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Which Workers Need Unions, And Which Don't?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Wisconsin's recall election on Tuesday wasn't entirely decided on the issue of union rights, but there's no way to paint the result as anything but a major defeat for the public employee unions. Earlier this year, a referendum on similar issue went the other way in Ohio, but the trend appears to point to dwindling membership and diminished power.

Of course, in the private sector the number of union shops has declined steadily for decades, which raises questions. Who needs a union? What industries? What professions? What kinds of workers would benefit and where might unions be counterproductive? Have some unions outlived their usefulness? Are they the victims of past successes?

Tell us about your job. Would a union make things better or get in the way? 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Just in the way of full disclosure, NPR is a union shop. Later in the program, Andy Beyer on the Belmont Stakes, the Triple Crown, and how to pick a winner.

But first, Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University, author of "American Dreamers: How The Left Changed A Nation." He's with us here in studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program.

MICHAEL KAZIN: Nice to be here.

CONAN: And first, the results in Wisconsin, union leaders invested a lot of time and money and political capital. How bad a defeat is this?

KAZIN: Well, it's obviously a very bad defeat symbolically if not materially. They put a lot of energy into the demonstrations last year and early this year against Governor Walker's plans and they had big hopes for the recall election. They actually won control of the state senate. Not the union leaders, but the Democrats won control of the state senate, but that doesn't mean very much because the state senate doesn't meet again until after the next election.

But, you know, this is just another indication, of course, that unions have gotten weaker in America since the 1950s when they represented about 35 percent of the labor force.

CONAN: And public employee unions had overtaken the number of people in unions in the private sector.

KAZIN: Yes, that's still true, actually. There are more workers in public employee unions now, state, federal and local, than there are in private sector unions.

CONAN: And are these defections, are they coming in certain professions, in certain areas of the country? And how is it happening?

KAZIN: Well, it's a complicated story. Private sector unions began to decline really in the 1960s and afterwards when manufacturing began to leave the United States and when construction firms began to hire more illegal immigrants to do some of the regular jobs and when more of the labor force began to move into service and clerical jobs where unions have historically always been weak.

Public employee unions actually began growing in the '60s and have grown really up until the 1990s, and there, of course, the opposition to them is coming a lot from conservatives, mostly Republicans, not only Republicans, however.

CONAN: Some big city Democratic mayors.

KAZIN: Yeah, and governors like Andrew Cuomo in New York State as well, who, obviously, are trying to cut their very severe deficits and their budgets. And one of the largest budget items is both wages and pensions for public employees.

CONAN: And the perception that those wages and benefits are A) out of whack with what's available in the private sector, and B) are a primary cause of the deficit problems that so many cities and states and indeed the federal government are experiencing.

KAZIN: Yes, and one of the things that makes public employee unions vulnerable is that their employers are, to an extent, the taxpayers, not just the elected officials who actually hire them. And so a lot of, even some union workers in Wisconsin, for example, private sector union workers, think that public sector union workers are doing too well and too privileged and are sort of locked into these good pensions.

And so they resent that, those privileges.

CONAN: We're going to be talking about a plant that's trying to organize in Mississippi, a Nissan plant. But there is a piece in the Los Angeles Times by Jerry Hirsch, who quoted several workers there. I don't want to give anymore pieces of the pie to anyone else. I need it for myself, said Kevin Carroll (ph) of LaGrange, Georgia, who was unemployed when hired by Kia Motors manufacturing last year.

This is Charles Miller of Powder Springs, Georgia: We have good communication with management here. Why would you need a union? The only time a union shows up is to collect dues at election time. And this is after the union lost an election at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee. This says the UAW has to have a reason to come inside a company. Nissan doesn't give them one.

That's Anish Peters(ph), who's built cars at Nissan's factory for the 17 years. I don't need someone talking to the boss for me. This is in an industry that's almost synonymous with unions.

KAZIN: Yes, but of course I would ask that gentlemen what happens if the boss isn't being nice to him, if the boss isn't listening to him. Then he doesn't have a leg to stand on. The whole purpose of unions, really, and we've forgotten this, I think, in many ways in recent years, was not necessarily primarily to lift people's wages, to get them better benefits, to get them the weekend off, though those are important gains that unions have helped Americans make.

It was to give Americans a voice on the job. After all, most of us spend a large proportion of our working hours working, and - on the job. And I think unions have always said we deserve some democracy, some democratic rights on the job. And unions are, at least in theory, a way to get that.

CONAN: And are they, in some respects, victims of their own success? In many workplaces, most workplaces, you would think, the basics of working conditions and pay, these are not sweatshops anymore.

KAZIN: No, but I wouldn't say they're wonderful. People can be hired - can be fired rather easily now. They can even be fired for trying to organize a union, even though that's illegal, but it's very difficult to enforce that particular part of the labor law.

CONAN: This weekend Nissan workers in Mississippi, Congressman Bernie Thompson and the UAW met in Canton, Mississippi to discuss organizing a union. This was this past weekend. Previous efforts by the UAW to organize in Mississippi, a right to work state, have been unsuccessful. The same is true for much of the South. Jay Moon serves as president and CEO of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association and joins us now by phone from Jackson, Mississippi. Nice to have you with us today.

JAY MOON: Thank you very much. Glad to be here.

CONAN: And you argue that the auto workers there don't need a union.

MOON: Well, that's exactly right. As the gentleman was mentioning before (unintelligible) employees here who have looked at this a number of times have determined themselves that they don't need a union. And therefore the wages, the benefits that are paid, by in this case Nissan, are very much according to standards that you'll find across the country.

CONAN: So are they modeled on the contracts at union shops?

MOON: Well, I think that they're based upon the skill levels of the employees, the amount of time that they have been working there. I think they look at a wide variety of issues, the availability of the labor. As you know, in the country as a whole we have a real scarcity of labor out there in many areas, and so that's the way in which wages are determined, based upon demand and skill levels. And I think that's one of the ways that certainly Nissan is looking at their employees.

CONAN: And somebody might be surprised when you say scarcity of labor when the unemployment rate just went up again, but yes, it's true. In certain specialties, in certain kinds of jobs, you can't find enough people.

MOON: Well, the National Association of Manufacturers that we're affiliated with is estimating that across the United States today there are 600,000 jobs in advanced manufacturing that they simply can't find people with the skill sets to be able to fill those jobs. So we sure have a long way to go to increase the skill levels of our employees nationwide and certainly everybody's trying to do a lot of things to increase those skill levels.

CONAN: You know, as you know, the UAW reports there have been civil and human rights violations at Nissan plants, and that's a reason, one reason there should be a union.

MOON: Well, I haven't seen any specifics relative to any of those allegations, relative to Nissan or any other plant in the state, for that matter. So we have to see exactly what they're talking about. It's easy, in some ways, to make allegations without being able to show what the need is.

But as I indicated a moment ago, the employees that work at Nissan, both in the plants that they have in Tennessee as well as in the state of Mississippi, have indicated themselves that they don't believe that joining a union or organizing for a union representation would provide any benefits to them whatsoever. So they have made that decision themselves.

CONAN: You're the president CEO of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association. Is there any situation in Mississippi anyplace in your industry where a union is a good thing?

MOON: Well, we don't believe so. As you mentioned, we are a right to work state, which means that an employee cannot be required to join a union as a condition of employment. And we feel like the relationship between the employer and the employee is the best way to go. They don't need a middle man, so to speak, between themselves and management and the employees.

And that seems to be working out very well as we have seen time and again attempts to organize in the state have almost all failed over the last 10 years. So it's really the employees that are saying themselves, we have a good relationship with those that we're working with. We feel like our wages and our benefits are commensurate with what we should be receiving. We don't see a benefit to being in a union.

CONAN: Jay Moon, thanks very much for your time.

MOON: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Jay Moon, as I said, president CEO of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, with us on the phone from Jackson, Mississippi. Right to work states, Michael Kazin, this is another area where this is expanding. Indiana, the first time a state in the industrial Midwest has become a right to work state.

KAZIN: Yes. And one of the reasons why auto plants like Nissan and others moved to the South, of course, was because they were right to work states. Right to work, by the way, just not sure all your listeners understand what that means. Right to work is not like equal rights or something. Basically, it says that if a union is organizing and your company and actually has a contract with the company, you don't have to join that union, even though you can get the benefits of that union contract.

So, you know, it's really a way of scaring people away from unions and scaring unions away from certain states where they have right to work. No, I mean, it's clear that as unions have gotten weaker, partly because of economic structural reasons I talked about before and partly because of the Republican Party pretty much as a whole has gone to war against unions in the last few decades, not surprisingly, especially at a time of economic crisis, it's easier to make the argument, I think, that unions just make it tougher for businesses to do well, especially in competition with non-union states.

After all, if plants move into Mississippi, which has been a very weak union state for a long, long time, then Indiana employers are going to say, well, we can't compete with Mississippi and so you have a race to the bottom.

CONAN: Let me flip the question I asked of Jay Moon to you. Is there any situation, any profession, any job type that wouldn't benefit from a union?

KAZIN: Well, in theory, I don't think so actually. It doesn't mean everyone's going to organize unions, but there are countries like Sweden and Norway, which have about 60 percent, 70 percent of workers in unions and they have professors who are in unions, professors like me in unions, doctors who are in unions. You know, for me, the right to join a union is a basic democratic right, just like the right to vote.

The right to be able to eat anywhere you want to, a civil right, a human right. And if workers decide they don't want that right, that's up to them.

CONAN: We're talking with Michael Kazin and we're talking about the challenges that face unions. Tell us about your job. Would a union make things better or get in the way? 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. In two California towns an overwhelming majority of residents voted this week to reduce pension benefits for unionized city workers. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat, faces a huge pension shortfall in that state and hopes to strike a deal to cut workers' pensions.

Those places are hardly unique. Many unions face diminished bargaining and political power, declining membership, which leads to the question, who needs a union? Tell us about your job. Would a union make things better or get in the way? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Michael Kazin, an expert in U.S. politics and social movements who teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent magazine. And let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. This is Matt, and Matt's on the line with us from Akron.

MATT: Hello, Neal. As a part time faculty member at the University of Akron, and when I say part time, I mean, just part time in title. I was teaching a full time load. I earned less than $17,000 per year, received no health insurance of any kind was denied unemployment or would have been denied unemployment compensation in between terms.

This is something that, in the state of Ohio, part time faculty, you're specifically excluded from public collective bargaining, which seems to me to be a real shame since 60 to 70 percent of our college faculty on American college and university campuses now are part time or contingent faculty. And most of whom operate or teach under similar circumstances. Some of whom even qualify as I did when I taught at the University of Akron for public assistance, for Medicaid and food stamps.

CONAN: One is tempted to say puts a new meaning into the nickname Zips.

MATT: Yeah. Absolutely.

CONAN: And were there efforts to organize a union?

MATT: Well, you know, in Ohio, there have been, I guess, some efforts to try to put together, you know, some sort of operation. I'm actually the vice president of an organization, New Faculty Majority, which has been gaining some traction not as a union, but as an alternative advocacy group that has been working to raise public awareness of the condition under which part time faculty work.

Because I think that we can all agree that earning less than $20,000 a year when you have a master's degree or a PhD teaching college students and not receiving any access to health insurance or other sources of benefits is just absolutely unacceptable. And I think most parents don't know that they're actually contributing to the exploitation of workers.

CONAN: Matt, thanks very much for your time. Appreciate it.

MATT: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Is the academic field, upper education, is that highly organized?

KAZIN: Not at all. Not at all. There is a faculty union, I think, at the state colleges in California, several other colleges around the country, mostly community colleges. But as the caller mentions, there's a huge gap between people like me, tenured, pretty well paid, pretty good health insurance, though not wonderful, and the temporary casual faculty, so to speak, who are really migrant workers.

Some people have to travel 200 miles to teach at two or three different schools and still often make less than $30,000 a year even after seven, eight years of education. So there's a real two-tier system in higher education.

CONAN: Let's go next to Bill and Bill's with us from Grandville, Michigan.

BILL: Yeah, I just wanted to make a quick comment that I was union and I saw a lot of non-production and we ended up losing our factory. It closed down due to not being able to reach a negotiation or whatever. Since I've left the union, I'm still working machining and I'm actually doing better now not being in a union than I was before, benefits, pay and just basically the amount of rhetoric between me and my bosses directly.

CONAN: So it's a more pleasant situation and it pays as well or better.

BILL: It's more pleasant, it's more fruitful for the company and the employee.

CONAN: And would you, if the opportunity arose, go back to a union job?

BILL: Absolutely not.

CONAN: All right, Bill. Thanks very much for the call. And that's some of the complaints you hear in some unions, particularly, well, the UAW is one of them.

KAZIN: Yeah. There are, you know, good unions, efficient unions, honest unions and corrupt, inefficient ones, which do very badly. But one of the things important to note is that as unions get weaker, they get weaker in helping people. They often attract people who are not as good at the leadership as they were in the past.

But important to realize, too, historically, that the time when American wages were highest, the time when the gap between the richest Americans and the middle class was the least was when unions were strongest in the 1950s, when 35 percent of Americans were in unions. So, you know, unions are not wonderful institutions. If they were, everybody would join them.

Some are. Some aren't. But...

CONAN: We were talking on Monday with the Wall Street Journal reporter who'd done a piece about Wisconsin in the run-up to the election. But it was about teachers there in one particular union because of previous legislation now given the right, if they chose not to join a union, not to pay the dues, more than half decided not to do it, in part, just because you said, he quoted one person in that article saying, the union doesn't do anything for me anymore.

KAZIN: But the union was able to get people tenure, was able to get people a health plan, was able to get people a pension when it was stronger. And again, what happens a lot, I think, is individuals who have bad experiences with unions say all unions are like that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. If people have good experiences, say all unions are like that.

KAZIN: But the basic thing, to me, is that people should have the right and the ability to join union if they want to. And that is one of the things which is being really undermined by recent legislation, by recent political conflicts and also by some of the mistakes unions have made themselves.

CONAN: Let's go next to Zach(ph) and Zach's one the line from Orlando.

ZACH: Hi there.


ZACH: My name is Zach and I am a proud member of the Actors Equity Association, the union for stage actors. And I am really, really happy that we have a union. I think in a business where so many people are competing for such a limited amount of work, once we are under contract, there's so much benefit to knowing that we're getting paid fairly. And we're working a reasonable number of hours and we're receiving all those other benefits and protection.

CONAN: And this is also a sporadic profession. It's not exactly like you're working 52 weeks a year.

ZACH: Well, currently I am because I'm working at Walt Disneyworld, which is a steady job, but yeah, it can be somewhat sporadic so they also help - Equity can help having consistent benefits, consistent health insurance and everything else.

CONAN: There's also, well, this wouldn't apply to Equity, but I know that during the Screen Actors and the strike...

ZACH: The writer's strike.

CONAN: The writer's strike, a lot of it was about new technology. This is an area when there's new technology involved, Michael Kazin, I would think that there's interest at that point. They were trying to protect their whatever income there might be from aftermarket digital sales and that sort of thing. And this was a new area, one area where you're going to need a lot of people working together, collective power, to get the studios to pay attention to you.

KAZIN: Yes, also, one of the things that unions can do and have always done is to educate people about the change in their job, the change in the technology, the change in production methods, and individuals, if left to their own devices, are not going to have time to do that kind of study. So you really need professionals in unions on the side of workers to help to educate them about what's going on in their industry and to a certain degree, in the larger economy. And that's something people don't have time to do by themselves, usually.

CONAN: Zach, thanks very much for the call.

ZACH: Thank you.

CONAN: Sara Ziff is a fashion model who left the business to study labor and community organizing, came back to modeling and started a union. She joins us now by phone from New York. Nice to have you with us today.

SARA ZIFF: Hi. I actually - I'd just like to clarify, The Model Alliance is not a union. It's a nonprofit group.

CONAN: A nonprofit group. You would like it to be a union, though.

ZIFF: Well, originally, I was thinking in terms of pursuing unionization and I approached established unions. They said it would be a constitutional change to accept models into their membership. And so I tried to think in terms of alternative structures and that's how we came to form The Model Alliance, which is a nonprofit labor group that gives models a platform to organize for better working conditions in the fashion industry.

CONAN: And what Zach, our previous caller, was saying about actors, a whole lot of people applying for limited work, sounds like a definition of the modeling industry.

ZIFF: Sure. And actually, he mentioned that he is a member of Actor's Equity and we've been working in partnership with both Equity and AGMA, the American Guild of Musical Artists. So we are not a union ourselves, but we have been working cooperatively with unions.

CONAN: This glamorous profession, why would they need labor help?

ZIFF: Well, a lot of people, you know, they might roll their eyes and say, why would fashion models need a union because it seems like such glamorous work. But the fact is that, you know, we are actually a very vulnerable demographic. Most models start their careers between the ages of 13 and 16. You know, a lot of the time our careers only last a few years and then we're out. That's sort of the nature of fashion. You're in one minute and out the next. And because there's such a high turnover rate, and it's a very youth-centric industry, that makes it very hard to speak out if, say, you're not getting paid for your work or you're having to deal with sexual harassment.

CONAN: Not getting paid for your work - oh, they just decided not to pay you?

ZIFF: Well, yeah, it's kind of a dirty little secret in the fashion industry that a lot of designers at New York Fashion Week actually don't pay their models any money for their work, that you're expected to walk down the runway for trade, meaning, you know, here's a tank-top thanks, not cash.


CONAN: That's - it's going to be difficult to pay the rent with that.

ZIFF: It is. It is. But since we're generally considered independent contractors and not employees, minimum wage law does not apply to us.

CONAN: All right, well, and so how many models do you have in the alliance now?

ZIFF: We've got about 200 folks, and we're growing. We just launched in February so we're very a new group. But we've already seen results. So, for example, Vogue magazine just announced last month that they've pledged not to hire models under the age of 16.

CONAN: Sara Ziff, thanks very much for the call - for being with us today. We appreciate it.

ZIFF: Thanks so much.

CONAN: Sara Ziff, the founder and director of Model Alliance, a nonprofit labor group for models. She joined us by phone from New York. And that's, as you say, an industry that you don't really think of as needing a union, but, according to her, it does.

KAZIN: Yeah. And actually, you've got more and more sort of nonunion unions out there. There's a freelancers union in New York state, for example, which has signed up a lot of young people who have a temporary job here, a temporary job there. They try to put some pressure on employers, but they also give people a way - a cheaper way to buy health insurance, a cheaper way to look for jobs sort of collectively, to talk about their problems together. There's worker centers around the world, which have helped put pressure - around the country, rather - helped put pressure on some manufacturers of tomatoes, for example, to raise the price of wages by putting pressure on fast food restaurants, like Burger King and McDonald's.

So because the labor laws have gotten really very tough to enforce, not help the unions as much as they did in the past, a lot of workers unhappy with their situation whether they're professionals or migrant farm workers find other ways to press their demands.

CONAN: We're talking with Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University. His book "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And here's an email. This is from Jeremy: Unions served their purpose in the past. I worked for Eastern Air Lines in the 1980s, and they might have survived if not for the continual labor disputes with the union and potential strikes. I remember trash collectors in the union making $20 an hour.

And let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Sid, and Sid is on the line with us from San Jose.

SID: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Sid.

SID: How are you doing?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

SID: First, let me say that I'm very positive on unions for a lot of the things they do in the way of working conditions, pay and whatnot else. But the one reason I did not join a union was because of the seniority system. I was a pilot in the Air Force, flying transport. The natural progression, of course, was to the airlines. And most of my friends went there. However, I was in the left seat, the equivalent of a captain, when you go to the airlines, to go to the left seat it's not based on skill and ability. You, of course, have to pass the FAA requirements. It's based on seniority. I couldn't see like my friends did, waiting 10 to 15 years with a major airline getting in the left seat. So to me, the seniority system there and then some other businesses or education is also a problem.

CONAN: So it seems like an artificial rule. So, on the other hand, what does a driver of a multiengine airplane do otherwise?

SID: Well, there's certainly - for example, in the Air Force...

CONAN: No, I mean...

SID: ...it's very...

CONAN: ...what other career opportunities are there for you other than going to the airlines?

SID: Well, certainly, private industry you can go with as a pilot of this aircraft, that type of thing. And a few people did that as well.

CONAN: All right. Sid, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

SID: Certainly.

CONAN: Michael?

KAZIN: Yeah. I just want to make a comment about seniority. You know, it was a great advance, I think, at the time, 1930s, 1940s when a lot of unions were able to press that as a - were able to win that for workers because employers did fire people just for being older even though they could still do the job because they realized that younger workers were cheaper and faster and often more efficiently. But it's true that sometimes it can be a burden on an industry. But, again, it was important, a gain I think, to not - for a worker not just lose their job because he or she got old.

CONAN: Let's go next to Greg(ph), and Greg is with us from Hilton Head, South Carolina.

GREG: Yes. Good afternoon.


GREG: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

GREG: I'm a small business owner who has gone through about a year-and-a-half fight to - against a union to try to stay an independent contractor. I'm in the construction industry, and, you know, it's been quite a battle. I finally won the second election, and the NLRB said I'm done. It's cost me about $100,000 to fight this thing on moneys I couldn't afford. I have 16 field employees, and it's - they didn't get a vote the first time and got one the second time. The NLRB said I had to have a second election. And it's been quite a battle.

CONAN: And the second election, how did that turn out?

GREG: The second election, they got one vote. The first election, they got zero votes.

CONAN: I'm sorry. I misunderstood. So this has been, well, obviously something that is a passion in your life now?

GREG: Oh, what it does is it's just - it puts me out of the business that I was in because I couldn't - it was $13 per working hour plus that I had to pay in benefits and in the construction industry is, you know, it is such a depressed industry to begin with. It's a - it was just another - a no deal.

CONAN: Well...

GREG: So it was quite a fight, and they just picked me out of the blue, I suppose. And they solicited my employees and I wound up having two elections.

CONAN: Greg, thanks very much for the call.

GREG: Thank you.

CONAN: This email from Joe(ph) in Oakland: Many years ago, I took a labor relations class at a large corporation after my first promotion to management. One important thing I remember learning was the major thing that workers - drew workers to vote for unions was not the possibility of higher wages but the certainty of a grievance procedure. They wanted to have a way to complain about unfair treatment by the boss. One of my employer's strategies for keeping unions out was to have policies to ensure that all employees were treated equally.

And, well, it sounds like maybe in Greg's shop they were and opposed the union and maybe in other shops that's not quite the case, Michael Kazin.

KAZIN: It's possible, but, you know, the labor - I'm curious. I'm sorry Greg is not on the line anymore because the labor law has it that you don't have an election unless 50 percent plus one of the workers in a given bargaining unit call for an election, ask for an election. So there must have been something a little more complex going on there.

CONAN: Michael Kazin, thanks very much for your time. Appreciate it.

KAZIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University, author of "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation" and co-editor of Dissent magazine. Stay with us. When we come back, we'll be talking with Andy Beyer about the Triple Crown and the Belmont Stakes. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.