The new factories and machines of the late 19th century changed the world forever. Craftsmen became obsolete and farmers left the land to work in cities. Predictably, as cities became crowded with potential workers, conditions in factories deteriorated. Fourteen-hour work days were common, as was child labor. In this environment, workers organized, formed labor unions, and eventually won improved working conditions.
Unions continued to obtain real benefits for workers well into the 20th century. Sally Field’s character in the 1979 movie Norma Rae, when she held the sign UNION, did what thousands of workers must have done since the 19th century.
However, what worked so well in the past, might not be working so well now. National participation in labor unions has decreased steadily. In 1990 16% of employed workers were union members. The percentage in 2014 was 11.1%. Perhaps market conditions changed as deeply in the 21st century as they did in the 19th century, but unions and their supporters have failed to adapt.
Therefore, unions continue to make the same old demands, while businesses avail themselves of new options: outsourcing work to cheaper and less restrictive markets, developing technologies to replace human workers, locating businesses where non-union workers can be hired, or contracting with flexible companies.
An example of the scenario described above is playing out in Parkmerced, the largest residential community in San Francisco, owned by an out-of-town LLC. I attended a union rally in front of the Parkmerced administration building on Thursday, April 23, and spoke to a union member distributing flyers. She indicated that she had been a maintenance worker in Parkmerced for 20 years. She and her co-workers were summarily dismissed when Parmerced acquired a maintenance company that, according to the speaker, paid less in benefits. The flyers asked people to contact the Parkmerced management and tell them that 1) the new contractor must sign the existing union contract for janitors and handymen, and 2) the new contractor must hire the existing janitors and handymen. Common sense would ask why Parkmerced would agree to do that.
One way Parkmerced would agree to the same terms they just got rid of would be for them to be found guilty of breaking a contract or a law. Another way would be word for above, which was what SEIU United Service Workers West and union supporters are counting on. The flyer announcing the rally encouraged Parkmerced residents to join “in solidarity for a demonstration with workers, community leaders, and elected officials.” Progressive journalist Tim Redmond wrote in his 48 Hills Blog, “Among those who will be at the rally Thursday: Jobs with Justice, Chinese Progressive Association, San Francisco Grey Panthers, San Francisco ACCE, California Faculty Association San Francisco State Chapter, United Educators of San Francisco, American Federation of Teachers Local 2121, SEIU 1021, California Nurses Association, and Supervisors Eric Mar, John Avalos, and David Campos.” http://www.48hills.org/2015/04/22/union-workers-to-rally-at-parkmerced/. I estimated around 30 workers marching in the rally. No Mar, Avalos, or Campos.
It appears that labor unions would benefit from new paths and ideas. Strong apprenticeships guilds could be of immense benefit to low income youth and the currently unskilled unemployed. A focus on skill and competence rather than on seniority could do wonders for the union image. A realistic view of what the market will pay for unskilled labor will also help.