How organized labor can have a future in 21st century America
CAMDEN — How do you give workers a voice in the 21st century?
Jobs migrate overseas or salaries drop as companies seek to cut labor costs.
Entire industries — think Uber and other ride-sharing companies — don’t employ a single worker, relying instead on independent contractors who have neither job benefits or job security.
And just over one in ten workers are members of a labor union, with Republicans trying to decrease that number.
In light of those realities, Democratic lawmakers are leading an effort to redefine labor for the 21st century.
“Our goal is make sure the next generation of worker has a fair playing field to earn enough to take care of a family and retire with dignity,” said Rep. Donald Norcross, D-1st Dist, a former union official.
The question that Norcross and three other Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Mark DeSaulnier of California, Debbie Dingell of Michigan and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, are trying to answer is how to do you give workers a voice to advocate for better pay.
Norcross, a former electrician who became assistant business manager for an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local — the only former union business agent in the House, noted that he and his colleagues have held labor forums in each of their states, including in New Jersey in August.
Another forum is scheduled for Wednesday in Washington and the lawmakers said they plan to issue a report at the end of the month.
Former AFL-CIO Political Director Steve Rosenthal said he will be interested to see what they come up with.
“It’s great when there’s a guy like Norcross who’s trying to think through what are we trying to do,” Rosenthal said. “I don’t know if anybody has the perfect short-term or long-term solution. It’s going to take a lot of outside-the-box thinking.”
What concerns those who oppose requiring employees to join unions is what kind of solution the group will propose.
“Our criticism of union officials and the way they operate is that they rely so much on government-granted powers,” said Patrick Semmens, vice president of National Right to Work. “In New Jersey, they have the power to compel workers to pay fees and if they don’t, they can have a worker fired.”
“An approach that respects the individual rights of workers not to be forced to join a union, that’s the reform that Congress ought be looking at,” he said.
These discussions come as the percentage of workers in unions dropped to 10.7 percent in 2016, down from 20.1 percent in 1983, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Robert Asaro-Angelo, a former U.S. Labor Department official under President Barack Obama, said it’s going to be hard to reverse that trend.
“They don’t know anybody in their neighborhood who’s unionized,” Asaro-Angelo said. “You don’t have this personal touch or generic knowledge of what it means.”
In fact, unions are still trying to hold on to what they have.
“There is no shortage of defense being played,” Norcross said a forum at the Teamsters Local 676 union hall in Collingswood. “Elections have consequences. Boy, do we know that now.”
Republicans are seeking to weaken what’s left of traditional unions. Even the House Education and Labor Committee, which Norcross and DeSaulnier sit on, was renamed Education and the Workforce under GOP rule.
More than half of the states, 28, now have so-called Right to Work laws, and a national Right to Work law has been introduced in both houses of Congress.
Such laws allow employees to get the benefits of membership, such as higher wages and benefits, without having to pay dues or other expenses, while putting the unions at a financial disadvantage.
‘You’ve really got to get in there and talk about it and remind workers how they got where they are now,” Asaro-Angelo said.
The GOP effort to minimize unions is designed to cut off a major source of funding for Democrats, who received $9 of every $10 spent by unions in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
At the same time, Republicans have acted to relax restrictions on how much corporations and wealthy individuals can donate to campaigns, some of it anonymously.
Indeed, just two Republican donors, casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, spent $78 million on the 2016 election, more than one-third of the entire $207 million spent by organized labor.
“We’re losing American democacy because labor doesn’t have a seat at the table,” DeSaulnier said.
Instead, the richest Americans have reaped most of the benefits of the economic recovery; 80.5 percent of the income growth in New Jersey from 2009 to 2012 went to the wealthiest 1 percent of its residents, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a research group whose board includes union officials and Democratic Party officials.
“We have to just solidly make the connection,” Pocan said. “All you have to do is compare the unionization rate and the inequality rate.”
Semmens argues otherwise, saying that requiring workers to join unions is not the solution.
“Whatever problems there might be with inequality, giving more power to unions is not the right approach,” he said.
In the last election, Donald Trump carried industrial states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania as he promised to bring back jobs that had migrated to countries with lower wages and benefits.
“They (voters) really felt there was a disconnect on core economic issues,” Pocan said from one side of a rectangular table at Rutgers University’s Camden campus, where the lawmakers and labor experts had gathered to kick off a day-long program. “If you’re not talking about things people are talking about at their kitchen table, you’re not having a conversation.”
As unions continue to lose influence, workers are trying to get their kitchen-table issues addressed at the ballot box.
Even as Republicans won the White House and held onto both houses of Congress in the last election, four states, Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington, voted to raise their state’s minimum wages. The federal wage is $7.25 an hour.
“What we’ve seen in the worker movement is a lot of action at the ballot box to gain benefits that were formerly done at the bargaining table,” Asaro-Angelo said. “Folks realized they could do this on their own.”