I have been a union carpenter for nearly 40 years, an activist all my life, and am currently the head of the 19,000 member New England Regional Council of Carpenters (NERCC). I am also the grandson of Henryk Erlich, leader of the Jewish Labor Bund, a potent political and social force in Eastern Europe and Russia between World War I and World War II. My grandmother, Sophie Dubnow Erlich, was a poet and activist in her own right, particularly in pre-revolutionary Russia. My personal commitment to social and economic justice is rooted in my family’s secular Jewish heritage – not as a product of nostalgia for the old days, but as an understanding that those traditions are just as relevant today.
Our labor movement now represents just 11% of the nation’s workforce, down from a peak of 35% during the 1950s. There are a host of reasons – de-industrialization, globalization, automation, the business community’s ideological attack on labor, the recession era budget crisis-fueled assault on public sector unions, and our own internal shortcomings. The result is that unions, created as a necessary counter-balance to corporate power, have slowly but steadily lost ground to an unyielding and increasingly sophisticated 21st century version of global capitalism.
Simultaneously, social and cultural trends elevate the value of individualism and diminish notions of collective solidarity. The paternalistic concept of employer responsibility for the health care and retirement security of long term employees is vanishing. The workforce is fractured from a growing system of subcontracting that eliminates large payrolls as a do-your-own-thing version of entrepreneurialism is celebrated as innovative and modern. Unions are often described as, at best, a vestige of a no longer relevant past and, at worst, an obstacle to job creation and growth in the new information economy.
More and more observers are finally recognizing that the consequence of these trends is the growth of economic inequality. But what is rarely articulated is that the growth of inequality coincides with the decline of union density. Since 1967, the decline of the middle class share of national income is almost completely correlated with the decline of union representation. Unions built the middle class in the US. Now, as unions have faded, the middle class is disappearing.
We need to acknowledge simple math. Nationwide, we do not represent 89% of the workforce and an even higher percentage of private sector workers. We do not dictate the terms of employment. We are reacting to terms that are being imposed by non-union market forces.
That harsh reality requires that union campaigns frame their message in ways that speak to and for the entire workforce, not just our current members. In my work, we rarely make public appeals for a project to be built with union workers simply because “building union” is better. Even though our members work on roughly 60% of the projects (measured in dollar volume) in New England, there is little public sympathy for the idea that union tradesworkers are “entitled” to work on a particular project. Therefore, we try to represent all carpenters – union and non-union, documented and undocumented. NERCC organizers spend their time talking to non-union carpenters, advocating for them with their employers or with state and federal agencies in case of underpayments, employee misclassification, wage theft and wage fraud. We do it because people deserve to get paid for their work, pure and simple. But we also do it because it elevates standards across the industry and allows unionized firms to be able to compete on a more level playing field. It’s the right thing to do and it’s in our self interest.
As a house of labor, we need to speak on behalf of all workers whether or not they are in a union. We need to expand our idea of who our constituency is. Public sector unions, in particular have to alter the current terms of debate. They have to speak to the consumers of their services and to taxpayers, in addition to their own members. Private sector unions like mine face a similar tension between accountability to dues-paying members and sensitivities to the communities where we build and the owners we build for. We have to argue that unions can bring value to our particular industries.
I also think soul-searching in the labor movement has to extend to our structures. Do they work or are they barriers to developing a brand of unionism that is more relevant? Can we succeed without a centralization of human and financial assets that can take on the resources and sophistication of the modern business world?
We are now on the losing end of class warfare, and when a war goes awry, thoughtful leaders seek alternative paths. As the military strategist (and possible Jewish mystic?) Sun Tzu said, “in a country where high roads intersect, join hands with your allies. Do not linger in dangerously isolated positions.”
We need friends such as the New England Jewish Labor Committee and many more. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, I believe that unions are more relevant and necessary than ever. I believe that the single clearest road to restoring some level of economic inequality to our society is to grow the labor movement. However, I also believe that will require a brand of unionism that embraces allies and speaks on behalf of all working Americans.
Mark Erlich is the Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters and a frequent writer on labor and political issues.