Is It Time To Redefine The Union Movement?

November 10, 2010

(ChattahBox Op/Ed) – We must start solving problems in this country, and as I wrote the other day we must start with jobs.  I do agree with the idea that government doesn’t create jobs; business creates jobs.  Of course government can create policy and a climate that is kinder to those who do create jobs and a massive amount of energy must be place here, but this is just a start.

I live in Southeast Michigan, one of the hardest hit areas in the entire country with respect to job loss.  This part of the country will rebound eventually, but it will take much longer here than in other parts of the country for a variety of reasons, chiefly among them is the total obliteration of the greatest base of jobs: car production.

With the government bailout of Chrysler and General Motors, millions of jobs were saved, but only after millions of jobs were lost.  Over the last ten years there has been a marked decline in the automotive workforce and the idea that these jobs will return would be fools gold if you were to believe that line of thinking.

Further complicating the employment picture here in Michigan and nationally is an ongoing debate on whether or not Unions have had a hand in the elimination of so many living wage jobs in the country.  It’s obvious as I look around my own neighborhood and many others that “for sale” signs planted in front yards that used to have flowers panted there have become the norm.  It is bleak and discouraging to see and many of the people I have spoken with are former Union members who wonder what went wrong.

Over the course of the past decade or longer, more and more Union members are voting Republican more than they ever have before, and my take on it is pretty easy to grasp.  While Union leadership in the hey day of the automobile industry did an amazing jobs of demanding and winning higher wages, greater benefits, and comfortable lives for their membership and in the process of creating all this income they also created enough of an income bump that the blue collar guy making more then $100,000 a year was commonplace. What they wanted was what most people want: to keep more of their money and pay less taxes. The Republican message of smaller government and fewer taxes appealed to this worker and why not, right?  So what did these blue collar guys do come time to vote?  Well, many of them voted Republican, and that number is growing.

Although it is counterintuitive to vote the way they do, Union households still mostly vote Democrat, but not at the numbers that was once counted upon, and the Union membership is becoming less and less influenced by their leadership who have had to accept concessions in order to save jobs.  Unions in this country are at a crossroads and how they move forward is not a simple task.

I spent a great deal of my radio life known as the voice of labor.  I have always been sympathetic to the labor movement and have personally walked picket lines, protested against corporate greed and mistreatment, and have had a hand in negotiations even.  I believe in Unions and I believe they have a place in the workplace today, but I also think it’s time we have a discussion no one wants to have.

Are Unions forcing companies to reduce their workforce and do Unions see the reality of the impact they are having on job creation?

I think they do and I also think they don’t want to talk about it.  No Union leader wants to go to their membership and tell them they will have to accept lower wages and lesser benefits, but the reality dictates that now is the time to redefine what Union means to America today.  I am not going to give you a history lesson here on what Unions have historically done for this country as that story is well known.  And Unions are responsible for the many benefits that so many enjoy in the workplace even if your workplace is Union free.  At the same time, with the lack of living wage jobs and the increased pressure on corporation Boards to become and remain profitable, more and more of those companies are moving to states that are not Union friendly and that is a trend that Union leadership is all too aware of.

Union workplace protections are critical and should remain a top priority for leadership, but they also have to fight their dwindling membership numbers and the reality that both politically and realistically they do not have the muscle they once did.

I do not advocate for the elimination of Unions and never will.  They are at a real level a gatekeeper of society as we know it today, but they must find a way to navigate the troubled waters of their uncertain future.  Union membership is unhappy with their leadership and believes they are giving in too often and too willingly, and that is just not true.  Union leadership is slowly easing into a new reality for them; that at a time when there are too many reason and too many unemployed, that companies do not have to bend to the Union way any longer, and that is a truth whether membership likes it or not.

The power and force of the Union dues no longer have the strength they once did.  Union membership expects that when the economy rebounds that they will reap the financial rewards they have traditionally received, but I don’t see that happening again.  No matter what Union you may belong to the “new” Union cannot pretend that it is 1975 anymore.

Society has changed, perception of Unions has changed, technology has changed, and Union political identity has changes as well.  What is happening to Unions today is of their own doing, but not from the top down, rather from the bottom up.  Who you vote for does matter and once Union members started voting Republican they also started voting against themselves in a very real way as evidenced by where we are at today.

How Unions make the decision to cast themselves in aiding corporate America to move forward will be critical to their next chapter that is just now being rewritten.  If you’re foolish enough to think just waiting out the economy to get back to where we once were is enough then you haven’t been paying attention.  There is no going back now.

Tony Trupiano is a former national syndicated progressive radio talk show host, author, and a former candidate for Congress. He is also a nationally recognized media trainer.  He can be reached at tony@mediatony.com and can read his Blog at www.mediatraining.me.


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