So, why don’t workers join unions? Are they really that scared of employers that they won’t take a risk? Americans are not a people unduly obeisant to authority, so why are they so compliant at work—a place that takes up one-third of their lives and determines where they spend the other two-thirds?
The Associated Press recently ran a story about frustrated attempts to unionize Japanese-owned automobile assembly plants in the U.S. The gist of it is that non-union auto workers simply aren’t interested.
The story quoted three workers—all at a Lafayette, Indiana Subaru plant—and a host of economists, all describing the lethargy that seems to settle on auto workers when the subject of unions comes up. One Subaru worker was quoted as saying, “If they're [Subaru] giving us the benefits and pay that's comparable to what the UAW plants give, why would we want them in there messing with what we already have?"
The United Auto Workers tried and failed three times to organize the Lafayette plant. That would seem to give some weight to the thesis: If pay is decent, workers just don’t care about unions.
But how do we know that indifference is not masking fear? Industrial workers in particular, to the extent they know about unions at all, have seen decades of union decline and lost strikes. It’s understandable that they don’t dare to hope for a union that actually can speak to management as an equality. It would be better to accept a lesser status than to engage in a probably futile challenge to authority.
Therein lies the importance of the Employee Free Choice Act, which helps to level a playing field that right now leans heavily toward management and its ability to squelch worker organizing. But even if that were law and is scrupulously obeyed, so that no one is ever fired for union activity, there would still be a risk to openly endorsing a union, either from vengeful management or from other workers who for whatever reasons are hostile to unions.
Perhaps the problem also lies in how unions are perceived. They are as much social and political organizations as they are economic levers. You ought not join a union simply because of what you get, but what you become. Even if pay scales are the same in union and nonunion plants, union workers assume a social and political force that’s denied to nonunion workers. If unions only offer members a 15 percent hike in pay, and a lower health care co-payment, it frankly doesn’t seem worth the risk. But if it means being transformed from a peon—even if these days you might be called an associate—to a union worker, then that might be worth fighting for.
| Wednesday, April 4, 2007 3:49 PM