Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
A recent poll released on Labor Day this year found that support for labor unions in the United States is at its highest level since 2003. Today, 61 percent of Americans favor labor unions; in 2003, it was at 65 percent. Have the American people forgotten their union history? It’s time today’s workers understood what unions have done – and failed to do – over the last half-century in this country.
Labor unions have existed in the United States since there were factories to work in, and their marketing and slogans are woven into our culture. These slogans are familiar, yet many workers today don’t even know where the words originated. For example, very few know that the slogan ‘Yes, we can!’ from Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign has its origins in the Spanish ‘Si se puede’ coined in 1972 by the United Farm Workers union co-founder, Dolores Huerta.
A Storied History
Workers formed unions to fight against what they perceived as employers’ unjust actions, and to have their concerns heard. Initially, they were just mutual aid societies or craft guilds that protected laborers from abuses and also ensured common working standards. Unions fought for worker’s rights and were successful in making sure our government established minimum wages, created a 40-hour work week and stopped child labor. The idea of “power to the people” and the romanticized versions of organized labor and their ties to organized crime became the stuff of legends, much of which today’s worker only sees as fiction. But back in the real world, business owners were now treating workers well and were becoming challenged by third party interference when hiring and firing workers, determining wages and deciding work hours and responsibilities.
Thus, the historical conflict between business and labor began. Companies often seemed to have the upper hand, but workers often used collective might to advance their cause. Remember, the cancellation of the World Series because of an ongoing strike by the Major League Baseball Players Association? You also often see employers portrayed as oppressors and employees as the oppressed. However, history shows us that labor unions can easily become centers of power in a given industry and eventually harm it. The strikes and ensuing losses at General Motors and Hostess Bakeries are large, visible examples of how unions can hurt not just the companies but the workers. What’s important to understand is that other, less “news-worthy” companies suffer the same fate on a regular basis.
How Union History Affects Us Today
Union activity generally starts with a union organizing effort, where the union reaches out to employees to form a volunteer organizing committee. Next comes union card signing, whereby employees authorize the union to represent them. If you are aware of any such actions, you should caution your employees about the problems that unions can cause to the company and the economy as a whole:
- Higher prices because companies have to pay more for wages and benefits, which are then passed on to customers
- Less competitive companies and economy because of rise in overhead costs
- Unemployment among qualified personnel because all workers are protected from layoffs or firing
- Disruption of essential services until demands are met
- Distrust between managers/supervisors and workers because direct interaction is impossible
Your employees need to know the history of unions now, before an organizer approaches them. Understanding that unions cause job losses, stunt economic growth, and delay recovery make employees far less likely to fall for a union marketing campaign. Employees will realize they don’t need outside help if they have a hazard-free, fair workplace that provides competitive compensation packages, open channels of communication and responsible and fair managers.
Make sure your leaders understand the History of Unions with UnionProof Certification. They’ll get 26 easy-to-follow online lessons and earn full Certification upon completion. Learn More, here.