Labor unions have suffered something of an image crisis over the past decade.
People blame their presence for convoluting many political and economic conversations.
But, according to Harley Shaiken, the unions’ place in society is far from extinct.
Shaiken is a professor of education and geography at University of California, Berkeley.
He addressed the problems currently facing labor unions as well as their past triumphs.
“Overall the public opinion polls are favorable when people are asked if they would join a union,” said Shaiken.
According to Shaiken, the economic gloom of states’ economies cannot entirely be blamed on labor unions.
“What we’ve seen in Wisconsin is the notion that unions are the cause for a state’s fiscal problems. The argument that is put out against unions is very flawed,” said Shaiken.
He continued to elaborate on the various flaws of such an argument, focusing on economies that were previously poor and not brought down entirely by the existence of labor unions.
“To blame the poor economy of places like Wisconsin on unions avoids facing the real problems of how we got there on a state level. The auto industry is the classic case where people associate the UAW with driving the industry off a cliff. But the industry made billions when it was producing cars that consumers wanted,” said Shaiken.
The ultimate goal of unions is to protect wages and jobs for their members. According to Shaiken, this function is still being fulfilled by the unions.
“I think unions continue to succeed at protecting the wages and benefits of its members. Workers who are not in a union benefit from the games that unions win. One of the great achievements of post-World War Two America was the high productivity of U.S. industry. Unions served to link that productivity to rising wages and workers who became part of the middle class,” said Shaiken.
Michigan’s inextricable link to the unions was something with which Shaiken was interested.
“I think Michigan is very linked to the fate of labor unions. It has a high union membership, in Michigan its over 17%. So many of the economic gains in Michigan have come out of a very strong labor movement,” said Shaiken.
Unions’ cooperation with major companies will ultimately be of great benefit, argued Shaiken.
“The crisis that labor unions face today is real. That challenge can be met and you have very capable labor leaders today that are trying innovative strategies. They need to forge new ways to work with companies," said Shaiken.
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