What Are Unions Fighting For Today?

I want to respect labor unions. I want to feel pride, as a native of Dearborn, Mich., that I hail from a place where brave workers fought to pave the way for a better quality of life for generations to come. My pride, however, is diminished by the actions of today's union leaders.

I joined my first union at the age of 18, working in a factory one block from my house. Within a couple of years I had my second union factory job. In both cases, my wages and benefits increased when I got my union card. In both cases, I left the job because of the adversarial relationship and childish games that went on between workers and managers. I was encouraged to distrust all messages from management. The union was not for me, so I found a new job that paid less, offered more individual challenge, and eventually led to more money and opportunities.

Despite that negative personal experience, I still respect what the men and women of the early Michigan labor movement accomplished. They risked not only losing their jobs, but also their safety and lives for the right to collectively bargain for higher wages, safer working conditions and more time off. Until the union victories of the 1930s many workers spent 70 hours a week toiling in hot, filthy, and dangerous factories. Injuries were common. If you got hurt and missed work, you could lose your job. Women were paid a fraction of the low pay earned by men, and young teenagers were exposed to the same dangerous conditions.

Today, the challenge for labor unions challenge is to remain relevant. Membership in labor unions is down from 17.7 million in 1983 to 14.8 million today. In 1983, 20 percent of workers belonged to a labor union. Fewer than 12 percent of workers today claim union membership. Most union members are working in the public sector – government desk jobs, schools, police/fire, libraries, etc. Unions desperate to grow membership target the public sector; 37 percent of government workers belong to a union.

Today's typical union member is not battling an unsafe workplace, dodging I-beams and splashing molten steel. They're not forced to work 70 hours a week (let alone 50 hours a week), they enjoy time off for vacations, personal days and sick days, and rich benefit packages.

So what are unions fighting for? They want the constitutional right to skim union dues from home health care workers who don't even work for a company – they're self-employed. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) leaders don't even have an entity to collectively bargain with, but they have confiscated more than $29 million dollars in dues from these individuals. Unions had a similar scam that allowed them to skim $4.5 million in dues from self-employed daycare workers.

Today's unions are also fighting to take away your right to decide if you want to belong to a union. Not only are the unions opposed to Right-to-Work laws that would give workers that choice, they want a constitutional amendment that would forbid Michigan from ever becoming a right-to-work state.

Labor union presidents who can expand membership are rewarded with salary packages that place them in the top one percent of earners in the country. They spend a lot of time with politicians and they spend a lot of money (from union dues) trying to influence policy, kind of like Wall Street bankers. The only difference is that unions spend a lot more. Of the top ten donors to politicians from 1989-2012, five were labor unions. Twelve of the top 20 donors are labor unions, with most of that money going to Democrats. Only two Wall Street firms make the top 20 list.

Unions have done such a good job improving the lot of workers, you'd think there would be a lineup outside every local office of employees begging for representation. Instead, we have unions using desperate tactics to gain new members. Perhaps the legacy of the brave organizers of the past is the fact that we have so many workplaces where workers don't need union representation because so many companies realize employees are their most important asset and treat them that way.