Unions Seek Lower Pay for Workers — WTF?

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Stephanie McMillanSkewed News — The entire purpose of a union is to assert and defend the interests of its members. The reason that workers organized themselves into unions in the first place was because we can assert more social power collectively than individually. Historically, unionized workers have fought heroically and righteously for the 8-hour (as opposed to the previous 16-hour norm) day, for overtime pay, for safety measures, for better working conditions, and most importantly for higher wages. This is what unions are for, what they’re all about.

So how are we to interpret the current spectacle of unions demanding the right to bargain for lower wages for their members? Is today “opposite day”? Has the world gone mad?

Rusty Hicks, executive secretary-treasurer at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, proposed an exemption to the new $15 minimum wage for union members. He wants LA businesses to be able to pay union members less than other workers.

This may seem insane, but he has his (self-serving) reasons. It’s not the first time unions have done this.

When a vote was passed to raise the minimum wage in San Diego last year, it also included an exemption for union members. One might assume that the opt-out clause was proposed by the Chamber of Commerce or some other association of business owners and bosses—which would make some sense, since they’re expected to want to rob workers of their rightful pay. But no: instead it was proposed by someone entrusted with protecting workers’ interests: Tom Lemmon of the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO.

The AFL-CIO isn’t the only culprit. Taking advantage of union opt-out clauses in previous minimum wage legislation for some hotel employees in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Unite Here sold its own members to businesses as the “low-cost option.”

Opt-out clauses have also been part of wage legislation in San Jose, Oakland, Richmond, San Francisco, Chicago and Milwaukee. And we can expect them to be proposed more widely in the future.

Why would unions collaborate with capitalists to intensify the exploitation of their own members? Unions attempt to justify this betrayal by saying that they need the flexibility to bargain away a portion of wages in exchange for potentially more valuable benefits. But this is a facile argument. The job of a union is not to make cowardly concessions without even a struggle. They are supposed to fight for higher wages AND better benefits. The operative word being “fight.”

Unions that assist and secure business interests are not worthy of the name. They should be called anti-unions.

But there are certain advantages to this ploy —not for workers of course, but for the bureaucrats whose paychecks depend on them. It may lead to the establishment of the union as a monopoly labor contractor, imposed not only on the employer, but on the employee as well. Lower-paid union workers will be the obvious preference for businesses. And workers who want jobs with these companies will be forced to join them. Any extra benefits the capitalist may concede aren’t likely to significantly (if at all) offset the workers’ loss of pay and payment of union dues on top of that.

It can feel awkward to criticize unions from the left, because it seems to play into the hands of capitalists, who will naturally jump at any chance to attack and discredit unions, including for this current incidence of rank hypocrisy. But our logic can’t be so simplistic that just because capitalists are against unions that we need to reflexively support them (like the false argument that if we don’t support Democrats then we’re helping Republicans, when both are against us).

Anti-union capitalists will even stoop so low as to pretend to be concerned about the “freedom” of workers. But their reasons for critique are the direct opposite of ours. Capitalists hate unions because they want to dominate us even harder so they can exploit us even worse than they do already. They even have their own organizations with the sole purpose of union busting. This fact may make us feel a reflexive need to defend unions, because currently the only evident alternative to a bad union seems to be no union, and that’s obviously not an acceptable outcome.

But why do our options have to be limited to either sell-out unions or no unions? Like the lesser-evil argument during elections, it’s not a real choice. There is another alternative: a genuine labor movement, run and controlled by workers. We need to construct new working class organizations that are autonomous—not run by bureaucrats, not under the leadership of capital. As we have all too painfully learned, if we don’t organize ourselves, capitalists will grind us under their boot again and again. And these collaborationist unions will help them do it.

Unions were formed during the country’s industrialization as effective weapons of working class struggle against capitalists. But even then, there were fake-ass unions eager to sell workers out. Labor leader Eugene Debs wrote something in 1906 that could be aptly applied today: “If the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers was a bona fide labor union instead of the fossilized tool of railway corporations its grand chief would be peremptorily impeached for treason to the working class.”

There is only one road to emancipation: for the working class and its most advanced detachment to reclaim our history of struggle, to take control of and lead the fight against capital. We need to build working class organizations at all levels, including genuinely autonomous unions. We must not allow bureaucrats and sell-outs to lead us like lambs to the slaughter; we must organize ourselves, relying on our own strength.

One Comment

  1. Robert Allen says:

    A very good article- I’m a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, whose 150th anniversary booklet mailed to all members last year, actually more than implied that it alone was responsible for the “labor peace” after the bloody struggles of the early twentieth century, as if those events were mere unfortunate bumps in the road, smoothed out by “reasonable men” of the BLE who wanted only a “seat at the table” of capitalist power. It is this type of hubris that drew Debs’s ire.

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