Soundbite: Labor Pains


"Freedom of association is a right under severe, often buckling pressure when workers in the United States try to exercise it." That's the conclusion of Unfair Advantage, a new study commissioned by Human Rights Watch (available online). According to the report, employer impunity and U.S. law have increasingly deterred workers' attempts to unionize, in flagrant disregard of international human rights law.

But the report doesn't discuss labor's most significant stumbling block: Unions have failed to respond to workers' changing needs in the modern economy. So argues Rutgers University at Newark economist Leo Troy, a feisty, longtime, and prescient analyst of unions. "I've been saying that unions were declining long before it was generally believed….At this point in my life, I don't feel a great need to be polite," Troy, well into his 70s, told Rutgers Focus. Assistant Editor Sara Rimensnyder interviewed him by phone in October.

Q: Is Human Rights Watch correct that union busting by employers is on the rise?

A: I say [HRW] is wrong, but let's assume [the report] is right about the increase in labor violations, just for the sake of argument. Since 1970, private sector unions have lost almost 50 percent of their membership. It's baloney to attribute this to employer opposition. Employer opposition only has one application, in organizing the unorganized. Many people mix up the loss of unionism in existing labor-management relationships and efforts by unions to organize the unorganized.

People never discuss employee opposition to unionism. There was a private poll done in 1984 by Lou Harris on behalf of the AFL-CIO. He found that 65 percent of nonunion workers said they would not vote for a union in a secret ballot. The top reason was that the workers felt the unions had become irrelevant. They felt they didn't need a union to solve their problems. "Fear of the employer" ranked near the bottom of the list. That was a kick in the solar plexus from the standpoint of the unions. And that was '84. Those sentiments would be even stronger now.

Q: Do U.S. laws adequately protect unions?

A: Every single G-7 country-and above all, Canada-has seen a decline in private sector unionism. Canada has much more pro-union legislation than the United States; pro-union people say we have to copy Canadian labor law. But if the Canadian law is unable to prevent the decline, why should it make a difference if the U.S. followed suit?

Q: Is there any future for collective bargaining?

A: In the book I'm writing now, Twilight for Unionism, I make clear that twilight doesn't mean extinction. Unions will remain important in certain private industries in the United States, like the automobile industry, the steel industry, and the railways.