions, bloody strikes: there was once a significant labor movement in the United States. That's history. Last year only around one in eleven employees was unionized. What happened?

The memory of Joe Hill has faded. The memory of the activists of the labor movement lived on for decades. Joan Baez sang his song at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. Hill was from Sweden, was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, wrote songs about working-class life, oppression, injustice and the power of the common people who became a movement join together.

Joe Hill was charged with the murder of a grocer and his son in a dubious circumstantial trial in Utah and was executed in November 1915. In the folk song, which is reminiscent of the active trade unionist, the owners of the copper mines are accused of being responsible for his death.

But it takes more than bullets to kill a man, the song says. The man Joe Hill becomes the representative of a movement that is encouraged not to give up the resistance against the America of bosses and speculators.

"In certain parts of the country, such as the northwestern United States, people still know who Joe Hill is. In other parts of the country, including the unionists, people don't know."

Tyler Anbinder, historian and social history expert at George Washington University in the American capital, sees memories of the early leaders of the labor movement, of the goals of the unions in today's United States, waning. Bit by bit. And with the memory, the confidence fades to be able to do something against bad pay, low vacation entitlement or inadequate protection against dismissal.

Professor Robert Reich, who was US Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, vehemently opposes the dismantling of co-determination rights in America in his writings and teaching. A fight that seems increasingly lost. This is due to social change. Fewer and fewer people spend their entire working life in one industry. They feel less affiliated with the UAW auto union when, after a few years at the Detroit auto works, they make their living in the hospitality industry. This is due to the class struggle attitude of many unions, which often see themselves less as collective bargaining partners than as enemies of employers.

As before, an unmanageable number of historically grown individual trade unions, some of which have very low membership numbers, take care of the concerns of postal deliverers in rural areas, inland waterway operators or elevator builders. The decline is also due to the attitude of many employees who, in competition on the labor market, would rather care for their own advancement than for social peace. Dishwashers can become millionaires, according to the American story. Even after the mass layoffs during the financial crisis since 2008.

Employers went to war against the unions

Part of the responsibility for the decline of the unions in America lies with those who could benefit most from them, Robert Reich analyzes.

"Globalization and technical changes have simply given consumers a lot of choice. And consumers just wanted the cheap products, which often come from abroad and not from a unionized company. That hurts the unions, because consumers are workers and workers are consumers They shot themselves in the knee indirectly.

Second, many employers have taken up the fight against unions since the time of Ronald Reagan, under pressure from Wall Street and from consumers who wanted cheaper deals. Suddenly the employers said: I can do whatever I want. And this aggressive anti-union stance has unfortunately persisted to this day. "

Even more: it has expanded. More and more US states are enacting so-called "Right to Work" laws, which in their original form are directed against compulsory membership and compulsory contributions by workers to trade unions.

You will never let yourself get down, several 100,000 protesters shouted four years ago in Madison, Wisconsin. Governor Scott Walker, one of the conservative Republicans' beacons of hope, is a staunch advocate of "right to work" legislation. He has severely restricted the bargaining power of public sector employees in particular. For Walker, a measure to protect the citizens of his state.

"The national union leaders who come here are more concerned with money than rights. And they collect the compulsory contributions that workers in their local union have to pay. The money ends up in Washington. It's not about workers and to protect their claims. "

Organized workers are enemies of Republicans. The big American Labor Unions are much more clearly in favor of the Democrats than, say, German unions. The Republican Congress accused the unions of having spent $ 400 million on President Obama's 2008 election campaign.

The Republicans with their majority in the US Congress are fighting back. Against the democratic president. Against his allies. The conservative tradition of Christian social ethics that advocates unions does not exist in America.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Senator Fitzgerald have received a lot of sympathy for their tough employer-friendly policies. Half of the US states have now introduced similar but differently strict laws. Earl Ingram has worked in the auto parts industry for decades. Then he became a talk radio host in Milwaukee. For him, the motives of the "Right to Work" laws are obvious.

"Fitzgerald and his ilk worry about a handful of people who control the wealth of this nation. And the rest, regardless of skin color? If you have no money, you are worthless!"

The trade union confederation AFL CIO is sounding the alarm: According to its own calculations, workers in states with "right to work" laws earn more than $ 5,000 less per year than in those without such regulations.

Mary Cathryn Ricker, Vice President of the major teachers' union AFT, which is part of the AFL CIO, emphasizes: Walker is on the wrong track.

"We saw the governor attack traditional union rights there. Wisconsin is facing tough economic times."

For the unions themselves, hard times have long since become part of everyday life. Unions have been losing membership since the mid-1950s, and at a greater pace since the Reagan presidency in the 1980s. The vice-president of the teachers' union encourages herself and her partners nonetheless.

"I'm an eternal optimist. Of course I know the numbers. Union representation is the lowest in a long, long time. And then all the laws that restrict workers' right to organize and negotiate good contracts. But I think We are the phoenix that will rise from the flames. We will rise again. Certainly as a leaner group, but one that is just as ambitious as the people who built their unions many decades ago. "

Solidarity is a term in America that is used in a variety of ways and often means the cohesion of fairly small groups that have common interests and goals.

In a sense, individualism is in America's genes. Although Thomas Jefferson wrote in the preamble to the American Declaration of Independence of 1776,

"The new democratic country claims that all people are created equal and have a right to life and freedom", but the third ingredient was and is the pursuit of happiness.

Happiness in an immeasurably large, undeveloped country was more likely to be given to the pioneers who were struggling for survival alone, who knew how to defy an often hostile nature, take on Indians, cut trees, build log cabins and sound out the goods with which a more profitable one Trade would be possible. There was little room in this harsh country for the idea of ​​socially acceptable coexistence, for a balance between rich and poor, for a say in working life. The image of the individualistic American who was more of a small business owner than a worker emerged.

That changed with industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The copper mines in Michigan and the Southwest needed workers, new crowds were needed for coal mining in Kentucky, for weaving mills in Massachusetts. The people came from southern and eastern Europe, from areas where socialist ideas were far less foreign than in America. In the coal pits, steel mills, and cotton factories, they learned that workers in America had virtually no rights. Pay, working hours, child labor: issues that employers decide on. Those who resisted were replaced from the steady stream of American newcomers.

And yet, at the end of the 19th and in the first decades of the 20th century, more and more workers came together, demonstrated and went on strike for better working conditions.

Kentucky historian Dave Krueger has studied the miners' unions in the Appalachian Mountains. Indeed, he says, many of the early union leaders had radical ideas in mind.

"These people had a vision of a society that was more about cooperation than competition. They were moving in a socialist direction. They wanted the eight-hour day and political reform. In the long term, they were interested in the face of America Change society.

You failed. They failed because the US labor movement never spoke with one tongue. If they wanted to bring Irish and Italians together in a union, tensions were guaranteed. Or with blacks and whites in a union. This idea of ​​overcoming all social and religious divides failed. "

For historian Tyler Anbinder, the brutality in which industrialists and US policy cracked down on the labor movement is related to the alliance of trade unionists and socialists. Capitalist America found itself shaken to its foundations and reacted harshly.

"The suppression of socialists and socialism is certainly a major factor that led to the defeat of the socialist party and socialism as part of the labor movement. In theory, the US Constitution protects free political expression. But the Americans have chosen that socialist speeches are unacceptable and put the speaker in jail. "

According to a Gallup poll from the end of 2014, 53 percent of Americans still consider trade unions to be a good institution, 38 percent are against employee representatives, and 10 percent have no opinion. These are historically low values. An example of distrust:

When Volkswagen held a works council vote at its Chattanooga, southern Tennessee plant last year, the majority of the workforce declined to be represented by the UAW auto union.

Social justice is a long-running issue - not only among the trade unions

Mary Cathryn Ricker, vice president of the US Teachers Union, doesn't let bad numbers discourage her. The subject of social justice is a long-running issue with increasing urgency in America, but new movements also have a lot in common with the unions, such as the Occupy movement after the economic crisis in 2008. The unions also criticize the fact that rich and poor are drifting further and further apart.

The political and social rifts in the US are deeper than ever. Conservative Republicans and Liberal Democrats no longer find common ground. Citizens use right-wing or progressive media to form their opinions. Scott Walker, the Republican union hater and governor of Wisconsin, compared unions to Islamic State terrorists with regard to the 2016 presidential campaign:

"As Commander-in-Chief, I will do everything I can to ensure that the threat to America posed by radical Islamists is countered. We will have a leader. If I can take on 100,000 demonstrators, I can do it on a global scale."

These 100,000 protesters had opposed Walker's anti-union policies in Madison, Wisconsin.

The accounts with the trade unions can be heard from right-wing radio stations: employee representatives are insulted as socialists, as corrupt destroyers of the American dream. You are being blamed for Obama's health insurance bill, which is supposedly destroying the economy.

The sociologist Jake Rosenfeld from the University of Washington, on the other hand, calls the American trade unions the backbone of social equality. Even unorganized workers have traditionally benefited from the achievements in working life. He considers rescuing the middle class, Obama's major domestic political project, to be hopeless without union participation. His conclusion: Without a revitalization of the labor movement it will remain at record levels of inequality.

But it doesn't look like that at the moment. More like Joe Hill and the other victims of the early labor movement continue to disappear into historical oblivion.

"Yes, there is that legacy. But I think most Americans today would say, you need to talk about another country!"

This other, almost forgotten country that Tyler Anbinder speaks of was one of the hard arguments about wages, livability and social participation. The future will depend crucially on the 2016 presidential election. Even more so, against the avalanche of public criticism, US unions have to convince workers that the fight for more justice in the world of work can be worthwhile.