Fighting for the Labor Movement

Monday, December 03, 2012

Today, fewer than 7 percent of American private-sector workers belong to a union, the lowest percentage since the beginning of the 20th century. Union organizer Jane McAlevey looks at the state of the American labor movement and describes her experiences fighting the bosses and national labor leaders. In Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement, she tells the story of a number of dramatic organizing and contract victories, and the unconventional strategies that helped achieve them, and looks at ways to revive the labor movement.


Jane McAlevey

Comments [37]

Peter Talbot from Harrison, NJ

Mr. Lopate:

This was the most depressing interview I've ever heard on your show. Jane has worked the strong end of the American economy as an organizer: service workers, commercial workers and health care workers. Before that, environmental organizing. So of course when she says that the problem Unions face is not globalization, we should take it with a few grains of salt. That position is specious, the factoids she used in evidence untrustworthy and the conclusions spurious. She honestly believes that Union labor adds value to a product. Essentially, it does not. Not ever. It adds cost to the product, but by increasing purchasing power of potential consumers, Union wages and benefits can improve potential quality of life for a nation. Stress: nation. Globalization pits all workers against their lowest common denominator everywhere. She never had to deal with this in health care, but her experience at the AFL CIO appears not to have been educational.

Her point regarding Germany's practice of having Unions sit on corporate boards of directors is true, but Germany has a history of guided protectionism in all manufacturing and service spheres to ensure that some critical portion of all products sold in Germany are made in Germany. It is their protectionist stance that protects the Unions from overseas competition. That protection extends to Corporations, too. Furthermore, Germany practices both de jure and de facto rate stabilization through value added taxation. Further still, Germany has a low civic tolerance for unemployment at any level. None of these policies adhere in the USA, and for that reason the US corporation would be stupid not to outsource everything they possibly can because consumers here want their discounts more than they want a job. Until that changes, Unionization in the USA will continue to be nostalgia for a yesteryear when America was a producer. A "consumer economy" has no room for entrepeneurs without enormous seed capital. Unionizing Walmart means nothing now that Walmart is the only potential employer left for most patrons of the store. Walmart's answer to demonstrations of worker organizers? Build more Walmarts in Newark, etc.

Dec. 04 2012 02:02 PM

@Mono from nyc

I am sure that Amazon's treatment of labor is important but I think the bigger problem with Amazon (and other online retailers) is that they and their shoppers skeeving out on the sales taxes. As a result, state budgets are under stress.

The states need to cede their authority to collect sales tax to the Federal government and the Feds collect the taxes for the states (for a small fee). Either that or every package delivery should generate a record to the state tax authority...The Internet is mature enough that it should take its place and start paying back the investment needed to create it.

Dec. 04 2012 10:02 AM
Mono from nyc

It's a luxury to blame Walmart et al. but look at the online situation. Forget Walmart - the new 'Walmart' on the block is
It's hurting everyone - communities, retailers, workers...

Dec. 04 2012 12:17 AM

@Jerry from nyc...

The $115k/yr cop in Ft Lee's union managed to keep his wage growing at the rate of GDP growth. If other middle-tier owners had managed the same their wages would be comparable.

Dec. 03 2012 04:14 PM
amalgam from NYC by day, NJ by night

Excellent guest.

@ KateNYC - Your vast oversimplification of unionization does a disservice to all employees who are working to make ends meet as wages stay flat or decline over the past 30+ years in a global economy. There are almost no protections or rights for an employee if an employer decides to fire him or her for any reason, legitimate or not. Also, wages set in "race-to-bottom" conditions, which are present now, means that most employees, save the minority with specialized skills, have little to no individual bargaining power. Period.

To think that governmental programs and laws like OSHA or minimum wages, etc., fully cover problems experienced by employees is ludicrous. First of all, just because laws are on the books does not mean they are honored or enforced, and to fight them in court is cost- and/or time-prohibitive for almost everyone.

No one claims that unions can solve cancer or let alone all economic problems, but to think that everything is just peachy for U.S. workers - and that they have CHOICE - is not true. If a person and her coworkers can't fight for her rights on the job, who else is going to?

Dec. 03 2012 03:58 PM
Ed from Larchmont

As they say, the only thing worse than a union is no union.

Dec. 03 2012 02:21 PM

@Amy from Manhattan

"Wages have remained flat in the U.S. with or without taking inflation into account?"

With inflation...Wages have matched the CPI (more or less) since LBJ...but have NOT kept place with the growth of the overall economy. I've been making this point over and over for about 6 years now. Certain basket items have gone down - food, flat screen TV, clothing - others have tracked to the overall economy and have therefore gone tuitions, cars, movie tickets, union wages. The overall effect is that the middle wage earners are being robbed to give the income to upper tier earners. Though, I suppose if you are an upper tier earner, you'd say you earned it.

Dec. 03 2012 01:53 PM

@jgarbuz from Queens

The "law of supply and demand" works very well in a totaly free economic system. The problem is it doesn't exist in a Global Economy. Hell, it doesn't even exist within many National Economies that have internal self-governing subdivisions like "States" for example. If any given State or Country has "Economic Laws" that favor an Industry, most players in that Industry will drift into that "Favored Nation or Favored State" to set up their business.

Most Corporate Management tend to treat the "bottom line" as a god or an absolute. They do not look at the "big picture" and see the overall benefits to society as one of their business objectives, which, in many cases, bites them in the posterior in the long run... The extreme examply is the Fossil Fuel Energy Industry that does not see the long term benefits of switching to Renewables but just keep concentrating on the short term profit motive.

Dec. 03 2012 01:37 PM


You make some very cogent arguements.. don't stop..

Here are some studies I've done recently that you might be interested in,

1. On Income Inequality and Plotcracy in America.

2. Proof on how "Gun Controls" can save Lives.

Dec. 03 2012 01:26 PM

"The labor market was radically expanded when women were allowed to enter and compete..."

Allowed? How about compelled because a single breadwinner household was no longer viable. Without a doubt, the entry of so many new workers has depressed wages but please do not kid yourself that this was voluntary.

@KateNYC from New York--

Workplace safety is mostly an artefact of union organizing though SOME of that safety is now handled by federal and state agencies. Aside from workplace safety, you should also recognize the forty hour work week; end of child labor; weekends; eight hour day....All developed because America unionized.

Over the last 50 years, union worker salaries have kept pace with the growth in overall GDP about 6.8% but the average wage has kept pace with inflation. As a result, wages cannot finance the things that they used to a generation or two care, vacations, single earner households, etc.

Dec. 03 2012 01:15 PM

jgarbuz from Queens

Just a comment on some of your comments:

1) Women went into the labor market, in most cases, not because they wanted to but because they had to. When I got married. We both worked and bought our fist house. When we started having children, my wife stayed home with each one until they where ready for school (not pre-K) and we could still afford the Mortgage, Car payment and all other epenses on my salary. 2) Thirty years later my son got and his wife both worked (both are better educated than I was). When they bouth their first house.. it was smaller and a "fixer upper" cause that's what they could afford. A few year later, when they hard their first child, his wife was one of the lucky ones and stayed home for a whole year (only because she was a teacher an had tenure and could return to her job).. but still, she HAD TO WORK..

The Middle Class today is much poorer than the Middle Class was just 30 years ago.. and that is a Fact.

The only reason they are treading water is because there are 2 full time working people. If one of them should happen to get a serious illness or become disabled... they have a very good chance of falling into bankruptcy in a short time because of all the DEBT they are carrying (Mortgage and Credit Cards).. There are more childen today that come from "Bankruptcy Families" than from "Divoced Families"... Think about that.

Dec. 03 2012 01:09 PM

CK from Yorktown

1) Noone in a Union is payed Minimum Wages. That's the whole purpose of a Union is the earn a "livable wage".

2) Walmart is bad because of two reasons. It takes advantage of people that are desperate for work and pays them the minimum they can... Since in most cases this is below Federal Poverty Standards, the Federal Govenment must then supplement these wages through Food Stamps, Medicaid and Housing benefits.. In otherwords "Corporate Welfare"... That is why Walmart is able to offer it's investors a consistent 3.5% Profit Margin (money going to the Top who doesn't pay their fair taxes so they get a tax break on those profits too).

3) Costco, Walmart's competitor has a different Philosophy. From the start they have paying the "Highest" wages in their industry.. Currently more than $17 for entry employees and over $20 after 4 years with full benefits and 10% contributions to their IRA ($4,000) annually.. Now to do this they only pay their Investors somewhere between 1.5 and 1.9% Profits.. and yet, their stock rice is selling at 22 Times earning and all analysist's consider it a "Premier Company"...

So, the moral is.. you can pay workers a "Very Livable Wage"... and sill make your investors "Very Happy".. Which is also an "Economic Stimulus" because they have more money to spend in the Economy which generates mores jobs.

Dec. 03 2012 12:53 PM

@jgarbuz -

"In the final analysis, wages worldwide are determined by supply and demand..."

Well, that's a vast over-simplification, isn't it. Workers that are well trained enough to get the job done profitably....Would I let a worker who doesn't know how to operate and maintain my multi-million dollar chip processing plant run things? Nope. Nor would I let an untrained worker drive my tractor trailer or operate a combine or drive a locomotive. Supply and demand of trained workers is the key.

If US capital gains rates didn't reward overseas investments the chips, hard drive and flat-screen manufacturing plants would exist here rather than in the Pacific Rim. If NAFTA hadn't clobbered the Mexican and Central American agri-business model, many of there under-trained field help would not have moved here and I could have my McDonald's order filled without having to repeat myself. Infrastructure and education...the only investments that make us more competitive.

Dec. 03 2012 12:48 PM
thcatt from Bergen County, NJ

I was a Labor Studies major back in th 80's and I saw th disintegration of th union movement up front; I'm also a member of th Building Trades. obviously I could go on forever with what I'm hearing now on this show, but me and many of my colleagues wanted to help in th Labor field after graduating but we were brushed aside by those in power then and since. we were/are well qualified yet we were looked upon with suspicion instead of capabilities. th continued downward spiral doesn't surprise me in th least.

Dec. 03 2012 12:43 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

To Tom of L.I.

Yes, the wages of assembly workers in China is rising and Chinese companies are offshoring to even poorer country like Burma (Myanmar) for example. These development do take time as there are still billions of agicultural laborers still availabe to be pulled into factory work in Asia, African and even Latin America, but in the final analysis the law of Supply and Demand will overcome as does the Laws of Gravity. You can't escape it forever.

Dec. 03 2012 12:43 PM

Leonard - Chrysler went bust 2x thanks to bad mgt. GM mgt has problems now.

We've had 30+ years of non-accountability of CEOs/Mgrs to shareholders, government regulation/law, etc.

Dec. 03 2012 12:43 PM
tom LI

To CK - isn't that we've been doing ? Where are the jobs? The middle income worker bee jobs have been moved off shore...are you not paying attention?

More students go to College, but the pool of jobs keeps shrinking...what's your solution for that, more education?

Dec. 03 2012 12:42 PM

What a fanatic is Ms. McAleevy (phon.)
How much does she make a year?
Where does her income come from?
She did not know much about it, but the CEO should be in jail?
Put someone on to confront her and show her up.
She talks a good game and sounds like a community organizer.
Maybe she should mention her book a few more times.
More liberal hash from NPR.

Dec. 03 2012 12:42 PM
KateNYC from New York

Wow, who knew -- if we were all just in a union all our problems would be solved and our economy would be robust. And who knew that the reason companies aren't growing is because they're not unionized. I'm waiting to hear her claim that unions can cure cancer.

Unions were created to protect workers -- protection that we now largely have through OSHA, employment laws, anti-discrimination laws, and other well-known protections. So why have unions? They are shrinking because they are vestigial and are no longer needed. Employers want workers who are motivated and who perform, and who are individuals -- not someone whose performance is dictated by union work rules. Ask the bankruptcy folks at Hostess.

But mostly, Ms. McAlevey's arguments are a mind-set (you could hear her teeth-clenched hissing when she mentioned the Walton family) that any union boss, who takes no risk by the way, is a better arbiter than any elected official, any business owner, any board of directors, any contract negotiator ("incompetent," she called them). As a business owner, I'll happily take my chances with choice over a union contract. And I have.

Dec. 03 2012 12:39 PM

I have done some analysis on what has been happening to the Income in America.. and one major reason was because of the demise of Labor Unions.. The only thing that saved seniors (>64 was SS and Medicare)...

Dec. 03 2012 12:39 PM

Funny, its ok when workers want to take away what management has (money), but when non government workers want to take away what government workers have (aka, government paid healthcare, government paid pensions etc.) that's not ok.

Dec. 03 2012 12:38 PM
Donna C. from Forest Hills

While I appreciate Ms. McAlevey's loyalty to her clients, we who live in New York City all know that unionized workers tend to be lazy and corrupt. Anyone who has ever tried to renovate a kitchen, unclog a drain or put up an addition to her house knows that the union contractor is turning out a bad product late and overbudget, threatening litigation all the while. Globalization is inevitable, and it creates more efficient markets.

Dec. 03 2012 12:38 PM
fuva from harlemworld

The tech revolution had the kind of social, economic, legal effects that previous tech revolutions (i.e. the Industrial Revolution) had. The problem is that legislators did not help implement the needed adjustments, to preserve equity/equal opportunity/the social contract, because they've been in the pockets of corporations and the rich. Adjustments to our social/economic/legal structures are in order, to promote equity, for sustainability. The Waltons, etc. are the new robber barons, and they need to be checked, so living wages may prevail, for the economy to thrive, for all.

Meanwhile, unions must increase efficiency, etc.

Dec. 03 2012 12:37 PM
tom LI

To jgarbuz - that's false. Look at the high demand products and services - are the wages of those employees going up in relation to the demand? Are the iPhone assembly workers getting higher wages each roll-out of a new high-demand product.?

Supply and demand does not work in the real world like it appears to in a classroom.

Dec. 03 2012 12:37 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

The labor market was radically expanded when women were allowed to enter and compete. When women stayed home and men were the breadwinners, we lived more modestly and had fewer cars, gadgets, and smaller homes. The entrance of women en masse into every nook and cranny of the labor force has lowered the average value, but the two incomes did make possible more cars, gadgets, and larger homes. However, the spread of divorce means homes are split up and this too is a major factor why average wages cannot keep up. Too much labor seeking too few jobs.

Dec. 03 2012 12:37 PM
PJ from White Plains, NY

I was not impressed with the way you ended this segment, Mr. Lopate. You cut your guest off and gave yourself the lest word, claiming that many people blame the UAW for the problems of the American auto industry, and that was the end of that. I wonder if WNYC is feeling pressure from the "corporate underwriters" it thanks so frequently.

Dec. 03 2012 12:35 PM
CK from Yorktown

What is she saying? Let's bring up the salaries for workers, though it will put them out of business and move more work to lower paid workers globally? Okay Walmart sucks and they don't pay enough but what is a job working in walmart really worth in pay? $30 an hour? Our better bet is to get better education for our kids and move out of this minimum wage stuff.

Dec. 03 2012 12:31 PM

I have a conspiracy theory that the government and large corporations conspired to use organized crime to undermine and corrupt the labor movement in the 1950's, 1960's, etc., to discredit it in the eyes of the American public.

Dec. 03 2012 12:30 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

In the final analysis, wages worldwide are determined by supply and demand, and all interventions are temporary. In the final analysis, supply and demand will be the final arbiter of what a person's labor will be worth.

Dec. 03 2012 12:29 PM

@Ed from Larchmont -

Talk about non-sequiturs! Your abortion connection makes no more sense than my pet theory that it was the end of the draft. Direct supervisors knowing that much of the applicant pool had been trained how to kill efficiently made them less fearful of artificially holding down their wages.

In fact, the buying power of an hour of labor has been falling since the JFK Administration so your theory doesn't hold much water. Try a new set of glasses.

Dec. 03 2012 12:26 PM
tom LI

Even if we see more unions, in current non-union jobs, their wages will never go up high enough. Retail, the largest of such non-unionized employers will never pay enough to raise those employees standard of living.

The only way Unions will see a resurgence is IF non-union workers are willing to take the risk of organizing to even start the process. Look at the large box retailers, Home Depot, Lowes, etc, etc....have their employees working scared. They start you higher than the norm, but then lock you into an unfair evaluation and pay raise system where no matter how hard you work, or become a key player, you won't see the monetary return for years - if you last that long.

Dec. 03 2012 12:19 PM
Ed from Larchmont

Abortion was made legal in 1973. A coincidence that wages haven't gone up since then, with people missing who would have started businesses?

Dec. 03 2012 12:16 PM

Who gets my $70,000?

Since the 60's, average wages have moved up with the CPI - roughly 4.5% over the last 50 years - our economy has grown two percent faster than that. [From $1T to $15T since '68]. If wages had paced the growth in the economy, average wage would be $112,000 rather than $42,000. Where does that additional $70,000 go? The economy generates it but the average does not get it? Where does it go? Overpaid CEO's? Corporate dividends? Bad tax policy? Where? And how do I get some back?

Dec. 03 2012 12:16 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Wages have remained flat in the U.S. with or without taking inflation into account?

Dec. 03 2012 12:13 PM
Jerry from nyc

unions brought down Detroit, $3000.00 per car to union coffers, how can you compete?
a cop in Fort Lee, NJ, $115 thousands/year salary, why not

Dec. 03 2012 12:13 PM
CK from Yorktown

Historically, unions were needed to protect workers. These days, it seems that unions just protect mediocre work. Police, fire other workers should have a union to ensure fair payment to those employees. In other unions, they seem to just make sure that inadequacy is rewarded. I don't think most union workers are part of the minimum wage group.

Dec. 03 2012 12:12 PM
fuva from harlemworld

Unions require the same changes that government and other hierarchies do today: Transparency driven by the information and, in turn, empowerment of constituents.

Dec. 03 2012 12:11 PM

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