Vol. VIII, Bulletin No.3.                                                          March 8, 2003 

Why Union Membership Is Down

The good news is that support for labor unions is increasing in the United States. (See Americans Warming Up to Unions.)  The bad news is that union membership is continuing a gradual decline.

A report issued last month by the U.S. Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics has the hard data on declining membership trends.  About 16.1 million men and women in the United States belonged to unions (or associations equivalent to unions) in 2002, down from 16.4 million the previous year. Put another way, 13.2% of wage and salary workers were union members in 2002, compared with 13.4% in 2001 and  20.1% in 1983.  

Probably the most significant membership statistic is the ever-widening difference between the governmental and the private sectors of the economy. Last year workers in the public sector had a membership rate more than four times that of private-sector employees -- 37.5% vs. 8.5%.  That rate for  government workers has held steady since 1983, the first year for which comparable data are available.  

Employer's Freedom To Suppress Workers' Freedom

If today the unionization rate in the private sector were the same as in the public sector, the number of workers carrying union cards would be about 30 million. Here are two important reasons (not given by the Labor Department) why this hasn't come close to happening: 

"The intensity of opposition to unionization which is exhibited by American employers has no parallel in the western world,"  Theodore St. Antoine, former dean of the University of Michigan Law School and president of the National Academy of Arbitrators, has written in a law journal. Moreover, American employers export that opposition to the global economy, through their own practices abroad and through their influence on the policies that the U.S. government sets for international organizations.

World Bank Praises Unions, To a Point

Unions got a boost last month from an unusual source, the World Bank. In a 184-page report titled "Unions and Collective Bargaining: Economic Effects in a Global Environment," the Bank says that unions are good for working men and women in both the industrialized and the developing world.

"The human rights argument in support of worker rights is compelling," the report states. But for most economists, and for the World Bank, the human rights argument does not suffice. And so the report's two authors rely on empirical evidence culled from more than a thousand studies of how unions and collective bargaining have impacted workers throughout the world. Here are their key findings, summarized in a Feb. 12 World Bank press release

Hedging on the Rights of Some (Guess Who That Might Be)

One of the report's co-authors, Zafiris Tzannatos of the World Bank's staff, offers this caution, as italicized in the press release: "The precise link between adopting labor standards and economic performance is as yet not clear, and many controversies remain." The report itself has significant cautionary notes that qualify the findings quoted above:
"From a theoretical [economic] perspective, the net benefit/cost of unions is ambiguous....Thus, judging the contribution of unions and collective bargaining more generally to the achievement of economic and social outcomes is, at the end of the day, an empirical question." [Emphasis added.] And: "the impact of unions and collective bargaining at both the microconomic and the macroeconomic levels is context specific."  
The study concentrates on only one of the four core labor standards of  the UN's International Labor Organization, namely, "freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective." All four standards, according to the Declaration adopted by employer, union, and government representatives in June 1998, are "fundamental principles and rights," binding obligations on countries all across the global economy.  In other words, those rights are not contingent on research answering an "empirical question," nor are they to be reduced to a "context specific" matter.

That lack of contingency has major consequences.  Let's see how the three other core labor standards would fare if evaluated only by their "economic performance"? Let's examine each of those standards, exactly as formulated in the Declaration:
Interestingly, the World Bank report is not devoted only to unions; it also has a section on employer organizations. That's proper. After all, the "freedom of association" standard in the ILO Declaration (check it out), as well as in parallel international agreements (conventions), is designed for both unions and employer organizations. But the report devotes only a few paragraphs to employer organizations, and does not examine their "economic performance."

Differential (and Deferential) Treatment of Rights of Employers To Organize

Why this difference in treatment?  Because it is taken for granted that freedom of association for employers does not need to be justified by "economic performance."  Put another way, it is simply assumed that employers have the right to organize to defend theirs rights. But for workers the assumption is just the opposite. Their right to join unions, and to have those unions function in their interest, is held to depend on empirical and context-specific evidence that fits into the algebraic models created by micro- and macroeconomists. 

Despite this limited focus, the report, published in June 2002 and belatedly publicized, is a step forward for the World Bank. It follows "years of bashing unions," says an AFL-CIO press release. A supporting fact sheet itemizes how the policies of both the World Bank and its sister organization, the International Monetary Fund, discriminate against workers and their organizations. 

In a Feb. 13 press release, Neil Kearney, head of a global union federation representing 10 million textile and garment workers, hails the new report as a "wake-up call to governments and employers who say that trade union rights are a luxury they cannot afford."  Hopefully, it will also be a wake up call to the World Bank and the IMF.

How Skewed Trade Alienates People

Here's a sure-fire formula for the government to promote distrust and resentment abroad.  Don't practice what you preach about international trade. Demand that other countries not interfere in the market, but at the same time interfere actively whenever senior officials decide it suits their political purposes.

Both Republican and Democratic administrations share the guilt for this hypocrisy, notably in their domestic and international agricultural policies. The consequences are now coming to a head in our neighbor south of the border.

Mexico's rural workers are rebelling against U.S. and Mexican farm policies that push them deeper into poverty. They are holding mass demonstrations against the duty-free imports of  corn and other subsidized farm products from the United States under the North American Free Trade Agreement. They are demanding that NAFTA, signed a decade ago, be renegotiated to safeguard the interests of the poor. In a recent Mexico City march, an elderly farmer carried a sign reading: "NAFTA Equals Death."

Catholic Leaders Blame the 'Savage Capitalism' of NAFTA

The Mexican Catholic Bishops conference, through their social pastoral commission, on Jan. 29 issued a statement criticizing NAFTA. "The result of this accord," they said, "have been beneficial to some farmers, but the majority of farmers [in Mexico] -- small producers, campesinos, and indigenous people -- have experienced a severe deterioration of their economic activity and quality of life."  The head of the commission blamed "savage capitalism."

Father Miguel Concha, superior of the Dominican Order in Mexico, who participated in a street demonstration on Jan. 31, criticized the U.S. government for adopting $19 billion annual subsidies to American farmers last year. "The increase in U.S. subsidies," he told a Catholic News Service reporter, "hit Mexican farmers hard. It shows a total disregard for the problems here."

A Mar. 3 article titled "Why Mexico's Small Corn Farmers Go Hungry" by Tina Rosenberg, a New York Times reporter, provides this insightful analysis:
"The problems of rural Mexicans are echoed around the world as countries lower their import barriers, required by free trade treaties and the rules of the World Trade Organization. When markets are open, agricultural products flood in from wealthy nations, which subsidize agriculture and allow agribusiness to export crops cheaply.

"It seems paradoxical to argue that cheap food hurts poor people. But three-quarters of the world's poor are rural. When subsidized imports undercut their products, they starve. Agricultural subsidies, which rob developing countries of the ability to export crops, have become the most important dispute in the WTO. Wealthy countries do far more harm to poor nations with these subsidies than they do good with foreign aid."
The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis has just finished a study on agricultural "dumping" -- that is, selling corn and other farm goods abroad at a price lower than the cost of production.

The results are "shocking," the Institute said in its report, titled "U.S. Dumping on World Agricultural Markets."  It finds that under U.S. dumping policies, U.S. corn sells abroad at 25% to 30% less than it costs to produce. The discount levels for other exported commodities: 40% for wheat, soybeans nearly 30%, cotton 57%, and rice around 20%.

Sophia Murphy, the Institute's trade director, said that dumping "undermines the livelihoods of 70% of the world's poorest people," and urged that the cause, government-rigged "distortions" of the world agricultural market, heads the list of reforms needed in the world trading system. Thus far, the kingpins of that system, the United States and the European Union, have failed to act, and will not act unless they get much more heat from those concerned about the fate of the world's poor.

Labor's Opposition to Iraq War

In a Feb. 27 statement  the AFL-CIO executive council opposed the Bush administration's policy on Iraq. "The President has not fulfilled his responsibility to make a compelling and coherent explanation to the American people and the world about the need for military action at this time," the statement said. "We call upon the administration to pursue a broad global consensus to apply the maximum pressure on Iraq [to disarm], ensuring that war, if it comes, will truly be a last resort, supported by both our allies and nations united."  

Many AFL-CIO affiliates have adopted positions that are basically similar but emphasize different points.  The Communications Workers of America, for example, pointed out that, in contrast to the Gulf War a decade ago, when U.S. allies shared the burdens and costs of war, this time the United States would have carry almost the full burden, at a cost extending to hundreds of billions.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, whose 231 affiliates around the world include the AFL-CIO, on Feb. 28, issued a press release opposing "decisions to take up arms outside the framework of the United Nations."
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'The Wrong War': A View from Israel

On the current world crisis: The current issue of the New York Review of Books carries an article with a perspective I find impressive. Written by Avishai Margalit, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, it is titled "The Wrong War."  The Iraq war is wrong, he writes, because it would greatly assist the real enemy -- "radical Islam of the sort promoted by Osama bin Ladin" -- whose strategy of terrorism is to provoke gross overreaction among its victims and thereby recruit and motivate more terrorists for "a permanent and universal Islamic revolution."  

Diary: Heavy Shoveling and Thinking

As I was enjoying a late breakfast one snowy morning last month, I gazed out of the kitchen window and was surprised to see somebody shoveling our sidewalk. It was a neighbor from across the street, a young mother of two little boys, who were playing nearby. I rushed to grab my snow shovel from the porch and to take over her chores, which were almost done, since she had already cleared the driveway to our garage. She shrugged off my profuse thanks for her kind helpfulness.

Four other persons came to our rescue during the unusual series of snowstorms late last month -- our son Tony and his wife Hope, who live 45 minutes away, our son Thuy and his wife Kelly, who live a half hour away, and my friend Bill Lawbaugh, who lives three hours away in Pennsylvania. Bill happened to be in our neighborhood on a business appointment, and he shoveled the sidewalk on his way in to have a cup of coffee.

Actually, both my wife and I enjoy shoveling snow, but our backs don't. We do so anyway for short whiles, from time to time, perhaps because we feel uncomfortable about depending on others. We shouldn't, I guess.

Especially as seniors, we're dependent on many others, even complete strangers living far away from us. I'm thinking, for example, of the workers who pay for our Social Security checks. I have long ago cashed more in Social Security benefits than I ever paid in Social Security taxes. The Social Security contributions I made in decades of employment went to the benefits of the retirees of those times. Now, the currently employed are paying the benefits of retirees like me.

A strong movement, supported by the Bush administration and Wall Street, wants to change that. Today's salary and wage earners would be able to use at least a portion of their Social Security taxes for investments in stocks, mutual funds, or whatever.  Why not?  After all, because nowadays people are living longer and longer, they are putting a heavier and heavier Social Security tax burden on working people. The intergenerational obligations of the system, under which the employed generations pay benefits to generations of the retired, is now in trouble.

A relative points out that the government has made a commitment to the retired and dare not renege on it. True. It also true that the government doesn't always live up to commitments. It will in this case, however. It wouldn't talk of doing otherwise, out of fear of a backlash from organizations like the AARP and the AFL-CIO.
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'The Delight of Sunday'

You can read an article of mine published in the January 6 issue of America, a Jesuit magazine, by clicking on The Delight of Sunday. A clarification: In the article I refer to "my eight decades on this earth."  I've been around quite a while, but for only seven decades, plus 20 months or so.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. VIII-3, March 8, 2003
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2003
robert@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

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