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  April 21, 2009

The union non-union gap

Elaine Bernard Pt4: A successful labor movement socializes their gains - or they weaken themselves
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Elaine Bernard is the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. Bernard's writings often focus on workers in the telecommunications industry, and the role technological change plays in altering work. In the last several years, she has publicly discussed how advancing technology will change how labor unions function (especially in regard to member-to-member and union-member communication and organizing).


PAUL JAY: Welcome back to The Real News Network. We're talking to Elaine Bernard of the Harvard Law School Trade Union Program about unionization in the United States. Hi. So talk about this issue of the difference between the wages and benefits of unionized workers versus non-unionized workers, and that gap, and what it means in terms of motivation for employers.

ELAINE BERNARD: Sure. In one sense, the US labor movement, you know, we've talked a lot about its density. It's, you know, low. It's only—you know, 12 percent of the workforce is unionized. Looking at it another way, it's probably the most successful trade-union movement in the world. Why? Because it's got the highest wage premium. What is the wage premium? That's the difference between what a union member earns versus a non-union member doing more or less the same work.

JAY: And that gap is higher in the US than in most industrialized countries.

BERNARD: It's not only—it's the highest in the world at 30 percent. Canada, for instance, is half of that, and if we go to the UK, it's probably 2 or 3 percent. If you go to continental Europe, it doesn't exist.

JAY: So why is it?

BERNARD: So, well, it's because the most benefits, most wages, etcetera, are bargained by individual contracts in the US. In Europe, for instance—. Well, let me talk about it this way. What a successful labor movement does is, first, win things for their own members. That's a good thing, and [inaudible] if you don't do that. But then you seek to socialize it. By that I mean you win it for your own members, but then through political action, through other things, you look to spread it to the entire workforce. Now, why do you do that? You do that because it's much easier to hold onto if everybody else has it. Also, you don't put your employer at a competitive disadvantage with other employers. So what the European labor movement's been a little more successful at doing (and that's why they have higher rates of unionization) is what they first win for themselves—they have much broader bargaining, so that they're bargaining not just for, you know, this individual plant or that; they're bargaining at the level of the national organization.

JAY: So certainly one of the big issues there would have been health care, where health care for unionized workers is a hard-won benefit. But then most people don't have health care, and that makes this enormous gap between unionized and non-unionization for employers.

BERNARD: Absolutely. And it really puts tremendous pressure both onto those that have the benefit, because, you know, every day at the bargaining table your employer is saying, "Well, nobody else has this," and it places the employer at a competitive disadvantage, so it gets harder and harder to hold onto. We're seeing this already with pensions as, you know, once, you know, twenty years ago, the vast majority of workers in manufacturing, certainly the unionized workers, had to find benefit pensions, that is, a pension that, you know, was paid for by the employer. It was the deferred wage of the union member. But that was guaranteed at a certain level. Today, most private sector workers, if they've got a pension at all, is a 401(k), which nowadays we jokingly say has become a 101(k) with the drop in the market. But all the risk is put on the employee, onto the workers.

JAY: So how much has this got to do with the mentality—. (03:59) ... (04:17) How much does this have to do with the transformation of the trade-union movement after World War II, post-McCarthyism, where it lost a lot of this feeling that it was a social movement to help transform society, and more that I think that—if—I remember seeing films as a kid about—I'm All Right Jack, I think it was—I mean, this I'm All Right Jack mentality amongst the more privileged section of the American workers and leaders, trade-union leaders, who were doing okay and thought it would go on forever.

BERNARD: Yeah. I think, certainly, the 1950s, '60s, '70s, '80s even, we didn't see a lot of—you know, the labor movement was shrinking. It wasn't growing into new sectors, or it wasn't organizing into new sectors. First, after the war, there were the splits between the socialist and communist unions expelled, McCarthyism, all of that. But also there was the failure to organize in the South. I mean, the first runaway plants weren't runaway to foreign countries (they just looked pretty foreign) but to the South and to the non-unionized South. Then there was legislation that weakened unions that made it much harder to organize. And, really, into the 1980s unions continued to grow, but grow not as quickly as the workforce as a whole, and because of that, really, a little bit of asleep-at-the-switch, not really noticing it. By the time you notice it in the 1980s and '90s, now you're working from a much smaller base. It's just much more difficult to really start to put the machinery together to build a real labor movement, and then that movement needs to be a solidaristic movement, movement that, you know, "What we demand for ourselves we desire for all," so to not just win it for your own members. I think there was a feeling too that, "Hey, you know, 30 percent wage premium. Look at all of these benefits. Who wouldn't join a union?" and not recognizing that, you know, people join unions often not just for the benefits. But often it starts with a sense of dignity and a sense—you know, very few people say, "Well, I'm going to join a union because I can get higher wages." The other thing we know now through a lot of organizing and campaigns is that with all the organizing that's going on—last year, half a million new folks joined the American labor movement, so 16 million—the vast majority of people, those 16 million in the labor movement today, overwhelmingly didn't join unions through new organizing. They got a job. They got a job in a workplace that was already organized and found themselves as a member of the union. These aren't people who sort of sought work as a nurse or a police officer or as a firefighter or as a health-care worker or as a government employee as a stealth method to become a union leader; these are the folks who got jobs and then discovered that they were in a union. And so the problem for the labor movement—. (07:50) [audio is cut off here] (08:07) So then a big challenge for the labor movement is: how do you go back to lighting fires, that is, instead of putting them out, instead of servicing members, you know, putting out fires? You've got a problem? Who you going to call? Ghostbusters. You know, instead of servicing members. And that's important, but how do you start to light a union fire? How do you—?

JAY: I mean, if there's going to be a fire lit, they're going to have to deal with the question of unemployment. And as this crisis deepens and we get into double-digit unemployment numbers, how is the union movement going to respond to that and the challenge of organizing [inaudible]

BERNARD: Well, and how are you going to keep your members?

JAY: In the next segment of our interview we're going to answer that question—or try to. Please join us for the next and final segment of our interviews with Elaine Bernard.


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