Washington — Organized labor is facing threats on multiple fronts: a majority of states now have so-called “right-to-work” laws, workers in foreign-owned auto plants continue to reject organizing efforts and robots are replacing humans.
The head of the AFL-CIO vows to fight back by charging up union members in the industrial Midwest to vote for the interests of working people in the next election. And the United Auto Workers declares it will not concede defeat as it attempts to add members in untapped areas of the country.
In all, it has been a tough year for labor unions. The United Auto Workers again failed to organize workers in the South, with workers at a Nissan plant in Mississippi voting against unionizing by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in early August. The UAW’s efforts were not helped by indictments of union officials for allegedly conspiring to raid millions of dollars from training funds for blue-collar workers.
States continue to pass right-to-work laws that weaken labor’s influence by not requiring workers to join unions or pay union dues at their workplaces. Kentucky became the 27th right-to-work state in January. Missouri became the 28th in February.
Additionally, an administration seen as unfriendly to organized labor occupies the White House following a presidential campaign in which Donald Trump won several states — including Michigan — where it was believed union mobilization would carry Hillary Clinton to a win.
In 2016, 10.7 percent of combined private and public sector workers belonged to unions, with 14.6 million union members in all, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That represented a loss of 240,000 workers from the previous year when 11.1 percent of workers were in unions. In 1983, the first year for which comparable data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union members.
But AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says reports of labor’s demise have been exaggerated. He points to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in January that showed more than 60 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of unions. And he warns against reading too much into last fall’s election.
“Some working people, fed up with working harder for less, sick and tired of a political system that doesn’t address their basic concerns, were willing to take a chance on Donald Trump,” he said at an event last week in Washington. “But instead of a bold new direction, all workers have gotten is broken promises, outright attacks, and dangerous and divisive rhetoric.”
He said union leaders are intent on reversing the trend that caused rank-and-file members to switch allegiances. He said the labor group is planning to focus its members on the 2018 elections “in the most robust member-to-member program in the history of the AFL-CIO.”
He said the union will hammer home the importance of voting, particularly for workers in the traditionally “blue wall” Democratic states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — a wall that failed to hold for Hillary Clinton in the last election.
“In most of those states that were lost,” he said, “it was probably 10- or 15,000 votes, and that’s 10- or 15,000 votes that could have changed the course of history.”
Trumka, who resigned from the president’s American Manufacturing Council before the entire council was dissolved, added: “My message is this: The change that voters tried out for in the 2016 campaign can be found by standing together in unions. Simply put, union workers empowered by the freedom to negotiate with their employers do better on every single economic benchmark.”
Right to work
Arthur Wheaton, a labor specialist at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, said Trump’s presidency could end up galvanizing union members to stick together.
“Unions are seeing the promise or hope of Trump is not there so that may change some of their political activities going forward,” he said. “They’re finding out the things politicians say is not equal to the things that politicians do.”
Wheaton said unions have to be concerned about the possibility of more states adopting right-to-work laws that prohibit agreements between employees and labor unions that mandate all workers pay union dues. He said the Trump administration could push for a similar prohibition at the federal level. Michigan passed such a measure in late 2012 that went into effect in March 2013.
“The biggest battle for unions is probably going to be to make sure that right to work doesn’t continue to expand like wildfire, and to make sure that we don’t have a national right-to-work law,” he said.
Kristin Dziczek, director of the Industry, Labor and Economics Group at the Center for Automotive Research, said the new president has scrambled the political calculus involving union members.
“You can see a lot of union households vote Republican, and that’s reflected in the way leadership talks,” she said, noting it was highly unusual for Trumka and other union leaders to join advisory panels that were formed by a Republican president.
Dziczek said the outcome of the Trump administration’s efforts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement would go a long way to determining the effectiveness of Trump’s outreach to unions.
“We have very different politics in the U.S. that are shifting dramatically,” she said. “You have a Republican president who has to get a Republican Congress to approve his trade agreement when Democrats are going to be his strongest allies if he toughens trade.”
The UAW declined to comment on its plans after the union’s devastating defeat in organizing Nissan workers. The union has framed the loss at the Canton, Mississippi, plant as a temporary setback.
Gary Casteel, secretary-treasurer of the UAW and director of the international union’s transnational department, said in a Detroit News op-ed that the union would keep pushing to organize workers at plants owned by Nissan and other foreign-based manufacturers in Southern states.
What unions have little control over is the increasing use of robots and other mechanized processes to do the work of several people.
Dziczek said automotive factories have been automated for years. “We’ve had robotics in manufacturing for a long time,” she said. “It’s one of the most highly automated industries there is.”
Wheaton said automation will likely change the nature of unionized jobs, but not eliminate them entirely.
“It’s not necessarily a replacement, but it will cause changes to job categories,” he said. “Machines can’t feed themselves. Somebody has to stock them.”