Labor 101: Unions in the 21st Century

The Working Stiff Journal
Labor 101
by Jackie Dana
Vol. 2 #1, February 1999

Last time, “Labor 101” explained what unions are and how they function. In this issue we will explore the broader labor union movement and what workers can do to strengthen and promote the cause of labor.

By their very nature unions denote the coming together of workers despite political and cultural identities. At the most basic level, employees realize that they share concerns with each other about working conditions, pay, benefits disciplinary matters and other issues.

Unions are the best vehicle for improving our work conditions. Unfortunately, Texas doesn’t have the same tradition of strong unions as the Northeast and Midwest, and many workers in our state approach unions with distrust, fear or disdain, believing that joining a union will accomplish nothing but brand them as troublemakers and get them fired. Making matters more difficult for labor organizers, Texas is a “right to work” state, which means that workers do not have to join a union even after a majority of workers agree to labor representation. Many corporations choose to locate their offices and factories in Texas and other southern states with right to work laws precisely because they believe they will have less labor problems here than they would in other parts of the country.

Employers hope for a docile and disorganized labor force; we as workers are not obligated to give them one. For Texas workers, therefore, it is not enough to vote to unionize a workplace; it is also not enough to join a union and believe that the payment of dues alone is sufficient. One must also constantly organize, build membership, and educate members about the importance of having an active and visible union.

Membership is vital. In a scenario where the membership numbers are low, the union’s claim to represent the workers will be called into question by both the employer and local or state government bodies. Worker education about labor law and history is also something that is vital to a strong movement. Many of us feel like each time we take a step, we have to re-invent the wheel. With all the work we face in building our unions, we tend to forget about everything but the immediate issues. There is strength in putting one’s own struggle into context, to be able to understand one’s rights as well as what others sacrificed in order to win those rights. Union organizing cannot happen in a vacuum; therefore we must always strive to learn everything we can and share that knowledge with all our fellow workers.

In this same vein, it is important not only to support our own unions, but to support other labor struggles locally as well as internationally. Solidarity for our fellow workers reinforces their struggles but it also strengthens our own.

Two recent international solidarity efforts illustrate this point.

In 1995 the Mersey Docks and Harbor Company in Liverpool, England fired 500 workers when they refused to cross a picket line set up by fellow workers, and replaced these workers with scab labor. The workers alerted longshore unions around the world about their plight. When the Neptune Jade, a container ship loaded with cargo by these scab workers, came into Oakland, CA in September 1997 and tried to discharge its cargo, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) honored their British comrades’ picket line. The ILWU refused to unload the ship’s cargo, while political organizations and students held several protests in support of the workers and against the Neptune Jade.The ship moved up the west coast, getting a frosty welcome in Vancouver as well, and then it crossed the Pacific, only to discover that the All-Japan Dockworkers’ Union also refused to unload the ship. In the end the Neptune Jade was sold in Taiwan and its cargo disappeared. Meanwhile the stalwart Oakland workers were accused of breaking the law by refusing to unload the ship, and they and others faced a lawsuit for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages from their employers, a suit that was finally dropped this past December.

In another act of solidarity, in November, as a response to changes in health-care benefits, 2,600 members of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET-CWA), called a surprise one-day strike against the ABC television network. ABC management responded by locking out the workers and using scab labor. Since that time many entertainers and politicians such as Al Gore, Howard Stern, Adam Sandler and George Foreman have canceled appearances on the network. The ABC management attempted to have certain shows produced by scab labor in England, but this effort was met by protests outside the studios by members of the Broadcasting, Entertainment and Cinematography and Theatre Union of Great Britain, the Communication Workers Union and the National Journalists Union. As of this writing, the dispute has not been settled.

In this age of multinationals, corporations are determined to extend their power across international boundaries, and discard one set of workers in favor of others who will work for less and will not cause trouble in the workplace. In what are bald-faced attempts to undermine the rights gained over a century and a half of struggle, relocation is a tangible and believable threat. We can defend against such actions, but only if unions both build themselves internally into strong, cohesive forces as well as cooperate with other unions, showing solidarity with fellow workers in England, Mexico, Japan and everywhere else. As CWU member Chris Proctor wrote in the Dec./Jan. issue of CWA News, “If companies like ABC…have difficulties with employees, they can simply shift the work to another continent. If our trade unions can’t match that, we are going nowhere except downhill.”

As corporations grow in influence workers are facing lower wages in real dollars, longer hours, less job security and declining benefits. We must encourage our colleagues that unions are our best recourse, our best defense against the “McDonaldization” of America and the world.

The Working Stiff Journal was a free community newspaper produced in Austin, Texas and distributed across town. All of the articles were available online on the UT Watch site for many years, but they are no longer available, so I am republishing my own work here (in 2014). You can still read back issues thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

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