Monday, November 24, 2008

Elaine Bernard on State of US Labor and Bulding Union Power

Elaine Bernard has a valuable analysis of the state of US unions on the Talking Union blog.

Bernard is executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard University Law School and is a vice-chair of Democratic Socialists of America.

It is recommended reading for union members, but also for everyone concerned about the status of American democracy.

Here's a central and often overlooked impact of whether workers have the effective right to a union or not.


The decline in strength, density and influence of the labor movement as a whole must be a concern for everyone - whether a union member or not. The decline in unions has led to stagnating and/or declining wages and benefits of private sector workers, undermining the entire community. In a Hobbesian world of labor markets, no one sector or group can remain an island of good wages and working standards in a sea of declining standards and conditions.

In addition to the economic impact, the decline in unions has also had a detrimental impact on our democracy. Rights at work, including freedom of association and the right to form unions and bargain collectively are key underpinnings of a democratic society. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “in democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.” Where, but through the labor movement, do millions of American workers learn how to democratically combine, not with an exclusive community of their choosing, but with a workforce hired by an employer and molded into a community though union organizing?

The workplace is a unique location in which most of us spend many of our waking hours and where important decisions are made that impact our lives and the lives of our neighbors. Without a union as a vehicle for collective voice and action, individual workers are powerless. How can workers spend eight or more hours a day in workplaces where they have no right, legal or otherwise, to participate incrucial decisions that affect them, and then engage in robust, critical dialogue about our society after hours? Eventually the strain of being deferential servants with few rights from nine to five diminishes our after-hours liberty and sense of civic entitlement and responsibility.

Read the whole thing.

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