Where Is the Labor Movement Headed?
By Awake! correspondent in Canada
“WEALTH accumulates, and men decay,” observed a poet. Yet, many are attracted by the lure of perpetually increasing material riches. That is why capitalism emerged in the Middle Ages.
Workers realized that, for many, a decay in the quality of life often accompanied capitalism. To protect themselves, they formed unions. Wherever capitalism flourished, the labor movement developed.
However, critics and even some supporters express concern that organized labor may be in decay. Columnist Anthony Westell charges: “The labor movement lives in the past, unable or unwilling to change.” The Economist, under the heading “Dwindling Band of Brothers,” notes that British trade union membership declined by “at least two million” in five years. University of Illinois professor Adolf Sturmthal writes of a “crisis in the international labor movement.”
Statistics seem to support their findings. The Japan Quarterly reported a decline of Japan’s union workers from 32 percent in 1960 to 29 percent in 1984 and in the United States from 33 percent to 19 percent. While Britain and West Germany claimed increases, The German Tribune said that “the picture is not as rosy as the figures might indicate.” It noted a loss of commitment by members and increases in nonunionized sectors of the economy. Australian trade-union membership, says the Far Eastern Economic Review, although at a high of 55 percent, is “gripped by a sense of unease, even crisis.”
Problems Within the Labor Movement
To succeed, labor must be in unity. Yet, many labor movements are far from united. The Times of London observed that with changes in work attitudes, to present a “single employee viewpoint will be suspect: there patently is none.” Australian strikes are often caused by jurisdictional disputes between unions. With unions fighting unions in Canada, trade unionists were reported to be furious at the strong-arm tactics of a United States-based union. More than 400 laid-off workers in Canada accused two unions of “scuttling the . . . deal” that would have saved their jobs.
A second internal problem besetting unions is a lack of commitment. The working class, once mainly blue-collar manual labor, is increasingly clerical, technical, or professional. This white-collar sector “has been traditionally difficult for unions to penetrate,” notes Labour Law and Industrial Relations in Canada.
For many, membership in a union is a necessity. Take the example of a graduate engineer who joined the staff of a government department. He told Awake!: “I was not even told I had joined the union. My name just appeared on the list of members. When a vote to strike was circulated, I had no preference one way or the other, so I abstained.”
Corruption or criminal activity contributes to disaffection. In New York City, a major trial of reputed criminal gangs uncovered widespread union involvement. Some Australian unions are reportedly “infested with criminals.” Illegal actions during recent Canadian strikes resulted in over 700 arrests, including a provincial political leader.
Problems Beyond Labor Control
Other factors beyond union control frustrate labor leaders. Human society is in upheaval. The camaraderie of union members has eroded. One man—49 years a boilermaker and for a time a shop steward—told Awake! how little his retirement meant to fellow union members: “On my last day, they passed a hat and gave me $35. A couple of the men shook my hand, and that was it. Because I was laid off during the depression, I was six months short of 50 years, so I didn’t get the usual gold watch!”
To some extent, alienation results from a failure to remain true to historic ideals. Some union business interests have grown into large empires in which the union is the employer. Observes Gerald Stewart of The Canberra Times: “Unions lost their moral right to criticize capitalism when they copied its less appealing aspects.”
Technological changes and recessions may result in fewer assembly-line positions. Time magazine reported a drop in Milwaukee’s blue-collar employment from 223,600 in 1979 to 171,300 in 1986. Then, too, newer types of jobs attract younger people with specific skills. The trade union is not always relevant to this type of individualized worker.
Workers are looking for more than just money. But day-care services, shorter workweeks, flexible shifts, job sharing, and health plans may benefit only certain categories of workers. It is more difficult for any one organization to appeal to so many interests. And employers often circumvent unions by offering creative benefits directly to employees.
In some countries, political or religious involvement by unions draws criticism from members. They may not want membership dues to be used to support activities with which they do not agree. Canadian courts upheld the right of a member to refuse to pay dues to a union on such grounds.
While the ultimate weapon of the union is the strike, it has been less successful than before. In Canada a provincial justice minister called for the removal of the right of the police to strike, and Quebec passed tough laws to deal with illegal health-sector walkouts. In the United States, the federal government intervened to disband the air-traffic controllers union when it struck. Other countries, such as Australia, have compulsory arbitration.
Employers have developed strategies for union busting. Several major corporations have undergone a form of bankruptcy to escape burdensome labor contracts. Some sue for harassment, while others band together to present a united front to the union movement.
Adjustments to Survive
In many respects, the needs that originally gave rise to the labor movement no longer exist. Social legislation—prompted by organized labor—now protects children, sets minimum employment standards, and protects collective bargaining. But labor leaders see the power of big business and increasing unemployment in some countries as proof of their continued need.
New generations of labor leaders are rekindling support. Acknowledging that unions are no longer popular with many of the public, one union president says that “the labor leader today is looking more closely at preparation and research,” rather than table-pounding. Their success will require changes in the organization and methods of labor unions.
In certain industries, the labor movement has adapted and survived. Automakers won many concessions from industry unions to increase productivity. New manufacturing plants that reduce labor in favor of robotics have also attracted union support. “There’s concern,” a union official admitted in connection with one such operation, “but there’s also a feeling of accomplishment that our folks played a role.”
Although some unions oppose efforts to reduce the work force, others compromise with management and experiment by job sharing, or work rotation. The Seafarers International Union of Canada is one example. A trial project provides for units of four men, each of whom, on a rotation schedule, works 90 days at a time and then takes off 30. “The main advantage,” reports Toronto’s Globe and Mail, “is that more seamen get work.”
While there have been notable failures in unionizing larger industries, unions still find success among smaller employers. In one Canadian province, only 42 of 704 new units certified during one year employed more than a hundred people. “But the days when unions could add large numbers of members in big chunks are long gone for the most part,” an observer stated.
Clearly, many of the causes of decay in the labor movement, as with the decay of society in general, are beyond human control. Men and women drawn to the labor movement out of a desire for a better world deserve commendation for their sincere efforts to help their fellowman. Right-minded people recognize such endeavors to secure better working conditions. Still, the present state of labor unions gives us one more evidence of well-meaning but merely human institutions that have indeed gone adrift in our critical times.—2 Timothy 3:1-5.
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According to one dictionary, capitalism is a system in which “the means of production and distribution are privately owned and operated for profit.”
Jakob Fugger, a wealthy merchant of the Middle Ages from Augsburg, Germany, also operated the General Agency of the pope, which collected fees for indulgences. Historian Erich Kahler believes that capitalism originated with Fugger, writing:
“Some modern economists and sociologists have tried to prove that there were traces of capitalism as far back as Babylon. But what they discovered is not capitalism. Capitalism is not identical with wealth and mobile property, it is not identical with money-making and money-lending, not even with a mere productive investment of property. All this is no capitalism in itself, for all this may serve a life principle, alien to economic aims, it may be done for a human end, a human purpose, for something a human being can enjoy. But here, for the first time, . . . business in itself, money-making in itself, production of goods and heaping up of comforts, assumed such power over man that he spent all of his vitality, his heart, all his present and future, all his human being, in the literal sense of the word, in a restless, a persistently growing and devouring production per se, a production, the final meaning of which he has completely lost and forgotten.
“And this is the beginning of capitalism, which is the rule of capital over man, the rule of the economic function over the human heart. Here begins the autonomy of economy, the restless, boundless progress of exploitation of nature and production of goods which nobody has the leisure or the capacity to enjoy any longer. The consequences of this development are today clearly revealed.”—Man the Measure.
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History of the Labor Movement
“Labor movement” is “the term used to designate all of the organized activities of wage earners which have as their purposes the betterment of their own conditions in the present or future.”—The American Peoples Encyclopedia.
Some claim that the refusal of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt to make bricks without straw was the first laborers’ strike, but the Israelites were not wage earners; they were slaves. (Exodus 5:15-18) Similarly, the apostle Paul’s sending of Onesimus back to Philemon does not apply to wage earners in that Onesimus was a slave.—Philemon 10-20.
The development of craft guilds, associations of craftsmen who employed laborers and apprentices, of the 14th and 15th centuries paved the way for unions. As early as 1383, according to The History of Trade Unionism, hired men “combined against their rulers and governors.”
The first labor law in England was the Ordinance of Labourers (1349 or 1350). The Statute of Apprentices (1563) codified labor relations in England for generations. By the 20th century, most countries relaxed the laws restricting unions.
The I.L.O. (International Labor Organization) was established in 1919 under Article 23 of the Covenant of the League of Nations and still exists. The covenants of the I.L.O. have been adopted into the social legislation of most nations.
Unions are permitted by law in most countries. They may be open-shop unions, in which employees may or may not join on commencing employment, or closed-shop unions, in which membership is mandatory as a condition of employment.