Strikes, Boycotts On The Horizon?

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. AP photo

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s win in a recall election last Tuesday may have awakened a unionized monster that’s been asleep for decades.

Unions evoke controversy. Just about everyone has strong opinions about their tactics and effects. Unionized employment has declined substantially because of a shift from goods to service production, the globalization of manufacturing and employers’ success in thwarting union-organizing campaigns.

Many people look to the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike and their subsequent discharge by President Reagan as a major event that caused the decline in union power.

Well, don’t look now, but labor has a bigger challenge to work on – the failed recall election of Gov. Walker, who kept his promise to eliminate union rights for most public workers. He won the election, but has not eliminated union rights for public workers yet.

Conventional wisdom is that it will all end up in the judicial arena before it happens. The problem is there is a presidential campaign under way, and a lot of Democrats are worrying that this election may be a sign of times.

Well, the history of labor unions doesn’t support that belief. In fact, most union setbacks, like the Reagan mandate, lasted about 10 years and then things went back to the usual routine.

Over the years, beginning in 1776 and the birth of our nation, unions have had to fight for recognition. The pendulum has swung from legislation giving unions too much power to legislation that balances the struggle between the two sides. In all of this the one constant has been dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction consistently associated with interests in organizing and also consistently associated with employee turnover.

A 1988 Gallup Poll found 61 percent approved of labor unions, and while 25 percent disapproved, many were neutral or had no opinion. Most respondents thought the role of unions is enhancing employment outcomes through political efforts influencing legislation. No matter which side the respondents were on, they all agreed employees need some kind of protection from employers.

Furthermore, half of those responding believed that without unions, employee laws and benefits would be weakened or repealed.

Union members also form in response to perceived danger or threat. Politicians who rule by fear may face a collective response from group members. In union talk they call this phenomenon “wagon circling.” Walker may have won the recall election, but in the long run, it struck fear into public union members all over America, creating a more determined foe the next time around. The 1930s provided the environment for the successful industrial unions and passage of the Norris-La Guardia and Wagner acts, which eliminated injunctions against most union activities and accepted collective bargaining as a preferred mode for resolving employment disputes.

If Congress doesn’t correct the attacks on public collective bargaining rights, the labor movement may take a more adversarial posture and bring back strikes and boycotts to protect their members.