http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/288052

Op-Ed: US Labor Unions Alienating the American Public

Posted Feb 24, 2010 by Johnny Simpson
Throughout the history of American labor, unions have enjoyed staunch support with the American people. Yet recent polling shows a nosedive of support for labor unions in the United States. Reasons abound, and they have no one to blame but themselves.
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In the United States, the history of organized labor has been as contentious and even violent as it has been benevolent to millions of American workers, who were condemned only a century ago to long days in brutal sweatshops under horrific conditions. The devastating fire at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City in 1911, which claimed the lives of 146 sweat shop workers, is often referenced as the catalyst for workplace reform and the birth of the modern labor union in America.
At the time of the Triangle Fire in 1911, organizations like the American Federation of Labor already existed. And America had been celebrating Labor Day since 1894, influenced in great part by the Canadian day of celebration of same. But it was public outrage at the conditions in the Triangle Factory that drove the issue to the front burner of public opinion and political action in Congress. Over the decades since, labor unions have enjoyed widespread public support and have even entered the culture in such films as Norma Rae and On The Waterfront. "Look for the Union Label" was a well-known and successful TV marketing campaign for the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union in the 1970s and 1980s. Even as recent as January 2007, public support for American labor was very high: a 58/31 approval rating with a favorability gap of 27%.
Yet today, recent PEW polling tells an entirely different story. Today, 41% of Americans say they have a favorable view of unions while 42% disapprove. That's a 28% favorability shift in just three years. The ratings are even worse when you break them down by demographics. In 2007, unions enjoyed a 20-point favorability gap among Independent voters at 54/34. Today that figure is at 38/46, another 28-point flip in favorability. Among seniors, who remember the heyday of the American labor movement (which reached its peak of membership and popularity in the 1950s), the drop has been worst of all: from 60/28 in 2007 to 29/51 today.
To be sure, labor unions still enjoy strong Democrat support at 56%, as compared to Independent support at 38% and Republican support at 29%. And though 61% of the public polled believe that labor unions are necessary to protect American workers, 61% also agreed with the statement that "labor unions have too much power." So what happened to change public opinion so dramatically? As with any political trend, perceptions negative or positive drive public opinion, and it is negative perceptions that abound with today's major labor and public sector unions. Those public perceptions have been driven downward by nothing less than actions by the unions themselves, and therein lies the rub. If one can base shifts in public opinion to bad news, there has been more to go around for unions this past year than in all of recent memory.
If any one man is to blame for the dropoff in public support for unions, it would have to be Andy Stern, the President of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU. Since President Obama's inauguration, the public has seen a wave of unethical and possibly criminal behavior from Andy Stern and SEIU. The charges of election fraud, tampering, use of threats and intimidation against home workers in California and Michigan. The sweetheart deals for unions in the ObamaCare bill, which would leave taxpayers footing the tab on 'Cadillac' premiums as favored union members skated. The busloads of SEIU Purpleshirts packing Democrat town halls, shouting down ObamaCare opponents and harassing them to the point of violence.
There is also the organizationally incestuous relationship between Stern's SEIU and the disgraced community group ACORN, which was defunded by Congress last year. In addition, Stern may yet face federal investigations for conflicts of interest and violations of the Lobbying Act for his frequent visits to the White House and members of Congress directly related to pending legislation, which CNN investigated in January. In addition to the sweetheart deals in the ObamaCare bill, Stern and SEIU stand to gain tens of thousands of new members and millions in dues should the ObamaCare and Cap-and-Trade bills pass.
There is a lot to dislike there for the American people, especially the harassing and intimidation of home health care workers by SEIU activists in their very homes, including threats of deportation to illegals. But if SEIU's Andy Stern in the poster boy for bad union news, he is far from the only cause of public distaste and plummeting support. The Orwellian-titled Employee Free Choice Act, or Card Check, which would in fact take away the long-sacrosanct secret ballot for union organizing, is favored by all the major labor unions and liberal Democrats in Washington. More news is also emerging on union corruption in the Stimulus and other bills, which require compulsory union membership or the paying of dues by non-members in order to get government contract work, particularly as pertains to so-called Green jobs.
What all those unseemly news stories plant in the public mind are the perceptions that labor unions have become drunk with the arrogance of power, to the point of actually working against the interests of both the public and the workers they profess to represent. Such a case was clearly illustrated in microcosm today in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Francis Gallo, the Superintendent of Schools in Central Falls, had been negotiating with the teachers' union to improve conditions at Central Falls High School, where less than half of all students graduate and only seven percent are proficient in math. The recommendations included longer school days and after-school tutoring of failing students.
Superintendent Gallo offered to pay teachers at CFHS an extra $30 an hour for some of the additional duties required to improve the school's academic standing, as well as contributing a bit of their own time to improve instruction. The teachers' union balked and demanded $90 an hour for extra work. So Superintendent Gallo recommended to the school board that all 74 teachers, 19 staff members and the principal at CFHS be fired and replaced at the end of the school year. The Central Falls School District's Board of Trustees recently approved that recommendation by a 5-2 vote.
All things considered, the public would find it very hard to rally in Norma Rae-like fashion for schoolteachers from a failing school fired for demanding outrageous compensation at taxpayer expense just to do their jobs. A deep interest in student and school needs seem to be as lacking in the negotiations as the greed regarding overtime pay was blatant. Ironically, Ms. Gallo was authorized to take such dramatic action under new Obama Administration education guidelines. It also speaks volumes that the Education Action Group Foundation will be placing a billboard in Central Falls praising Superintendent Gallo for her bold action.
In short, it appears the American public is souring on labor unions in unprecedented fashion. I have elaborated on some of the reasons why. Most of the incidents I have described were national news, as the Central Falls story is today. There have been very few, if any, good union news stories to counter the avalanche of bad. How else do you explain the precipitous drop in public support? It also cannot help that millions of unemployed Americans are now seeing unions reaching for ever more power, money and influence, and doing so in very questionable legal fashion. In boom times, these kind of issues might not even make the news. But with nearly 20% underemployed or unemployed now, public resentment appears to be growing at all the blatant union power and money grabs, abuses of power and unsavory behavior.
The real shame is, unions remain a necessity in many industries in America. Were it not for the Actors, Writers and Directors' Guilds as well as IATSE, the AMPTP would probably be stiffing them all every chance they got. Unions have had a very colorful history in America. The suspected involvements with organized crime. The disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. The building of Las Vegas casinos with Teamster pension funds. Not a bad investment, mind you. It was just all the shady mob deals that were the problem.
But throughout it all, the American public seems to have held the perception that unions were all about protecting the little guys from heavy-handed corporations and slave-driving bosses. Today the public perception seems to be that the little guy, be it a home worker in Michigan, a failing student in Central Falls or a black conservative selling Don't Tread on Me flags in St. Louis, takes second place to the interests of the union, even if coercion and physical violence have to be employed in the "persuasion of power," as Mr Stern so eloquently puts it. Mr. Stern may find that thuggish philosophy acceptable. Most Americans don't.
But it goes a lot deeper than even all that. As more details emerge on public employee contracts, the public is becoming more cynical and disillusioned. The fact that public employees pay either pennies or nothing for their comprehensive health care and benefit plans, and all on the taxpayer dime. The current bankrupting of state governments by overly generous public employee benefits and early retirement plans, and public unions refusing to renegotiate the contracts despite the inevitable financial collapse they will eventually bring to state governments. The folding of General Motors, driven in great part by the insane union "job banks" deal that allowed thousands of laid-off workers to continue to collect nearly full pay and benefits for nothing. How is the public supposed to sympathize with any of this? Judging from the polls, they don't in the least.
Organized labor is down in America, but not out. 12.4% of the American workforce is currently unionized: 36% in the public sector and 7% in the private sector. It's not too late for organized labor to return to its populist roots and focus on the needs of its workers, instead of acquiring more power and money at public expense. Or using tens of millions in union dues for political leverage and influence instead of on the workers who pay those dues. Unless labor union words and actions start becoming a bit more reasonable and less overbearing, callous and greedy, I don't see any jump in the poll numbers anytime soon. Labor is already struggling as it is. To continue turning the public against them as they have been is courting disaster, whether liberal Democrats and the President of the United States are their best friends or not.