The need for labor unions today, as well as what purpose they serve, has been called into question in recent years. There has been a strong decline in the power and size of organized labor groups during the latter part of the 20th century and into the 21st century. But according to Questia’s section on labor unions, the history of organized labor was once very strong and has been in existence since the early days of the United States, and there is much to be studied and researched about the groups who shaped the country’s economy and business landscape. What is behind the decreasing influence of labor unions today, such as the recent loss in Tennessee by the United Auto Workers Union, or UAW — and can they recover?
UAW’s southern expansion
The efforts over the past year, by the UAW, to organize Volkswagen workers at a plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was met by fierce opposition from the area’s republican leaders. Erik Schelzig wrote on February 17, 2014, for Philly.com, “After UAW defeat, can GOP fulfill promise of jobs?” that during the year-long campaign to introduce organized labor to the plant, the GOP said, “jobs would go elsewhere and incentives for the company would disappear.”
As auto jobs have migrated to the southern states, the unions have often been left behind. According to Schelzig, many saw Volkswagen as the UAW’s best chance in the area, because the German automaker had been more welcoming to labor unions than other car manufacturers.
The fight will go on
The UAW will most likely try again in Tennessee, despite the recent turn of events. In fact, Volkswagen may ultimately end up helping the labor union in their efforts. Joshua Holland posted “How Fear Beat the UAW in Tennessee” on the blog billmoyers.com on February 16, 2014, “The company wants to create the first workers council in the U.S. The councils give workers a voice in a plant’s operations, and based on its experience in other factories around the world.” But under U.S. labor law that kind of group can only be created with a workforce that has been organized.
Holland writes that fear played a major role in the close vote against the UAW, which lost by less than 100 votes. Efforts by anti-union groups were well-funded, telling Tennesseans through billboards and other means that the introduction of the UAW at the plant would result in the company losing tax incentives or that the city would become the next Detroit because of labor unions. Holland adds, “They even told Tennesseans that the union wanted to take their guns.”
The future of labor unions
While the UAW has already approached the National Labor Relations Board asking that the vote be overturned due to all of the outside influence, there is no doubt that the future of organized labor is shaky, at best, in the U.S. As a result, another major labor union, the AFL-CIO, moved in September 2013 to “incorporate into the movement labor-union front groups that are exempt from federal labor law,” according to an article by Richard Berman, “Organized Labor’s Unorganized Future,” written on September 16, 2013, for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Also known as worker centers, these advocates for low-wage workers are usually registered as charities, nonprofits and other tax-exempt entities. This means they are not held to many of the employee protections required under both the National Labor Relations Act and the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act. The AFL-CIO estimates there are more than 200 of these worker centers now, and their efforts have included the recent fast-food employee groups such as “Fast Food Forward” and “Fight for 15.”
These new groups may be the boost the ailing labor unions today need. But the fact that these worker centers are not subject to employee protections prompts Berman to write: “Why does organized labor’s brave new world need to be exempt from the regulations and the reporting requirements that were specifically designed to keep union activities fair and labor leaders honest?”
Is the decline of labor unions in the U.S. a bad thing for workers? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.