Think again

The contradiction of being
‘pro-labor, but not pro-union’

President, Oregon AFL-CIO

A prominent person in the high-tech world told me recently that businesses in that industry don’t need unions because they pay well and offer good benefits. Moments later, the same person thanked me for our union movement’s role in electing a progressive governor.

That brief exchange said a lot about the contradictions inherent in what progressive members of the business community and others who identify as pro-worker think of unions. That business person, by the way, claimed to be “pro-labor but not necessarily pro-union.”

First, a quick response to the Pollyannas who think that if there were enough generous and fair-minded employers we’d never need unions. You don’t have to be a cynic to recognize that we will never achieve fairness for workers by the invisible hand of a market economy or the gestures of a few good employers. We live in a world in which cutthroat competition motivates employers to drive down labor costs and offers irresistible incentives for the greedy to undercut the good.

Secondly, employers who define themselves as “good” use the very standards our unions created to define “good” — including family wages, affordable health benefits and secure pensions. Even not-so-good employers follow the laws for unemployment benefits, workplace injury insurance and the 40-hour workweek that our union movement organized and fought to establish. Those standards for good didn’t come from generous employers; they came from a fighting union movement.

Next, let’s examine the rest of this “pro-labor-but-not-pro-union” thinking.

If only workers who work for bad employers should be union members, what happens when we succeed in turning bad employers into good employers? Do we let that now-good employer go non-union, leave the workers without representation and ask them to call us if the employer goes bad again? Ask the workers. Most often, they’ll say they want to keep working together to defend their jobs, secure their fair share of the profits they produce and sustain our unions’ never-ending efforts to make bad jobs good and good jobs better.

No, unions aren’t just a temporary solution to problems caused by bad employers. We are part of the permanent solution to much larger problems that inevitably result from an economic system that allows powerful corporations to determine what we’re paid for our education, skills and effort.

As we strive to make jobs better, our collective commitment to fair compensation and a voice at work makes employers better too.

When compensation rises to common levels within an industry, businesses are forced to compete more in terms of the productivity of their workers, the organizational ability of their managers and the commitment of both workers and managers to the success of their enterprise. That’s a good thing, even when it means we have to adjust to the introduction of labor-saving technologies.

With strong unions, the relentless search for higher productivity may mean fewer jobs of one kind, but it also yields opportunities for retraining and advancement to newer jobs with higher skills and better pay. Compare that dynamic to the tendency of high- tech firms to shift jobs from their U.S. workplaces to foreign factories that pay only dollars a day.

Finally, we are a movement whose strength in numbers enables us to elect progressive politicians and lobby for laws that promote a fair and just society. But, as our numbers decline, in case you haven’t noticed, our society becomes less fair and less just.

Maybe that’s the best answer to that business person’s point of view. If you are truly committed to a more progressive society in which we reward hard work with good pay, encourage and support training and education for ourselves and our children, innovate and make jobs more productive and return a fair share of the wealth we produce in our economy to the workers who produce it, you should recognize that we need unions to accomplish this — and not just in the other guy’s business, but in your business too.

Corrections: In my last column, entitled “Lies and the lying lobbyists who tell them,” I had two inadvertent errors of fact. First, I said that the economist who prepared Associated Oregon Industries’ report on capital gains taxes did not provide copies of his report to the House Revenue Committee. I have since learned that he did provide copies to the committee, although those copies were not made available to the public during the hearing. Second, I said that the State Legislature spent “more than $200,000” on a computer model to test the ultimate revenue loss from tax cuts. In fact, the Legislature budgeted $300,000 for this project, but spent only $177,700. I regret these errors and hereby correct the record.

Tim Nesbitt is president of the Oregon AFL-CIO. For more information, check out the Oregon AFL-CIO online at