- Historic Sites
Working For The Union
At a time of crisis for American labor, an organizer looks back on the turbulent fifty-year career that brought him from the shop floor to the presidency of the United Automobile Workers.
February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
Sometimes one wonders whether the glory days of unions are over. Today unions probably represent less than 20 percent of the work force. Union victories in organizing elections are less than 50 percent. The National Labor Relations Act granted workers the right to organize and bargain with their employers, but that often seems thwarted. Why do labor unions have such problems, and what will unions do to solve them?
Corruption affects only a handful of union people, but everyone gets tarred with the same brush.
Sooner or later the workers of the South will say, why the hell are we second-class citizens?
We desperately need labor-law reform. I read an article by a professor at Harvard who compared the United States with Canada: in the mid-1960s, both countries had 26 percent of the workforce organized. And now we’ve shrunk, and they’re at 40 percent and have grown by leaps and bounds. I look at the UAW —same organizers in both countries, trained the same way, using the same materials. What’s the difference? The difference is in the law and, maybe nearly as important, in what is acceptable social conduct on the part of the employer. You know, no employer in Canada would dream of hiring the antiunion law firms that get used against us. It’s unacceptable conduct.
What would you want to change in our labor laws?
One of the secrets in Canada is you file for an election, and the election takes place right away, rather than the way we do it here, where an election takes place later. In Canada the employers don’t have time to erode your majority, and you get recognized, and you bargain. We’ve got cases here that have been tied up for six years on the question of whether the workers can join a union. There’s none of that in Canada. Another change we’ve needed since my days of organizing is what we call equal access. We said in 1979 [when the American labor movement backed a proposed federal law that would have amended labor legislation to make it easier for unions to organize and win contracts] that we should have the right to go on company property and present our point of view. Our opponents in the Congress said that’s a violation of property rights. So we said, “OK, we don’t have any right to go on company property; but as a right of free speech, we can do whatever the employer does. If the employer talks to workers individually, and pedals the antiunion line, we have the right to talk to workers individually.”
Do unions still know how to organize?
I think it’s possible to organize. But it’s tough out there. The UAW spent $4,400,000 in 1983 on organizing. That’s a pretty tidy sum. People used to come to me when I was president and say the union should commit more resources to organizing. I said: “Look, we’ve got the money—if you could tell me that the answer to organizing is to pour resources in, I would not hesitate to spend ten million dollars. But employers are more sophisticated.”
Here’s one of the best examples of why it’s not easy. In 1982, after our negotiations, General Motors reduced the health benefits of their salaried workers fairly substantially and reduced the cost-of-living supplements by thirty-four cents an hour. The union contract didn’t reduce the workers’ cost-of-living payment, it just froze it for nine months. So immediately we get calls, and we started campaigns to organize white-collar workers in Flint, in Pontiac, at Lordstown, Ohio. We got over 70 percent of the white-collar workers to sign cards in Flint, also 70 percent in Pontiac, and 68 percent in Lordstown. GM restored the health benefits and said they would restore the thirty-four cents in January 1983. So Martin Gerber [then the union’s director of organizing] came and said, “That goddamned company, they’re unfair.” I said, “Martin, what do you want me to do? Go to the company and say, ‘Don’t you dare give those workers those benefits back?’ ” I said, “Why don’t we join the issue?” And the issue is that it’s the principles—democracy in the workplace, do you want to have a voice in your own future, your own destiny, or do you want Roger Smith, GM chairman, to make these decisions for you, and give you what he feels like giving you and take it away when he feels like taking it away? That’s the issue.
So you did try organizing the white-collar workers.
Sure we did.
We got licked in all three union elections. That’s the point. We got licked in all three elections.
But doesn’t that tell you something? With the labor movement at this 20 percent figure or less, and a lot of employers being intransigent, coupled with such things as the seeming impossibility of organizing in Burger King or McDonald’s, given the thousands of little establishments involved, do you see a future for the movement? Or is size important anymore?
I think it’s important but I don’t think it’s crucial. People say, what about a smaller UAW? Well, the UAW can be an effective organization—we’re running at about 1,150,000 members all this year—it depends on where you put your resources, and the commitment you make.