John Kretzschmar  

(Re)Kindling the Union Spirit: The Key to Improving Union Effectiveness

John Kretzschmar
January 31, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

The 2010 ROPA (Regional Orchestra Players Association) conference was held in Omaha, NE. ROPA President Carla Lehmeier-Tatum invited John Kretzschmar, Director of the William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies at the University of Nebraska, to address the delegates. John presented a rousing talk about the problems of union membership apathy, why it exists, and what can be done about it. I asked John to revise his remarks for Polyphonic; the result is a most interesting and informative article.

- Ann Drinan

Ignorance is NOT bliss. That statement is more complicated that it sounds when applied to labor unions. For union leaders and activists, it has a deeper and more ominous meaning! The ignorance I am speaking of is the general public’s lack of knowledge concerning labor unions and the labor movement.

There is a dearth of accurate information about what labor unions are, what they do, and how they do it. This lack of information creates a vacuum that society fills with half-truths, exaggerations, and ugly untrue stereotypes about labor unions. Each of those distortions masquerades as the truth. That means that the myths about unions are guiding people's behavior. Not only do average Americans not understand unions, unfortunately too many union members don’t either. Union members, through no fault of their own, come to the union “flawed.” They have little real understanding of the importance of their role in building the solidarity required to establish and maintain dignity and respect in the workplace.

Let me give a couple of examples of these ugly stereotypes. First, at the turn of the 20th century, Samuel Gompers the first president of the American Federation of Labor, was asked, “What does labor want?” His reply was a statement that, I believe, was about creating a society that honors the best values embodied in opportunities presented by the American Revolution.

“What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more constant work and less crime; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.”

The media of the day reduced that eloquent statement to the one word: “more.” The idea that unions are, at their core, greedy turns reality on its head. No union today wants to drive its employer out of business. Why kill the goose that lays the golden egg?

The primary goal for publicly-traded corporations is to maximize short-term stockholder profits. That was as true in the 1800s as it is today. William Henry Vanderbilt, the self-described richest man on earth, described in 1883 the reasons he owned and ran his railroads, “The public be damned! I run my railroads for my stockholders!” Twenty-eight years later, a stockholder in the American Woolen Company told social reformer Harry Emerson Fosdick, “Any man who pays more for labor than the lowest sum he can get men for is robbing the stockholders. If he can secure men for $6 and pays more, he is stealing from the company.”

This isn’t shocking, it is merely how an unregulated economy works. In 2010, elected officials are still blaming the United Automobile Workers union for damaging the economic viability of the American automobile industry. I believe they have it exactly backwards. Here’s Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman in his book Capitalism and Freedom on how the economy is supposed to work. The focus of corporate officials should exclusively be on "more."

“The view has been gaining widespread acceptance that corporate officials ... have a 'social responsibility' that goes beyond the interest of their stockholders ... This view shows a fundamental misconception of the character to use its resources and to engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game ... Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundation of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”

The second example of a societal distortion is the commonly used term “union boss” to describe the position of elected union leader. Boss implies an unelected permanent status with unlimited power. By law unions are among the most regulated institutions in American society. Local union leaders must stand for re-election by their membership every three years and national leaders every five years.

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