Labor Unions Losing Their Way? The financial crisis facing America's Big Three auto companies has spotlighted the role of the United Auto Workers Union. Many think that the wages and benefits of union workers have dragged down business and profits. Bill Fletcher disagrees with that point of view. He's co-author of the book Solidarity Divided.
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Labor Unions Losing Their Way?

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Labor Unions Losing Their Way?

Labor Unions Losing Their Way?

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

U.S. automakers are working hard to get the Feds to bail them out, but some economists and everyday Americans are saying, wait, why aren't the unions doing more? Many think that the wages and benefits of union workers have dragged down business and profits. Author Bill Fletcher is a long-time advocate of the AFL-CIO Union and he disagrees with that point of view. He is the co-founder of the Center for Labor Renewal. He is the co-author of the book "Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Towards Social Justice." Hi, Bill.

Mr. BILL FLETCHER (Co-Founder, Center for Labor Renewal; Co-Author, "Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Towards Social Justice"): Hey, how are you?

CHIDEYA: Well, of course, I'm great. Most people know you as our Africa contributor, but you also have a long history of working in studying labor and being a part of emphasizing the importance of labor. We're going to talk a little bit more about your personal views, but how did you get involved in this?

Mr. FLETCHER: I wear many hats, Farai.

CHIDEYA: I can tell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLETCHER: I got involved in large part because of my activism when I was in high school and college. And when I got out, I decided it was important for me to get involved in the labor movement in part because that's where a lot of black workers were. And I went to work in a shipyard as a welder, and decided that's the way I needed to get involved in labor, and I've been involved ever since.

CHIDEYA: What does it mean for you to have done activism around labor at a young age? What were you specifically doing?

Mr. FLETCHER: I wanted to see - most African-Americans - I grew up in the Black Power Movement and I was particularly concerned about black workers, but I wasn't just concerned about black workers. But I saw that we as a people needed an instrument, we needed additional instruments to push for economic justice. And unions made sense to me. The problem was that there was a real mixed bag within unions. You had some that were really outstanding, like the International Longshoremen's Association on the West Coast - International Longshoremen Warehouse Workers' Union, excuse me, on the West Coast. And then you had some that were really backward, and in fact kept black workers, Latinos, Asians and women out. And so when I went in, my attitude was, I wanted to go in and be part of an effort to turn the movement around and make it what I thought it could be.

CHIDEYA: Now, when it comes to the current news about the auto industry, there are conflicting views. I mean, for example on CNN the other day, they have their site that allows people to do video comments from their webcams, and a woman was like, why should I pay for you? The unions have been profligate in how they deal with the compensation, why should I pay for your bailout? How would you response to that?

Mr. FLETCHER: Well, it's based on a complete misunderstanding, at best, a misunderstanding. The United Auto Workers, the workers that put that union together, fought long and hard to improve their living standard, and they were basically looking for a part of the surplus that was produced as a result of all of the work that they've done over the years. So it wasn't like they were trying to rip people off. They were looking for their share, and they fought hard. And then beginning in the 1980s, they started retreating. And I think that they retreated far more than they should have. But they started retreating, they started giving up things to companies, and that's what makes the whole situation right now so ironic, Farai. That people are saying that the autoworkers are making too much money, that they need to be willing to make concessions.

If you look at the last series of contracts that the United Autoworkers have signed, they've been concessionary agreements. In fact, the last agreement that was signed created a two-tier situation, which I think is horrific, you know, where new workers coming in would be receiving less wages and less benefits. But despite that, the political right in this country doesn't think that it's enough, and in fact, what they want to do is crush them entirely. So I think that there's some real basic misunderstandings, as well, as has been pointed out by the UAW itself, that their cost, the labor cost, are not - they're about ten percent of the overall costs that these companies are dealing with. What they're dealing with is mismanagement on the part of these companies, shortsightedness, much of what Dr. Malveaux was talking about.

CHIDEYA: OK. One of the things that even some people in the union movement have said is, unions made a bargain over the past couple of decades to shrink the unionized workforce, but to preserve more significant benefits and salary for a smaller number of people. Do you agree with that? What's the evidence?

Mr. FLETCHER: I think that it's true that many unions did just that. That in fact, when you look at what I was just mentioning, the concessionary agreement by the UAW, what they were in effect saying was that the current workforce would be protected for as long as they could, but that the new workers coming in would not be. And I think you do not do that. You just don't do that.

I think that basically, you're creating at a minimum a morale problem, but at worse, you have workers fighting against one another, rather than recognizing that they're not the problem. So I do think, yes, that there's been a problem for more than a couple of decades where union leaders, many union leaders, have been more into protecting their situation. You could see the same thing in the building trades up until fairly recently, where they were content to protect their high wages while there was a growing nonunion sector and while the entire sections of the workforce like African-Americans, Chicanos and Asians and Puerto Ricans were being kept out.

CHIDEYA: What do you see as the future of unions in this time of economic upheaval? Do you foresee their being a greater unionized workforce? You know, some states or what are called right-to-work states, where union organizing is not protected. Do you see more unionization? Less? Why?

Mr. FLETCHER: Farai, I am hopeful, which is why I wrote that book, actually. I am hopeful because the conditions that we're facing right now, necessity, vast unionization, and when you look at this situation right now in Chicago, where members of the United Electrical Workers have occupied this factory, you see that organized workers are in a position to combat despair, and they're prepared to fight back. And Lord knows we need people to be fighting back right now. So people are looking for answers.

The question, Farai, is whether the union movement can, in fact, step up to the plate. And what my co-author and I feel is that it's not simply enough for the unions to grow, they have to change. They have to be advocates for social justice. They have to be advocates for those workers that happen not to be in unions right now. They have to be vehicles for the unemployed. And that means that there's going to have to be a vast amount of experimentation, and we're certainly going to need to have more youthful leaders. It doesn't make sense to have these old guys.

CHIDEYA: This is, you know - you bring a lot of passion to what you do, and there are other people who will disagree with you. This is a big idea. You believe that the Big Three automakers should be pushed in a way that is towards nationalization. We only have a limited window, but I'm sure this is very controversial but what do you mean by that?

Mr. FLETCHER: I mean that there is no reason to have faith that the leaders of these companies can do what needs to happen, that there needs to be, in fact, the loans that are proposed. But there needs to be direct public intervention, much as the United States changed the auto industry in the beginning of World War II because of a national emergency. We're facing a national emergency, and I don't mean just unemployment. I mean the environmental situation, I mean the issue of infrastructure that President-elect Obama is talking about. Which means that the government needs to say, we need a different sort of auto industry, and we have these millions of skilled workers that could play an essential role in the redevelopment of this country.

CHIDEYA: Well, Bill, this is a big issue and we hope to talk to you more about it soon. Thank you very much.

Mr. FLETCHER: Thank you. My pleasure. Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Bill Fletcher is the co-author of "Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Towards Social Justice." He's also one of our regular Africa Update contributors, and he joined us from the studios of NPR in Washington, D.C.

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