Roundtable: Labor Day Status, Katrina Jobless Tuesday's topics include labor issues in light of the Labor Day holiday, and the thousands left jobless in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Guests: Bill Fletcher, a former AFL-CIO executive now working for TransAfrica, and Stan Greer, senior research associate for the National Institute for Labor Relations Research.

Roundtable: Labor Day Status, Katrina Jobless

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This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

On today's Roundtable from our headquarters in DC is Bill Fletcher, former executive of the AFL-CIO, along with Stan Greer, senior research associate for the National Institute for Labor Relations Research. He joins us from his office in Springfield, Virginia.

Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. BILL FLETCHER (Former Executive, AFL-CIO; TransAfrica Forum): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: And let me just move straight ahead to one of the many topics we want to talk about. Labor issues and white-collar workers--when most people think about labor issues, they think about blue-collar workers, but, of course, there's all sorts of unions. There's, you know, SAG which represents movie stars and recently the Ford Motor Company in Detroit cut 400 white-collar jobs. Now, Bill, does this mean that labor issues should be more important to white-collar workers, and if so, why haven't they been?

Mr. FLETCHER: Labor issues have always been important to white-collar workers. Part of the problem is that the way that the National Labor Relations Act was structured particularly with the Taft-Hartley amendments in the '40s made it more difficult for white-collar and so-called managerial workers to legally unionize. There was also a certain amount of self-deception or illusion that was promoted that said that they didn't need to organize. Now on the part of the union movement, unfortunately too many union leaders had insufficient vision to recognize that they needed to organize in the newer work forces. And so I think there were problems strategically on our side.

CHIDEYA: And, Stan, what about that issue? I mean, from your perspective, dealing with labor relations from a different point of view, do you think that white-collar workers should be concerned with unionizing?

Mr. STAN GREER (Senior Research Associate, National Institute for Labor Relations Research): Well, I think especially in the public sector, it's very pervasive because as I'm sure many of your listeners know nearly half of all the unionized workers in America today are in the public sector and a very large percentage of those employees are, you know, in professions like teaching. That's a big share of them. So, of course, in the public sector, unionism for white-collar workers is already a major issue.

I think, though, you're kind of suggesting that as a result of these layoffs of white-collar workers at Ford, that that should be something that would encourage them to consider unionizing. And given that the data recently cited by the Labor Research Association, which is a pro-union think tank in New York City, shows that the layoffs in the manufacturing sector between '99 and 2004 were twice as big in percentage terms for unionized workers as they were for non-unionized workers in manufacturing. I don't know why white-collar Ford employees would think that they'd benefit from unionizing with regard to job security.

CHIDEYA: Well, Bill, what about that? Do unions actually at this point in time offer protection? Unions are certainly going through a turbulent period. Are they effective today?

Mr. FLETCHER: It's better for a worker to be unionized than not. The problem that workers across the country face is the complete and total disregard of national relations enacted in the law, the ability of companies, for example, to declare bankruptcy and thereby to avoid paying pensions, to restructure their collective bargaining agreements. So the issue isn't just whether people want unions. The data is fairly clear that more than half of non-union workers would love at this moment to join a former union.

Mr. GREER: Well, that's what one survey says.

Mr. FLETCHER: It's more than one survey. And...

Mr. GREER: Well, there's another survey recently done by John Zogby who's a pretty well-known pollster which indicates that it's roughly 35 percent of workers who would, you know, consider joining a union and only about half of those say they would definitely vote for a union given the opportunity. So I know there's a poll out by Peter Hart, although we haven't seen the wording of that poll, which gives a different result, but I wouldn't necessarily go by the Peter Hart poll as something that's...

Mr. FLETCHER: But even...

CHIDEYA: All right. Bill, go ahead.

Mr. FLETCHER: All right. Even if it was 35 percent, we're talking about millions of workers who would want to be in a union or form a union and are systematically discouraged. I mean, people act as if this is just like an evenhanded thing. Someone sits at the table...

Mr. GREER: Well, that's a case where the majority rule thing, doesn't it?

Mr. FLETCHER: No, it...

Mr. GREER: Doesn't it? That we have a principle in our labor law which I disagree with but I think you probably support as a former AFL-CIO official that you have to have a majority of the employees in the workplace voting for a union or indicating support for the union through some of the way to have the union acting as the bargaining agent. Now if we had a members-only rule where, you know, workers who were in the minority within their workplace could be represented by a union as their members-only bargaining agent--actually, that's permitted under the law but it's not supported by union officials nowadays as an option--then, you know, it'd be easier for workers who are in the minority, but if you have, you know, 35 percent and incidentally...

Mr. FLETCHER: It's not permitted.

Mr. GREER: ...that may vote for unions. That's not saying they would. Only about half of those said they would vote for it. Well, then you're not going to have 35 percent represented by a union in a members-only exclusive system because in most cases, those employees are going to be in the minority within their workplace.

Mr. FLETCHER: I think that...

CHIDEYA: Let me just jump in for a second and reintroduce both of you gentlemen. We've been hearing most recently from Stan Greer, who's a senior research associate for the National Institute for Labor Relations Research, and also from Bill Fletcher, who is now with TransAfrica but is the former executive of the AFL-CIO.

And, Stan, let me just, you know, reiterate your point. You seem to be saying that it's important to realize that in work spaces not always people...

Mr. GREER: There's always consensus.

CHIDEYA: ...people seem to be asked to support unionization by a 50 percent or more rule and you were saying or arguing that perhaps relations would be easier if there were a minority rule, that a few people could unionize even if most didn't. What...

Mr. GREER: A members-only rule which some pro-union people advocate. There's a book recently by a retired labor law professor from Southern Methodist University who's definitely a good friend of the AFL-CIO. His book was actually endorsed by Linda Chaves-Thompson, the third in command I guess at the AFL-CIO. His name is Charles Morris. The book is called "The Blue Eagle At Work," and he points out that members-only bargaining is permitted under the National Labor Relations Act and that has historically been recognized by the federal courts in the US but that this option has been ignored.

CHIDEYA: But let me get Bill back in.

Mr. FLETCHER: It hasn't been recognized.

Mr. GREER: Well...

Mr. FLETCHER: I mean...

Mr. GREER: should research more of his book.

Mr. FLETCHER: No, no, no, no, excuse me.

CHIDEYA: Let's let Bill talk for a second.

Mr. GREER: I think he knows more about that than you do.

Mr. FLETCHER: Let's use a little manners here now. OK. So the basic issue that we have to be clear on is that it does not pay to obey the law from the standpoint of an employer. So when workers are trying to decide whether or not to join or form a union, one of the factors that they have to deal with is employer intimidation, that this is--there's a fundamental question that has to be answered. Why does an employer have any business at all in workers making a choice for themselves as to whether they would have representation? Why should an employer have the right to have meetings with an employee and talk to that employee about forming a union? They shouldn't anymore than any employer would accept me as a worker coming in to their board room and having an impact on their investment decisions. I mean, so...

Mr. GREER: But, of course, a union does have an impact on their investment decision.

Mr. FLETCHER: No, no, no. Let's be clear.

CHIDEYA: Well, Bill, let me ask you...

Mr. FLETCHER: Let's stop playing the game.

CHIDEYA: ...a question.

Mr. FLETCHER: All right.

CHIDEYA What is the purpose? You have been at the top of one of the most major unions in America. What do you really believe is the purpose of a union in terms of shaping the ability of workers to chart their path at an organization on a very basic level because not everyone is in a workplace that has any unionized workers.

Mr. FLETCHER: It's almost exactly what you said. It's the giving the workers the right to collectively discuss their future and to work together to collaborate to improve their living standard and to work with other workers in their geographic area or their industry to determine their future. That's the purpose of the union. And what happens is when the employer has the ability to intimidate workers, when an employer can fire a worker for exercising his rights under the National Labor Relations Act and it takes years to get the worker reinstated, why should it surprise us that workers are afraid to organize? So this is one of the issues that we have to talk about if we're going to say that we actually have a democracy. Now if we want to admit that we don't, then it's a different discussion, but if we're saying that there should be democracy, if we're saying as the National Labor Relations Act said that the public policy of this country should be to support collective bargaining, a point that I think would be interesting to reiterate to President Bush, then we have a different discussion.

CHIDEYA: Stan, let me just jump in and direct you to a very specific example. You have Dutch bank ABN AMRO announcing that it's going to cut 1,500 jobs and outsource them to India. How does the whole idea of globalization fit into the delicate dance between employers and employees surrounding unions and labor issues?

Mr. GREER: Well, I'd like to point out in that context that late last year, Morton Bahr, who was until very recently the president of the Communications Workers of America and I guess he just retired, but he acknowledged that 39 percent of all jobs leaving the US through outsourcing are union jobs, even though just 14 percent of US jobs in manufacturing are unionized and it's only about 8 percent of the jobs in the private sector unionized. So clearly, you know, from the perspective of Morton Bahr, unionization is not a deterrent to outsourcing. In fact, you know, based on that statistic, it would be, you know, a factor promoting outsourcing.

And I found what Mr. Fletcher is saying here astonishing because, you know, I regularly look at Mr. Fletcher's work on the Web site called House of Labor and a larger Web site called TPMCafe, and, you know, he's focusing here entirely on--and I can't address everything he's saying, but on employer opposition to unionization as the cause of the decline in unionization. And yet there was an article on that Web site recently I thought was excellent. And it might even have been by Mr. Fletcher. I can't recall at the moment, but it was on Progressive Grocer magazine and the author of that article--again, it's on a pro-union Web site, a Web site to which Mr. Fletcher regularly contributes--was talking about how this magazine showed that grocers--they focus entirely on the customers' needs in deciding how to manage the store. And he wished that union officials would exhibit a similar concern toward the needs of rank and file members and suggested that that would do a lot to reverse the decline in unionization. And yet, you know, when Mr. Fletcher gets on the air here today, he's talking only about employer opposition as the explanation for declining unionization. I think that's ridiculous and I think he knows it's ridiculous because he don't want to...

CHIDEYA: But let me--before we start...

Mr. GREER: ...say it here in this forum.

CHIDEYA: ...hurling personal accusations, let me just jump in. There is also an issue in some cases--and I'm thinking specifically of the teachers union where people who are members of the union are split over whether or not the union itself has the right policy. Some teachers that we have spoken with are very much in favor of teacher union policy. Other ones think, `Well, you know what? We need to be more aggressive at kicking out bad teachers.' From your perspective, Bill, what are the reforms that need to happen within the labor movement in order to move it forward?

Mr. FLETCHER: Well, let me say that I did focus on employer resistance because I believe that's the principal problem, but I think that it's absolutely right to point out that the union movement has been stuck. It's been stuck in a framework that is decades out of reality and that part of what was just made referenced to is that there needs to be, in fact, a different connection between the leadership and the base, that one of the things, for example, that we need to institute it seems to me immediately, we need to have a different kind of internal education and a referendum process. In other words, there needs to be far greater debate in unions about the direction that the unions are going and that what ends up happening when you don't have that debate, when the leadership believes that it can simply make those decisions, then, of course, the members are going to feel alienated. So I'm absolutely a very staunch critic of existing trade unionism and think that in order for unionism to revive itself, it has to fundamentally reform itself.

CHIDEYA: What about that perspective, Stan?

Mr. GREER: Well...

CHIDEYA: You are hearing from someone who--you criticized Bill Fletcher for...

Mr. GREER: ...I appreciate that comment, but I think, you know, you have to go further because, you know, what he's talking about is more right to dissent within a union, more debate within unions, but I think that you're going to find that unless there's that right for the individual to decide for himself or herself whether or not he or she benefits from unionization, you're not going to have the right to debate within the union irrespective. It kind of pertains to the system that Lenin advocated in the old Soviet Union. He said, you know, `Well, there's no debate outside the Communist Party but there's maximum debate within the Communist Party.'


CHIDEYA: All right, Bill.

Mr. FLETCHER: Let's...

Mr. GREER: Now I know it's in theory but it didn't last for very long, did it, after all the unions ...(unintelligible).

CHIDEYA: I'm going to let Bill respond to that and then I have one final question before you gentlemen...

Mr. FLETCHER: I just think that that's sophistry, you know, when you introduce that. I mean, the issue is this. If you want to say, Stan...

Mr. GREER: There's not a response called sophistry.

Mr. FLETCHER: Stan, let's deal with sophistry, all right? Look it up in the dictionary. When we think about the issue or the ability of a worker to dissent from joining a union, I'll concede this point. I'd say if we want to have a situation where the employer has absolutely nothing to do with the unionization process, that is, the employer cannot say anything, cannot intimidate workers, etc., then you and I should have another discussion, but until that moment happens, then I'm not putting the burden of the problem with unionization primarily on the unions themselves because the power relationship is fundamentally different. The employer can say to the worker, `If you unionize, I'm going to have to think about moving.'

CHIDEYA: I'm going to have to jump in, gentlemen. We have one final question before we're ready to go, and it's a very critical and important question. Hurricane Katrina wiped out thousands of homes and businesses and jobs. What do you think is going to rebuild the lives of people affected by that hurricane? Will it be the union movement? Will it be a federal jobs program like the WPA? I'm going to start with you, Stan, and please keep your answers brief, gentlemen.

Mr. GREER: I'll try. I don't think that in today's America it's either the union movement by and large--I'm not going to say they won't participate, but the union movement by and large or the federal government that's going to be the engine that gets these people back to work. The market system that we have here in the US is going to be playing the primary role in getting these people working and feeding their families again.

CHIDEYA: All right. Bill, briefly.

Mr. FLETCHER: First, we have to have a president who recognizes the depth of the crisis and is not simply flying over the area and saying, `This is really too bad.' There needs to be real leadership. There is no leadership coming from the White House. The second, we have to have a recovery plan that really is thinking about--let's--all right--putting people to work to recover, to rebuild the area. There does need to be some sort of special unemployment compensation that helps the families survive in an X number of months because we're not just talking about days. We're absolutely talking about months, and we cannot rely on the forces of the market in large part because if you look at the South and the level of segregation, there is too great a danger that leaving market forces to play will, in fact, mean that there'll be a disparate treatment in terms of who gets served and who is not.

CHIDEYA: I'm going to have to cut you off right there. We've just been listening Bill Fletcher. He's now with the TransAfrica Forum and a former executive of the AFL-CIO, and also with Stan Greer, senior research associate for the National Institute for Labor Relations Research.

Thank you, gentlemen, both so much for joining us.

Mr. FLETCHER: Thank you very much.

Mr. GREER: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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