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Fit only for "Business" print

The Plain Truth about Unions

by Mark Cook


On payday, workers who have a union in their workplace receive far better pay and benefits than those in similar jobs who do not, The New York Times acknowledged in a stunning article Aug. 31.

"From a pocketbook perspective, workers are absolutely better off joining a union," The Times declared. "Economists across the political spectrum agree: Turning a nonunion job into a union job will very likely have a bigger effect on lifetime finances than all the advice employees will ever read about investing their 401(k) plans, buying a home or otherwise making more of what they earn."

The paper added that this is true across the country and in all job categories.

The article's admissions contrast with a longstanding anti-union tone in Times news coverage. 20% Higher Wages Over All

"Over all, the hourly wages of union workers are 20 percent greater than those of nonunion workers, and their fringe benefits are typically worth two to four times as much, economists with a wide array of views have found," the paper conceded.

It noted that "The financial advantage is even greater for workers with little formal education and training and for women, blacks and Hispanic workers."

"Moreover, 85 percent of union members have health insurance, compared with 57 percent of nonunion workers," the paper added, citing University of Massachusetts Prof. Barry Bluestone.

The paper stated that Bluestone is "labor friendly" but noted that, "The conclusion draws no argument even from Prof. Leo Troy of Rutgers University, who is widely known in academic circles and among union leaders for his hostility to organized labor."

"'From a standpoint of wages and fringe benefits, the answer is yes, you are better off in a union,'" The Times quotes Professor Troy as acknowledging.

Troy's objection to unions, The Times said, concerns how they "reduce profits for owners and distort investment decisions in ways that slow the overall growth of the economy-not how they affect workers who bargain collectively. Professor Troy points out that he belongs to a union himself-the American Association of University Professors."

"Here's how the equation works," The Times quotes Prof. Richard B. Freeman of Harvard University as explaining: "'For an existing worker in a firm, if you can carry out an organizing drive, it is all to your benefit. If there are going to be losers, they are people who might have gotten a job in the future, the shareholders whose profits will go down, the managers because there will be less profit to distribute to them in pay and, maybe, consumers will pay a little more for the product. But as a worker, it is awfully hard to see why you wouldn't want a union.'" Aimed at Corporate Execs

The article was remarkable because of The New York Times' own vitriolic opposition to unions. Economics professors often caution students that New York Times coverage of a strike can be expected to be very biased.

The Times tucked the article into the Business section, where it is more likely to be seen by stockholders and corporate managers than by most of the readers.

The article seems, in fact, to be directed at corporate managers. It reports that the AFL-CIO labor confederation has changed its organizing tactic from "trying to pick off companies one at a time" to "organizing an entire industry's workers in a city at once."

The Times article quotes employers as saying that they can pass on higher labor costs, provided that the union organizes the entire industry, but would be squeezed to the wall if they had to compete with nonunion jobs paying dramatically less and providing few or no benefits.

This is not exactly a revelation. In fact, in the early part of this century, some San Francisco employers actually agreed to wage increases for unions on condition that they organized workers in at their commercial rivals in Los Angeles.

San Francisco was a strongly union town where enlightened employers had discovered that they themselves benefitted from an economy where workers were decently paid. Los Angeles, in contrast, was a bitterly anti-union town run by a tiny and reactionary oligarchy.

Since San Francisco employers, enlightened or not, were not going to be able to get rid of local unions, they found it in their own interest to help organize unions in Los Angeles in order to protect their own businesses against dirt-cheap competition.

Still, The Times article and some of the other press response to the aftermath of the UPS strike reveals a new media tone. At the start of the UPS strike, Times coverage was predictably pro-employer, reporting that the company had vast resources with which to withstand a strike. Pro-Union Attitudes

But the overwhelmingly pro-union attitudes revealed in public opinion polls appear to have taken corporate media by surprise. The Wall Street Journal reported these poll results to its business readers, and even did a sampling of traditional anti-union opinion in Richmond, Virginia, which the Journal noted was about the furthest thing possible from a pro-union town.

Even in Richmond, the Journal reported, the striking workers enjoyed massive support. In other articles the Journal has remarked on an emerging feeling across the country that the good times on Wall Street are at the expense of working Americans, whom one Journal article actually referred to as "suckers" for having allowed corporate owners to ride roughshod over them for 25 years.

The Journal pointed out that while the percentage of the public that respects union leaders is only 17%, corporation executives are now at the same level. What's more, it added, the percentage respecting union leaders is rising, up from 8% last year, while the percentage respecting business executives has dropped from 25% a year ago.

The Times article, which like the others, is aimed at corporate owners and managers, is the most revealing of all.

The Times took note of the belief that paying union wages drives companies out of business and costs workers their jobs, but provided data to contadict it. "In a study of 633 businesses, which employed 7.7 million workers, Professors Freeman and Morris M. Kleiner of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota found that 126 of the enterprises became insolvent between 1983 and 1990. The failures were almost evenly split between union and nonunion workplaces."

"'People think that their risk in joining a union is that this stuff-higher wages and more benefits-will cost the company some money so there is some risk that you might lose your job,'" The Times quotes Professor Freeman. "'That risk turns out to be pretty much zero. Is a company with a union more likely to go out of business? The answer is no.'"

The paper pointed to other research that found no significant differences in the rates at which unionized and nonunion manufacturers moved their operations overseas. It noted that many manufacturing jobs were lost in the United States in recent years because of imports from lower-cost foreign producers, but suggested that even then, "from the individual worker's perspective, belonging to a union may provide a buffer against the vicissitudes of global competition" because the union can step in to make concessions if it considers that the company can be saved.

The Times quotes from Donald R. Deere, an economist at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A & M University, who studied the wage differential for comparable union and non-union workers between 1974 and 1996.

"In every educational and age category that he studied, Professor Deere found that union members increased their wage advantage over nonunion workers during those years," the paper reported. "Will Anyone Be Listening?"

"Last year, he estimates, unionized workers with less than a high school education earned 22 percent more than their nonunion counterparts," The Times wrote. "The differential declined as education levels rose, reaching 10 percent for college graduates."

The Times noted, however, that during those years from 1974 to 1996, union membership nationwide fell from 22% of the working population to 15%, and asked "Will anyone be listening?" to the evidence that unions are good for workers.

Much of the drop in union membership has been ascribed to the lack of combativity from union bureaucracies, especially in the aftermath of the Reagan Administration's smashing of the Patco strike, and the general anti-union bias of government agencies throughout the 1980's.

There has also been the export of manufacturing jobs, union and nonunion, to the police states and toxic waste dumps of the Third World, in projects funded at taxpayers' expense by US Government agencies like the Agency for International Development (A.I.D.), which have a long and unsavory role in the establishment of those police states in the first place and their maintenance ever since.

The departure of manufacturing jobs was compounded with the low level of union organizing in office jobs and other service industries, and the fear, in a time of dropping wages and job insecurity, that it was not a good time for workers to stick their necks out. Beginning to Backfire?

But part of the drop in union membership stems from the acid anti-union propaganda drive in the corporate media. Media owners may be starting to realize that the propaganda drive is not working.

The Times cites a case of a successful city-wide union drive in New York for asbestos removal workers, most of whom are poorly paid immigrants. The workers succeeded in organizing the entire industry, so that no corporation can compete unfairly by paying lower wages.

"The contract raised the pay of the 1,800 covered workers to $18 an hour plus benefits worth about $4 an hour," The Times reported. For the worst paid, that meant an 83 percent increase in compensation. The workers must pay $20 a month in union dues-an expense that employees contemplating an organizing drive should figure into their calculations, experts say."

"'Now I can work 40 hours a week, not 60,'" one worker, Jan Pyziak of Brooklyn, said through an interpreter," The Times reports.

"'I don't have to work every weekend, and I can be with my two children more,' said a co-worker, Joe Campo of Coram, NY. 'Now I only work weekends when I want. Having a union contract means a lot, especially having the medical insurance and the pension.'"

It is interesting that The Times should quote a worker who mentioned the word "pension." A lot of white collar workers, victims of "downsizing," have found themselves summarily dismissed at age 50, with no pension and little chance of getting another job at the same level of pay. If they had unions, that would not happen.

As much as anything else, the support for the UPS strikers came from people, not historically pro-union, who have realized that as long as the New World Order's extreme laissez-faire economic recipes are allowed to stand, no one is safe.


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