Your Turn: Are Labor Unions Still Relevant?

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In this week’s show, Bill says:

“The percentage of union members in the American workforce has declined in the last 60 years from 35 to 12 percent, and labor has faced a pounding series of setbacks of which the Supreme Court’s Knox decision is just the latest. And yet, with corporations continuing to put the squeeze on employees, with joblessness and inequality rampant, now would seem  the perfect time for people to turn back to unions to fight for them against the monied interests. Why haven’t they?”

On Moyers & Company, no good question goes unexplored — and we invite your help in that quest. On our Facebook page as well as this one, please share your answers, thoughts, and ideas on the question: Are labor unions still relevant?

We’ll be reading.

Update: Read editor’s picks from this page, Facebook and Twitter.

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  • Donna Hoffman

    Yes. Yes. Yes.  More so now than 50 years ago.  As long as corporations are weakly regulated, unions become the regulators.  However, they need to expand past male dominated workplaces.  Women in service industries need the power of unions.  Restaurant workers need unions.  Artists of all stripes need unions.  Small businesses need unions.  Any minority needs unions.  I don’t know why people aren’t fighting for unions, perhaps they are too exhausted after working 3 jobs to make ends meet.  Unions need to reach out to all of the above not the other way around.

  • sulaharper

    In my opinion the BIG companies are trying to get rid of the unions which is a Shame. People will not be treated fairly it will be whoever KISSES the most A_S WILL GET THE PROMOTION!!! You will have to watch your back mangement will fire you if you have the wrong color on or just because. FREEDOM we will not have any black,white,purple whatever if they dont like you……BYE BYE

  • Pat Christensen

    The past 35 years of “the individual uber alles” attitude has all but broken the back of the union movement. The idea that one man or one woman is all the matters and that working together for anything is irrelevant, even shameful somehow, is what is destroying unions, far more than business or corporate interests alone could ever do. Reagan started it, but all the Republicans (and many of the Democrats) since him have espoused how marvelous the “individual” is above all else. The idea of the Constitution was for us to form a more perfect UNION, but lately the concept of the citizenry being united in anything has become almost an obscene reading of the Founding Fathers’ document. And as long as they keep us happily separated from one another, nobody can wrest power from the oligarchy…and they know it. Unions aren’t irrelevant. It’s the idea of anyone uniting together that has become almost unheard of in today’s society. We need to re-embrace the concept of a “shared destiny” as a nation. We’ve lost that, almost entirely. If we can get it back somehow, and remember the history of unions in this country, we might still stand a chance of our democracy surviving. Otherwise, I have little hope anymore.

  • Rxwatson

    There is a whole generation of blue collar kids that came from union families.I was lucky enough to have both parents in unions mom 1199 Nurse and dad 32B Building Workers.The only scholarship we got for college were from those 2 places and being union meant you were proud to have a job.I feel sorry for the foks today that are not only not unionized but don’t even have a job to belong to one

  • Susan

    Agreed. The traditional labor unions focus on large industries and on the public sector, rather than on all people who work for a living. Perhaps America needs not just labor unions, but a Labor Party.
    Small farmers, small business owners, freelancers and others who work in the gig economy need to be recognized as workers, too. Unions in the US focused on large industries and the public sector, and when small business people are considered at all, they are lumped together (as employers or potential employers) with the large corporations, rather than seeing they have much more in common with workers.One of the advantages of the Occupy movement over traditional US unions, is that it recognizes that small business owners, freelancers and employees are not adversaries. Or at least we have enough common interests that we need not be. Organizations like Chambers of Commerce have perpetuated this paradigm that all business owners have similar interests. I’m glad to see this being questioned these days.

  • David

    They’re the only people’s organization that has lasted since the Revolution.  Yes, the purposes have been watered down, but that is because the 1% fear unions so much that not only was propaganda used to denigrate unions and their allies since 1886 (and before), but the laws have been used to criminalize tactics that worked–like sit down strikes–and to regulate unions to the point that they can’t exist independently of the government.  The amount of energy and money over the centuries just to undercut unions shows the level to which real unions were successful and now needed more than ever.  They are not irrelevant–they’ve just been made impotent.  The cure isn’t get rid of them.  They still have the history and the tactics.  The cure is to release them from their bondage.

  • Robertbeverlylucke

    Yep Ronnie started the demise of the unions by breaking the air traffic it open the doors to big corp big greed, unfair wages and work loads, I know was a union member for 30 years.

  • Bob Fry

    I work for the State of California, which brought in unions for employees in the 1970s under Governor Jerry Brown (Governor again now). I can only comment on what I’ve noticed about the state employee unions.

    First, they are utterly ineffective in protecting state workers from budget problems. Under the prior governor, Arnold Schwarzeneggor, we were hit with one unpaid furlough day a month, then two days, and finally 3 days, the latter lasting 18 months. That’s 36 unpaid days a year, far more than any other group of government workers that I heard of anywhere in the US. This was with the complicity of the Democratically controlled legislature which legalized the furloughs by accepting the savings into the budget. We were all astonished at the lengths Wisconsin Democrats went to defend their employees. Here in California the Dems just throw us under the bus time and again.

    The furloughs finally ended two years ago and the unions “negotiated” a one-year hiatus in them, along with a 3% increase in our contribution to retirement and a 3% pay raise to follow 2 years later (one year from now). Nobody has had raised for years of course. In this fiscal year’s budget, just approved, the unions once again accepted one-day per month unpaid furloughs…which were put into the budget before the unions agreed to them. No decrease in the forced union dues, of course, during any of this. Meanwhile the Democratic Legislators fought to the mat to protect welfare programs. The Senate leader even successfully defended welfare recipients not being required to take training or even look for a job, something Republicans and the Democratic Governor wanted.

  • David Williams

    In the face of physical (police action, detention . torture) and legal assualts (use of Army andCIA within the US, loss of habeus corpus etc)  upon all forms of collective of collective action – our power as a people has never been closer to eqlipse. How can people be concerted together for political education and direct action? The mineing unions were always in the front of making demands because they worked together in conditions resembling wartime comradery and their families lived side by side in the same village. Thus they were already assembled and concerted in their interest.  Unions of all kinds are gathered together but most union members are not reached effectively by existing methods of union social/political education. Thus their voice and presence on the streets are not really concerted . Schools and colleges both gather people together and legitimately   educate hem politically. The efficacy of student action can be seen in the sixties and in Quebec today. In the sixties the draft gave them a crucial common interestt . Now it is debt. One place that  gathers  together, and has a responsibility to educate is the church. My work with Occupy involves bringing OCCUPIERS  to speak and interact with the churchs , that ahas beeen a small success,  These publics (Unions, Students, Churchs ) must comit to acting together not fitfully but for the long run .  UNIONS LET US IN DON”T BE SO STAND OFFISH.

  • Comicrigger

    I am a proud member of I.A.T.S.E. local 16 San Francisco. Obicously I am pro union… Being a member has changed my life in so many ways. Prior to joining I worked as a freelance stage hand and performing artist in the theater field for 10 years. Those where long and difficult times, I suffered for my art and struggled to follow my pasion for theater. I.A.T.S.E. now represents me in monitary disputes, insures I have good health coverage, finds me work with an honest wage and supports me as an artist. I gladly pay a small percentage to them in return.
    I hope more people realize the power of union membership. The movement that brought you weekends, overtime, quality of workplace standards and so much more. If you don’t think they are important just look at the history that forged them.
    I think people have forgotten, or lever learned the history of the labor movement in this country.

  • Paul N

    The wealthy elite have been trying to destroy unions for almost forty years in an attempt to usurp the power of our government. I’m afraid they are succeeding due to a propaganda campaign fueled by enormous amounts of money. Our unions are part of our only defense against these morally corrupt individuals. 

  • Kevin Cullina

    they’ll have to pry my union card from my cold dead hands……

  • Mike Hodgson

    I share your opinion, but live in the UK.  I wrote this because at the moment workers in the UK are powerless. 

    Spheres of Influence


    At work, my sphere of influence is limited

    by my position, I do what I’m told to do

    within reasonable boundaries,

    if I don’t like it then I’ll say so

    and sometimes something will change.


    Happy with it.


    At home my sphere of influence is negotiated

    and, on the whole, is mutually agreed,

    sounds a bit too cozy but I’m happy with it.


    Politically and economically

    my sphere of influence

    is seemingly irrelevant,

    and even in a democracy,

    if I disagree, you do it anyway.


    Unhappy with it.


    I can’t extend my economic muscle

    it has no strength any more,

    the union has withered,

    hands tied up in knots of protocol,

    and a shrivelling of its members. 

  • Steve Colvett

    That is an excellent question.  I know there is a lot of sentiment out there that unions have fulfilled their roles, and are now irrelevant, however much evidence there is to the contrary.  And certainly the ‘individualism’ embodied in Ayn Rand’s philosophy goes a long way in creating an anti-union bias.  But I think the major reason is that unions, in large part, are truly mis-understood as the institutions they are.  It seems that unions are viewed as a kind of ‘equal but opposite’ to the companies or corporations they bargain with.  But they are not the functional equivalent.  They don’t have PR departments, or HR, or IT.  They have a function hierarchy, but that’s about the only resemblance.  They don’t hire, they don’t fire, and they have access only to the skills their members bring with them.  And let me tell you, most union members kind of suck at doing ‘union stuff’.  They can contract out certain functions, or if needed, employ some staff to help with office affairs, but certainly don’t have the money to do this in any significant manner.  So, right from the beginning, unions face a structural impediment when trying to deal with the propaganda railed against them.  They simply don’t have a way to effectively voice their side of the issues.  Couple that with a long-waged PR campaign waged against them, and the ferocity of resistance with which any attempt to organize a workplace is met, and even those who desire to organize and bargain begin to think of it as just a fantasy.  As part of it’s employee orientation, Target plays an anti-union video so full of half-truths and outright lies about how bad union representation would be, that it would be laughable, if it wasn’t so disturbing.  I had been wondering what the response to unions renewed efforts to play a role in modern politics would be.  Now I know.  And finally, you have a popular media able to simultaneously sell ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ and the notion that union wages, benefits, and pensions are unsustainable and elitist.

    All I can say, at the end of the day, is oy vey.

  • Bloughb48

    Maintaining unions is as necessary as maintaining our republic – and just as much hard work is necessary to keep them both running responsibly. 

    Union members must shoulder the
    responsibility for maintaining them.  Members’ LACK of
    ACTIVE participation, and their willingness to let their “leaders” run
    things, has led to a lot of irresponsible, an even criminal, behavior.  Union leaders began to get a bit too big
    for their britches and rough about the same time politicians needed an issue to
    take the heat off them (Mc Carthy). 
    Politicians took advantage of the situation (an innate political skill)
    and deflected reforms that might have been aimed their way.  They turned everyone’s attention to the
    union bad guys (and they were bad, just no worse than the politician, but the
    unions had no united team of good-guy-leaders and no strategy).  The chart roughly parallels the active
    involvement of regular members in their unions.  Once formed, folks relaxed and went about the business of
    working.  Unions, like everything
    else, are only as good as the humans of whom they are comprised.  Union members must be willing to KEEP
    active (be willing to take a TURN in a leadership position), and hold their leadership
    responsible.  I say all of this as
    a union member.

  • Don Hoffner

    I think Unions are very much relavant,however I believe as a Union member we need to change in some ways. I would like to be able to work closer with management to be offer more problem solving solutions between labor and management. We both have to put aside what USED to be and work together or we sure as hell we fail separately. I would offer a chance to visit the Western Michigan Power Plant an see for yourself what is possible. Don

  • Margaret


  • Darleeny

    Absolutely, without them we are just desserts from the corporations. They will just pick our bones

  • Diane Kalen-Sukra

    My “insider’s view” (20 year veteran of labour, and union rep for N.A.’s largest unions) on why unions, as currently constituted, are part of the problem, not the solution. Occupy your Union [article]: 

    [Brief on Signs of the Union’s Setting Sun]:    Everybody knows that union density and power has been on a steady decline for the past 30 years. Like a fighter past his prime, we spend alot of time remembering and reminding others our past battles and achievements – the eight hour work day, employment insurance, and social security to name a few.

    Trade union policy papers endlessly blame this decline on the severity of the neo-liberal attack on the social welfare state, unions and workers’ rights and encourage ways to address this by supporting progressive politicians, organizing the unorganized and encouraging young workers to “get involved”.

    While these external forces are formidable, they do not answer the question of what role the union bureaucracy or officialdom itself plays in facilitating this orderly march backwards of the very people they are charged with the responsibility to represent and whose interests they are compelled to advance. Wasn’t it Canadian Labour Congress President Bob White who said: “You don’t need a union to help you march backwards”?

    Why is it, for instance, that the Occupy movement was able to do more to educate, inspire and change the public discourse around social and economic inequality, the corporate agenda, the casino economy and threats to our democracy, in the first few months of its relatively unorganized and unfunded existence, than the entire labour movement, with its wealth, army of researchers and octopus-like communications apparatus, was able to do in a generation?

    Why do labour bureaucracies, despite historical as well as recent evidence of labour, social democratic and even socialist parties pursing neo-liberal policies of globalization and austerity – forcing working people to pay for the crisis caused by the banksters – wed itself to electoral parties that repeatedly betray the interests of their members and of working people in general?

    How do labour bureaucracies justify “turning a blind eye” to the injustice of aggressive wars being fought oversees, with our money and our blood, as well as the steady implementation of domestic laws that violate our basic rights to freedom of speech, association and due process? Laws that had they been implemented by the Republicans, for instance, would have been branded as fascist.

    How is it possible that the most formidable movement against the rising corporatist police-state and the military industrial complex in the U.S. is coming from Republicans like Ron Paul and the Christian libertarian right rather than the organized left? What again is the labour bureaucracy’s strategy for ensuring we never again descend into barbarism? That the working people would never again be used as cannon-fodder for murderous wars of Empire?

    Working people, the unemployed and the poor – America’s piggy bank – are being crushed under the weight of a thousand taxes, penalties and fines as their daily lives are criminalized and debtors prisons make a resurgence in a third of U.S. states, and the best we can do is call for itsy-bitsy increases in taxes on personal income over a half a million dollars? Who blessed that demand that has become so popular throughout our continent as well as Europe? The IMF? Is that how the elites would like us to vent our frustration while they push forward with endless austerity? Where is the challenge to corporate power and the bankster agenda?

    Why is it that a 12-year old girl in Canada, Victoria Grant, did more to educate Canadians about our criminal banking system in a five minute Youtube video than our central labour body and national affiliates, which were fully aware of this shift to a debt-based monetary system, not to mention the policy of of structural unemployment, for the past quarter century? Imagine ignoring that annual $60 billion pot-of-gold lining the pockets of private banksters while your union “negotiates” and lets you strike over scraps, accepts the loss of members jobs, declining real wages, funding being cut from vital social programs, and public infrastructure being privatized to meet budget shortfalls. Could it be that the status quo is sweeter for the union officialdom than challenging it? Even Henry Ford knew a century ago that “if the people understood our banking and monetary system, there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.”

    How do we reconcile demanding transparency, accountability as well as protection for whistle-blowers, when these are the very things the labour bureaucracy too often works to protect itself against? Any honest observer can witness this on full display at labour conventions, which with few exceptions, are stifling, well-orchestrated affairs that lack spirit, inspiration and vision. Everybody knows what to say, when to say it, when to clap, and perhaps more importantly, when not to. Above all, don’t rock the boat, don’t ask any unscripted questions, listen to the “experts”, stay within the prescribed debate, and be a good sport at the socials.

    How do we justify pointing fingers at employers and politicians for failing to be democratic, principled or effective when we betray our own values and purpose by the very culture we foster and tolerate?

    How do we explain away the shameless efforts to purge dissent, control leadership succession as though it was a monarchy ruling by divine right, consistently choose legalistic means over member mobilization, and elect power over principle. What ever happened to: “An injustice to one, is an injustice to all”? How dare we speak of loyalty, when we betray ourselves?  MORE, including SOLUTIONS:

  • Anonymous

    The government sanctioned monopoly unions are not relevant.  Workers have found out the hard way that they no longer serve the workers interests — they serve only the Unions’ interests.

    Under the current system of government regulated Unions, it is almost impossible for workers to form a Union to serve their needs and that will remain independent of the AFL-CIO and the SEIU.

  • David Lewis / Showbiz David

    Bill, I was very impressed today by your bold willingness to confront your pro-labor guests on the obscenely outrageous pensions that many public sector workers  retire into.  I was not sure if you had this in you.  It does confirm my high regard for your journalism.

    And moreover, on the same program,  for you to recognize the extraordinary verse of a poet who does not embrace Christian doctrine (as I think you do) is another credit to your  ethics.  I was profoundly moved by his views of life and love.

    Many thanks.



  • Peter Grothe

    A seniority list doesn’t reflect how well you do your job.

    If you suck at your job, then you should be removed from it to make room for another person that’s better than you.

    If you are a civil servant, your ‘bargaining’ should be relegated to a vote.  

    Fit this into your Union dialogue.

    I only wish for peace.

  • 13BlueRust

    Unions will create a third party that will help real people, real neighborhoods, and bring real hope and democracy to working voters. It will not happen in 2012, but it will happen.

    The unions will have to decide to be relevant first, so it may take a few years. Corporate/Demigod Pacs are scary, even to union managers, but the existence of unions, and democracy will force change to happen.

    There is always hope.

  • Treis49

    Thanks to Mr. Moyer for the tough questioning of his pro-union guests. The points of the the discussion that rang true to me are:

    We cannot vote our way out of “this mess”. I was pleased to hear it expressed that it will require sacrifice of people taking a longer view of what is required to challenge and change the structure of our economy. Political parties have too much skin in the game to change it. Sustained coalitions
    of people, unions, and like minded civic organizations must educate take action on agreed to principles without breaking ranks.

    I also took away from the conversation is that in general Union officials are part of the political problem and are too comfortable operating in the same circles with the Democrats and the Republicans going back 40 -50 years.

    I too  am a former community organizer. My experience is that working class people also think they have skin in the game. As a result average folks have short attention spans, reluctant to risk or make sacrifices. Folks want to believe they have more in common with Obama and /or Romney. It’s easier!

    The only conclusion I can draw is we are a softer people A weaker backbone disguised by wrapping ourselves in the flag. Materialism is sure fire softening agent for our backbones isn’t it?

    Our grandchildren will pay the price.

  • Anonymous

     Hope that you are right, they seem to be the only organization large enough to an effective force. But the unions better hurry before they are out of members and money.

  • Mike Davis

    This is so RIGHT ON! As a 30 year union activist who retired as a general chairman of a large union, I know what you are saying – The leaders need to wake up. 

  • Arianna

    I call it “organizing the Life out of a movement” and I’ve watched as unions originally brought numbers to Occupy, then decided they wanted to dictate terms, make agreements with officialdom, walk back, nay run back from original Solidarity and finally decided it was only worth using Occupy phone, email, twitter, etc. lists for actions the Unions wanted to do. Sorry, but yelling at empty buildings? “Blocking traffic” with police escorts and permission? Not the style here in the birthplace of the St. Louis Commune. So we still go to union stuff mostly to help out, though them showing up is very dependent on if the Union is in charge or not.