The fact that the state of worker’s trade unions around the globe is dire and dismal is a serious matter. In many cases, labor unions are being dismantled or destroyed outright. Last week’s results from the recall election in Wisconsin USA - Republican Governor Scott Walker’s win to keep his seat - was just another nail in the coffin for a healthy and unionized workforce in America.
This blow to workers in Wisconsin, who now have a diminished membership and very few rights left (as far as collective bargaining and the right to strike goes), hit me hard and on a personal level. My very first job was a unionized one, working as an apprentice meat packer in a frozen food factory back in the early 1970’s. That is when unions still had teeth and were aggressively fighting for fair wages, better working conditions, and essential benefits for worker retirement and health. Jimmy Hoffa was still alive and kicking, and the number of unionized workers in America stood at about 30 percent of the workforce (down from 35 percent in the 1950’s). Today, that figure is less than 12 percent across the board.
Depending on your political stance, you may or may not agree that worker’s unions are essential or even relevant in today’s modern age of global capitalism and market forces, which seek to squeeze every dollar of profit possible from any business venture, regardless of the toll it takes on the worker. Fiscal conservatives in America had decided long ago that labor unions, hotbeds of left-leaning democratic thinking and political funding, had to go. And now that Wisconsin has fallen – a testing ground for conservative thinking – the rest of the country is sure to follow.
As a younger man in the workforce, I was not so naïve to think that belonging to my ‘Local 101’ was going to be a solution to all my work-related problems. It was easy to see that the ‘Meatpacker’s Union’ that I belonged to was mobbed up and corrupt. Union dues constituted a large chunk of my paycheck, and it was clear that workers were just pawns in a larger game of power and control over local and state politics. But the choice during those times was to pick between the lesser of the two evils: to either have some say with employers, or to have no or little say when it came to getting your fair share of fruit from one’s labor.
But then I got a better job, one where the hacking of dead meat was not required, and I could go home every day with clean hands and not even a crinkle on my suit and tie. I had worked my way through college and joined IBM, where the cubicles were neat and tidy and you could work all day or night and hardly break a sweat. All the benefits were there (at some level), and today I rest retired knowing that some pittance of a pension is coming my way each month.
At least I got something, even if it is just a pittance.
It is clear to me that being unionized would have given my fellow ‘IBM’ers’ and me a better deal in the end. But through the 1980’s and 1990’s, the logic went something like this - either work for a company or organization that allowed unions, and then trust your union leaders to negotiate the best for you or work for a company that bans unionization in return for the promise that the company would take care of your needs. There was no middle ground, no other real alternative, you were either unionized or not.
And now, at least in America, the choice is ‘not unionized’ for 93 percent of private sector workers. The only folks still left unionized are government workers, where about 35 percent have some form of organized representation in the workplace, but 65 percent don’t. Yet, government employees have very limited collective bargaining rights, with right-to-strike banned in most cases, and influence on politicians on the wane as membership drops to record lows.
Depending on your political stance, you may or may not agree that worker’s unions are essential or even relevant in today’s modern age.
For Nepal, I think this trend of the unions in America is foretelling, regardless of my limited experience here, evident from the heat of many a burning tyres in the street and newspaper stories about the many labor battles with businesses, as well as the campaign to ratify (in full) ILO Convention 87. Workers are still struggling here, restricted within the confines of awful choices and limited support from the government, and in the middle of a global economic meltdown.
In short, the global floor of social protection (as described by the ITUC, which represents 175 million workers around the world) is disintegrating plank by plank. From the Eurozone to Kathmandu to Wisconsin, austerity measures now seem to outweigh the need to stimulate growth in employment.
Here, I pose a few questions. Is there a better way, a rethink on the way we have chosen to organize as trade unions? Are there really only two choices in this day and age of internet access, iPads and smartphones? Shouldn’t we - as a collective global citizenry - be thinking of remodeling the ways of business and employment? In other words, can’t we come up with something better than the institutions we have now, and that have clearly failed us?
Isn’t it time for a more global human (and humane) union movement? The answers lie within each one of us.
The author is a quirky American expat, now retired and living happily with his Nepali family, holding high hopes for the future of workers world-wide