April 12, 2012

Labor Union Nostalgia

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From April 12 to April 17, the Industrial and Labor Relations School hosts Union Days, a series of events held every year to celebrate and discuss organized labor. This year’s posters ask “Is This Land Made for You and Me?” and will include discussions of inequality and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

It’s no secret that globalization and the shift towards a service-economy have hollowed out the size and scope of unionization in the United States. Union membership as a share of the total work force is now less than 12% and just less than 7% in the private sector. On the other hand, public sector unions, whose dues and wages are funded by taxpayers, had, until recently, expanded a great deal, attaining a membership approaching 40% of public employees.

What most attendees of Union Days think about these trends is predictable. They have every incentive to reflect with nostalgia on the era of 30% union membership. Let’s not forget that there’s also the Social Justice Career Fair.

Arguments in defense of organized labor usually follow an assumption that unions defend the political interests of the working class against big corporate interests and their big money contributions.

An uncomfortable reality, however, is that unions are simply another type of big-spending political interest group, but, given their declining share of the labor force, it is hard to argue that their group interests coincide with those of most Americans. In fact, 12 of the top 20 political contributors from 1989-2012 are unions: http://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/list.php?order=A

It’s particularly difficult to argue that modern labor unions represent the interests of working class Americans, when you consider the steely intransigence of national teachers unions to reforming America’s failing schools.

Taken together, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) represent the single largest lobbying conglomerate in the country, but unlike private firms, their contributions come from the pockets of American taxpayers who are forced to fund not just America’s failing public schools, but also one of main sources of their failure.

How the NEA and the AFT stymie our public education system is well-documented and, in light of the facts, difficult to argue against. For every 57 doctors, one loses the right to practice medicine, but in New York City between 2007 and 2010, only 88 of 80,000 teachers lost their jobs due to poor performance according to a report by the New York Daily News. In one poll, 47% of union teachers themselves have said that tenure and teachers unions make it too hard to remove underperforming teachers. A better system would reflect the importance of incentives, not job-security, in guaranteeing educational improvement.

In union rhetoric, the mere mention of impossible-to-fire teachers failing American children is usually equated with an attack on working people. It is not quite in their interest that we keep in mind the millions of children who continue to be short-changed in an industry far behind its time.

Despite the egalitarian themes of this year’s Union Days, Randi Weingarten ’80, longtime President of the American Federation of Teachers is Thursday’s keynote speaker.

I have experience doing manual labor alongside near union projects and can describe firsthand the strange work habits of unionized workers (some seem to misplace their screwdrivers a bit too frequently). Yet I was still surprised while on a recent trip to Washington D.C. when I encountered a union protest that seemed especially lethargic and lacking the zealous fire that one might expect if unions represent a working class under assault by big business. Only days later did I find out that these union protesters admitted themselves that they had been paid “$60 a head” for a day’s protest and some stated openly that they neither knew nor cared about the cause for which they supposedly stood.

Anecdotal evidence aside, there is good reason to believe that typical discourse about labor unions is deeply flawed and full of political gimmicks. Incentives do of course matter.

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Original Author: Jacob Arluck