The union for now: Labor at the crossroads

PHOTO: Steve Snodgrass, Flickr CC

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Regardless of your opinion about organized labor, or whether you’re in a union yourself, the labor movement now faces its most tenuous challenge in more than a century.

Politically, there is this. According to a Feb. 1 Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal story, Vice President Mike Pence conferred with Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin in late January. They discussed the feasibility of replicating Walker’s controversial ban on public sector unions at the national level. Further, union leaders I talk to worry that President Donald Trump will attempt to nationalize so-called “right to work” laws, which ban requiring union membership in workplaces that have negotiated a union contract.

President Trump has little short term reason for the latter move, however. His strategy so far has been to encourage private sector construction workers with the promise of unfettered infrastructure spending and jobs. A number of union members here in Northern Minnesota voted for Trump on just such grounds. This has created a clear divide in the labor movement, one that could well cripple labor opposition to Trump policies even without “Right to Work.”

Without spending too much time on the history of labor, unions formed a century ago as part of the massive industrialization of America. Workers united on the premise that they deserved a share of the prosperity formed by capitalistic innovations. They also wanted relief from exploitation and deadly working conditions. Otherwise capitalism held them to a bare minimum standard of living.

That’s what was happening on the Iron Range when many of our ancestors took a real gamble in going out on strike. The existence of America’s middle class is widely attributed to the success of the labor movement, which tapped its roots in the red dirt of Minnesota’s iron ranges.

Flash forward 100 years and much has changed. Automation has obliterated mining and manufacturing jobs, the biggest sources of private union membership. Whole sections of the population have moved into the service and government sectors amid myriad technological and societal changes.

Public employee unions, a more recent phenomenon, demonstrate a philosophically similar goal of fairness and protection, but one that has been much less political popular. In the public sector, “supply and demand” are dictated by social need and democratic will. There are no profits, only services delivered to taxpayers, who then foot the bill.

In times not so long ago the concept of public services enjoyed relatively widespread political support. Now, every function of government is subject for debate. Some cherish public schools, others distrust them. Aid for the poor, disabled or mentally ill provoke heated argument, rather than common purpose.

Demands on public employees have increased, while working conditions have declined. Thus, public sector unions have been the nation’s fastest-growing for three decades. Full disclosure, I am a member of the Minnesota State College Faculty union at Hibbing Community College.

The argument against public sector unions is that it is unfair that unions negotiate against the government. Would concessions to unions not be punitive to the very taxpayers served by these employees? That’s why the growth of public sector unions now draws the most fire from anti-union political forces, evidenced best by the banning of public sector unions in our neighboring state of Wisconsin. Though spurring a hurricane of controversy, ultimately anti-union forces prevailed in the Badger State and have won subsequent elections. Meantime, union membership in Wisconsin dropped by 40 percent.

Yet the focus on public sector labor is misplaced. After decades of growth, governmental employment has flatlined, and is beginning to decline. If you want to talk about growth in the economy, look to the service sector — from health care to retail to hospitality. The working poor find jobs here. Here also, unions find the most difficulty organizing.

Box stores. Gas stations. Hotels. Assisted living facilities. Fast food restaurants. If the immigrant ancestors of the Iron Range arrived today, these are the jobs that would await them. These are the jobs that pull shenanigans with shift work and hours, forcing families to double out with two or three or four jobs at a time. If unions wanted to make a difference, union protection and organization would best serve these workers and probably improve the economy as a whole.

Why hasn’t that happened? Well, the short answer is because it’s very hard. Companies are much better at keeping out unions than they were 100 years ago. That would be a surmountable goal for unions, but it’s not their only challenge.

Workers themselves nurse political divisions over a cavalcade of other issues — from guns to social issues to the latest nonsense on Facebook. It is at once easier to for workers to communicate and harder to get them to agree on an objective reality. One fears the increasingly sophisticated manufacturing robots could organize against their human oppressors far sooner than their fleshy brethren.

Looking ahead, two issues will shape the future of labor unions in the 21st Century. Will President Trump or some successor succeed in destroying public sector unions? Will workers in the growing service sector one day organize? Unions need to win at least one of these fights to stay relevant.

That’s important because there’s not much out there to ensure that the middle class will keep its quality of life. If not unions, then who? Then what? The biennial promises of politicians will go only so far. Without a unified voice for wages, healthcare, and working conditions, it’s everyone for themselves.

That works for a while, but not for long.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. I must confess I think FDR was right about public employees unions. They enfeeble government. FDR wanted a strong federal government.

  2. independant says

    Public sector unions and private sector unions are actually two totally different animals.

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