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Bill Fletcher, Jr. takes on criticisms that unions are corrupt and bankrupting are wrong, but says we need union leaders who are labor leaders

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

As most people following The Real News know, unionization rates in the United States are heading towards, well, almost nothing. Private-sector unions are something under 7 percent. With public sector, I think it gets up into the 9 or 10 percent, maybe 11. But the issue of where unions are headed doesn’t look very good. One union leader I heard recently said, oh, well, it’s just cyclical. You know, we’ve lost half our membership. And it occurred to me, yeah, in the next cycle you might lose the other half of your membership, because the unions don’t seem to be doing a very good job at messaging why unorganized workers should be in unions.

And whenever I’ve covered strike struggles and I talk to nonunionized workers watching the picket line, often you hear at least two things said. One, these union workers get paid too much, they’re bankrupting the country, it’s not fair that they get paid that much, and it’s making us uncompetitive. And, of course, the other thing you hear is, oh, the unions are all just corrupt, they don’t really do anything for you. Well, now someone’s come along to try to dispel what he calls myths about unionization.

And now joining us from our studio in D.C. is Bill Fletcher Jr. He’s an immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum. He’s a union organizer, an activist. And he has has a new book out titled “They’re Bankrupting Us!” And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Thanks very much for joining us, Bill.


JAY: So talk about, first of all, what drove you to write the book.

FLETCHER: Well, actually, two things, Paul. One was simply I was asked. Beacon Press in the beginning of 2011 was taken by the upturn in interest in unions, particularly after what was going on in Wisconsin in response to Governor Scott Walker. So they asked me to write it.

But what made it possible for me to write it was an experience I had when I was on a plane about a year before, flying from San Jose and San Diego. And I was sitting next to this woman, a very nice woman in her 30s, and I was reading a book about global union solidarity. And she asked what the book was about, and I explained to her. And she looked at me and said, “What is a union?”

FLETCHER: Now, at first I thought that she was joking with me. And then I realized she was absolutely serious. She had no idea what a labor union was. So I proceeded to explain it to her. As I was explaining it to her, she was nodding her head, and I realized she was nodding her head in that way that someone does when they have no idea what you’re talking about. So when I wrote this book, I was actually writing the book for her. And each chapter dealing with myths or broadbrush criticisms is really written as a conversation with her or people like her who are not necessarily opposed to unions but often have no clue as to what a union is.

JAY: Well, let’s start with the one that’s the title of the book, they’re bankrupting us, because I hear that a lot from workers that have lower-paid jobs, that they resent union-sector high wages. They particularly resent public-sector wages. And instead of them getting organized and trying to get higher wages, they think what would be better for the economy is if the higher-paid workers got paid less.

FLETCHER: That’s true. That is a very common myth. And there’s a few different things I would say about that. One is that at a certain point in the history of the U.S., when unions were much stronger and they were driving the economy in many ways—not controlling, but driving things—what you’d have is with higher-wage jobs, nonunion competitor companies would also feel compelled to raise their wages because they basically wanted to keep unions out. So they wanted to be competitive. As our percentage of the workforce shrank, the nonunion companies felt less compelled to do that, and this gap widened between what unionized workers were facing and nonunion workers were facing.

Second thing is that it’s very common for people to blame others who are weak or actually scapegoated, rather than to identify the real source of the problem. For those nonunion workers you’re talking about, the problem is not unionized workers. The problem is the wealthy, the problem is those that are controlling the economy, who are basically robbing from people like those nonunion workers who maybe 20 or 30 years ago would have actually been at a union.

A third thing is that in the public sector, this notion that the unions are a problem is completely misplaced, because the problem is revenue. The problem isn’t the unions. The problem is revenue. And there have been decisions made by various governments, largely by Republican, but also by Democrats, that instead of raising taxes on the wealthy, they’d instead go after gouging the workers, and therefore to focus on the paid salary of the workers rather than figure out: how do we get more revenue into the economy?

JAY: Well, part of the argument goes, when you talk to some workers who believe this, is they think there’d be more jobs. If only higher-paid workers were paid less, then there’d be more jobs to go around. I mean, what’s the truth of that?

FLETCHER: Well, the truth of that is [incompr.] what happened over the last 30 years in the southern part of the United States with the textile industry. So you [incompr.] textile industry that went from unionized—the pre-unionized of the United States into the South, into largely nonunion facilities, and then kept going south into the Dominican Republic, into Mexico or China or Vietnam. So the issue wasn’t about the existence of the union. These companies were going, trying to find cheaper and cheaper labor. That’s what’s really going on here there. And to the extent to which you have parts of the United States, large parts of the United States now that have no unions, it becomes easier for these companies to play us off against one another.

So these nonunion workers that you’re talking about, they need to understand that the companies are not running into problems because of the unions. Very often they’re running into problems because of their own market strategies, because they refuse to keep up with the technology. A case in point of that would be the U.S. auto industry up through the 1980s, which was not keeping up with technological developments and ended up being outclassed by the Japanese, by the Germans, by the Swedes. Yet it is easier to blame all of this on the unions.

JAY: Now, one of the other myths you talk about in the book—you say is a myth—which is this issue that unions are corrupt and—. But certainly there has been a lot of problem with corruption in unions. So why do you consider that a myth?

FLETCHER: Because in the United States there’s corruption. See, you know, what’s interesting, and particularly if you watch some of these right-wing television programs, they will focus on an example of corruption in the union as a way of saying that unions are the problems. Yet I don’t remember any of these right-wingers talking about when Bernie Madoff carried out his scandal, that maybe we should get rid of capitalism. I mean, maybe that’s a solution to the Bernie Madoff scandal and other such scandals. You see, it’s very hypocritical, the nature of the attack. It is a corruption in unions. There is corruption in any place where there is money.

The question is not whether there’s corruption. The question is whether the institution is doing anything to limit the corruption and to address it directly. So that’s one thing, that in unions as democratic organizations, the most democratic organizations or most democratic unions are the ones that generally are the least corrupt. But the second thing is that there are certain unions that historically were penetrated by the mob, in part because of the nature of the industry itself.

And that was one of the things that I found very interesting when I was doing some research for this, Paul, that there was a—in the 1985-86, there was a president’s commission on organized crime that had a section on unions. And one of the things that they concluded—they concluded two things. One is: the more democratic the union is, the less likely it is to be corrupt and mobbed up. The second is that there’s certain industries that the mob has penetrated particularly because of the nature of the workforce. Where the workforce is transitory, part-time, temporary employees, they’ve been unable to get in.

Now, the way you deal with this is that you have to have a culture within the organization that really is abhorrent to corruption, is constantly struggling for greater democracy and worker control. So of course there’s corruption and there’s been corruption. But what you can see in the union movement is the constant struggle, usually by rank-and-file members, for real democracy and against corruption. That’s more than you can say about Wall Street.

JAY: Now, one of the things which I find hard to understand is I see little to none campaigns by the unions, in a broader way, explaining why unionization is good for unorganized workers. You know, we know the unions have poured tons of money into funding for Democratic Party election campaigns on television, and I guess when they do specific organizing efforts at a specific plant or hospital or whatever, they put money into that. But in terms of general education of the public and the broad section of unorganized workers, I never see anything that explains why a union’s good and, as you’re doing in your book, trying to dispel myths.

FLETCHER: Yeah. Well, yeah. I mean, it’s interesting, Paul. So, first of all, there actually have been over the years, periodically, certain public relations campaigns by unions to talk with the public about why a union’s a good thing. They have happened.

But you see, what I would argue is that that’s not enough, that if you want to convince the public that unions are good, you need a combination of PR, books like mine. But most importantly, you have to position the unions so that they are perceived as organizations that are fighting for the public, for example the Chicago Teachers Union, right, which has an immense amount of parent support. Why? Because parents see in the union that the union is fighting not just for the teachers but for them. Or back in 1997, when the Teamsters went on strike against the United Parcel Service, they had tremendous support from the public because they had built up a lot of goodwill, because they convinced the public and they framed the issue that they were fighting for is that they were fighting on behalf of the need of workers for full-time jobs. And the public loved this. So I think that winning the public is not by any stretch of the imagination impossible, but you need a combination of good PR, good educational books—.

JAY: Yeah, but, Bill, I’m not talking about winning the public. I’m talking about talking to unorganized workers, who as we know is by far the majority of workers, and talking to them about why they should be in a union. And I don’t see that. I mean, when you’re talking about public campaigns, that’s also an issue, of course. I can’t remember the last time I saw an ad for buy union. When I was a kid, I used to see those ads all the time. I talk to union leaders now: why aren’t you guys pushing buy union? And, you know, occasionally you see buy American. But it could be buy nonunion American, buy—if you follow that campaign, not buy union. They kind of—they’ve become so defensive and almost defeatist about their own image, they don’t even try campaigns. But I’m talking about talking to unorganized workers in a broader way.

FLETCHER: In order to talk to workers, unorganized workers, nonunion workers, and to win them, in addition to organizing campaigns you have to position a union movement so it’s perceived on a regular basis as fighting for more than just union workers, whether that is helping unemployed workers get organized and fight for jobs, whether that’s what the Chicago Teachers Union is doing right now. It’s taking up campaigns and positioning themselves to speak on behalf of the 89 percent or 90 percent of the workers—88 percent of the workers that are not unionized.

We need—that’s what we need. We need union leaders that are in fact labor leaders. And that’s the challenge, Paul, and I think that’s what you’ve run up against, where you have union leaders that treat their responsibility as that of the head of a trade association rather than a trade union.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Bill.

FLETCHER: Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Bill Fletcher Jr. has been an activist since his teen years and previously served as a senior staff person in the national AFL-CIO; he is the former president of TransAfrica Forum, a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, and the author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including ‘They’re Bankrupting Us!’ And 20 Other Myths about Unions and The Man Who Fell from the Sky. Fletcher Jr. is also a member of The Real News Network Board of Directors.