22 December 2013

Union Philosophies and Structures

Gumboot Dance at the Old Mine, Trevor Makhoba (Campbell Smith Collection)

Chapter 7

Union Philosophies and Structures

Chapter 7, Major Features of Labor Relations in the USA

            (1): Union Philosophies and Structures

Philosophies of Unions

Almost all American unions find it necessary to confront and struggle with management, while also working to develop areas of collaboration. Union leaders and members understand their responsibilities in three different ways:

1.      Defend their members’ immediate interests against their employers (“business or “bread and butter” unionism);
2.      Defend their members’ immediate interests and help other workers win gains under capitalism (“reform” or “social” or “solidarity” unionism);
3.      Defend their members’ immediate interests and unite with all workers with the goal of eventually overthrowing capitalism (“revolutionary” or “class conscious” unionism).

Business unionism and reform unionism struggle for dominance; support for revolutionary unionism is small. Reform unions have broader political interests than business unions do, more often supporting other workers and involving their membership in election campaigns and issues such as taxation, anti-discrimination laws, public education, health care.

Unions can also be classified as “service” unions and “organizing” unions. “Service” unions rely heavily on full-time, paid, professional staff to organize new members, file members’ grievances with management, organize strikes, lobby government officials, organize social activities, teach classes to union stewards, etc. Staff members “service” the membership, taking care of a member when something bad happens. The result is that members tend to view their monthly membership dues as payments for an insurance policy. Membership participation in the organization is minimal. In contrast, “organizing” unions have fewer full-time paid professional staff and encourage members’ voluntary participation. They often hire union activists for short-term concentrated efforts such as campaigns to organize new members.

Union Members’ Rights

People who become union leaders have many motivations. Some are members who want to help the union be successful for its members; some are careerists who want to use the union to advance their own careers; other are criminals who want to turn the union into their own private bank or are undercover agents of the employer.

The Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959 includes a “Union Member’s Bill of Rights”[i] that guarantees union members many democratic rights within their unions. These include rights to:

1.      Nominate candidates, run for office, vote in elections and meetings;

2.      Secret ballot voting on dues rates, initiation fees, and assessments;

3.      Freedom of speech and assembly, including criticize union officials, express any viewpoint at union meetings (subject to reasonable rules of conduct), and distribute literature;

4.      Sue the union without reprisal;

5.      Due process in internal union disciplinary hearings, including:
                    i.            Specific, written charges
                  ii.            Confront and cross-examine accusers
                iii.            A full and fair hearing and a decision based on the evidence

6.      Receive a copy of the collective bargaining agreement (union contract).

Membership and the Union Advantage

Employers have sound financial reasons to oppose unions. Unions cost employers money. In 2011, wages of the nation’s 15 million union members were 29% higher than wages of workers without union representation, on average, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Women in unions earned an extra $225 per week, or $12,000 more in one year. African-American union members earned $175 more per week, or $9,000 per year. And, Latino (Hispanic) union members earned 48% more, an additional $240 per week, or $13,000 per year.[ii]

Union membership, although small, reflects the population. Thus, 12% of male employees and 11% of female employees were union members in 2011. Whites (12%), Blacks (14%), Hispanics (10%), and Asians (10%) were all fairly equally represented in unions.[iii]

Unions’ Changing Organizational Structures

Historically there have been two basic types of local union structures in the U.S., craft and industrial. A local craft union consists of workers with one skill (carpenters, plumbers, drivers, pilots, teachers, journalists, nurses, etc.). A local industrial union is a union of many types of workers. For example, a local industrial union in the auto industry includes all employees in the plant – assembly line, maintenance, shipping, and office.

Over the years, many craft unions have merged. This increases their bargaining power and prevents the employer from first signing contracts with weaker unions and then forcing stronger unions to agree to the established “pattern” contract for the company or industry.

While unions used to be divided between private and public sector employees, this is also changing. As governments privatize public services (bus lines, hospitals, etc.), public sector unions organize those (now private sector) workers. And, as capital moves abroad and private sector unions lose members, private sector union unions turn to organizing public sector workers. 

Another important change in union structure is the growth of “conglomerate” unions, partly due to union mergers, and partly due to efforts to organize members wherever they can. Sometimes, these unions mirror the conglomerate structures of the employers they confront. The best example of a conglomerate union is the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). It has 1,900 craft and industrial local unions with 1.4 million members in 21 industrial divisions, including airline, bakery, laundry, building materials, construction, food processing, warehouse, freight, manufacturing, motion pictures, newspapers, public service, and railroad.[iv]

The major U.S. labor federation is the AFL-CIO, with 12.1 million members in 56 national unions.[v] Its largest unions are the teachers (1.5 mil.) and government employees (1.4 mil.). In 2005, several unions formed a rival union federation, Change to Win (4.5 million members).[vi] Its three largest unions are service workers (1.9 mil.), Teamsters (1.4 mil.), and retail food (1.3 mil.). One major union, the National Education Association (3.2 mil.) is independent.

The AFL-CIO is a decentralized organization, allowing autonomy to its member unions. It endorses political candidates and funnels campaign contributions to them. While it does not engage in collective bargaining, it encourages unions to negotiate together. When unions strike, it offers support, and it referees disputes when rival unions clash. One major reason the CTW unions broke away from the AFL-CIO was dissatisfaction with AFL-CIO organizing efforts. The CTW promised to allocate 75% of its budget to industry-wide organizing efforts and to reduce federation spending on political action.[vii] As of mid-2012, CTW has not endorsed candidates.

Discussion Question

What should be the differences and similarities between a union and a political party?

[ii] http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.t02.htm Table 2  Median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers by union affiliation and selected characteristics, 2010-2011 annual averages.
[iii] Ibid., Table 1. Union affiliation of employed wage and salary workers.
[vii] www.ufcw.org/docUploads/UFCW%20OUOV%20vn5%20FINAL.pdf?CFID=1251548&CFTOKEN=70586526; Larry Bridgesmith & John Gerth, “The Summer of Union Discontent Portend a Season of Employer Discomfort,” Journal of Health Law, Winter 2006, Vol. 39, No 1.  www.wallerlaw.com.sitemason.com/files/BsmithGerth.pdf.


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