Labor Unions Should Reinvent Themselves

By Richard Colman, California Political News and Views,

Venal, backwards, and unimaginative are words that can be applied to the American labor movement. 

Sixty years ago, organized labor was powerful and feared by businesses.  Today, organized labor, except in the public sector, is a ghost of its former self. 

In the mid-1950’s, about one-third of all American workers in the private sector belonged to a union.  In 2017, according the federal government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), only 6.5 percent of private-sector workers were union members.  The report said that 34.4 percent of public-sector workers in 2017 were unionized.  BLS issued its report on Jan. 19, 2018. 

What happened? 

Over the last two generations American went from a manufacturing society to more of a service and technology society.   The days in which the American economy was dominated by such unionized industries as steel, automobiles, and coal are gone. 

In 1955, Time magazine’s Man of the Year was Harlow Curtice, the president of General Motors.  In 2009, General Motors filed for bankruptcy.  Only a government bailout saved the company from extinction.  Such American automobile icons as Pontiac and Oldsmobile, made by General Motors, disappeared. 

In the 1950’s, most Americans bought cars made by General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford.  Currently, there are many more brands available, such as Toyota, Nissan, Honda, BMW, Mercedes, and Volkswagen. 

The foreign cars, many of which are now made in the United States, proved to have better quality and lower prices. 

Mercedes now runs a huge manufacturing plant in Alabama.  BMW has a factory in South Carolina. 

Running a manufacturing firm requires discipline.  In recent years, American-run firms were not careful about keeping customers happy. 

Today, the big firms in America are mostly involved with technology.  Names like Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon have overtaken in size such companies as Exxon, General Motors, and U.S. Steel. 

The American labor movement once promised workers a middle-class lifestyle.  Now, the unions can’t even guarantee that. 

An example of union intransigence is occurring now.  On Jan. 25, 2018, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Teamsters union “. . . wants to prohibit United Parcel Service from using drones and driverless vehicles to deliver packages.”  Around 260,000 UPS workers belong to the Teamsters union. 

Drones and driverless vehicles have the potential to make UPS more profitable.  These non-human devices don’t go on strike.  They don’t ask for pay raises, vacations, health benefits, sick leave, or family leave. 

What the Teamsters union should be doing is collaborating with UPS, not confronting the company. 

If the unionized UPS workers — individually or as part of the Teamsters union (or both) — had a share of ownership in UPS, the workers, in all likelihood, would benefit from UPS’s efforts to automate.  If the workers’ owned part of UPS, they might receive enough extra income to buy a new house or a new car. 

Ownership makes a difference.  Owning a car, for example, makes a person take better care of the vehicle.  How often, if ever, does a person who rents a car wash it? 

Instead of bickering with the boss, workers ought to seek some sort of arrangement that let’s them share in the boss’s welfare.

Richard Colman, a biochemist, received masters and doctoral degrees from the University of California at Berkeley.  He is the founder and president of Biomed Inc.,  a biotechnology, publishing, and informatics company.  He lives in Orinda, California.  Mr. Colman is the editor and publisher of The Icon, which covers Contra Costa County in California.  The Icon is a printed publication and an online publication.  Online, The Icon can be found at <www.iconnews.org 


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