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Council could help workers

Since the symbolic and significant executive action by President Reagan to kill the air traffic controllers union and its 11,000 members in 1981, the trend has been irreversible; union membership has shrank year-by-year from 23 percent in 1980 to 12.4 percent in 2010.

What Reagan started has been fueled by NAFTA and every trade agreement since, by placing American labor against undeveloped labor markets around the globe. American companies, now multinationals, used the treaties to transform labor into a commodity, and the threat of labor actions in America was countered by the promise to send jobs anywhere else.

But even that diminished power of workers, here and around the globe, was not enough loss for those who truly hated the very idea of organized workers. In the U.S. today the largest unions are those comprised of public employees and to understand the assault on those unions one needs look no farther than Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio.

The success of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to destroy public employee unions has become instructional for Republican governors everywhere.

The goal of opponents of workers organizing for better benefits, wages, and working conditions is not a reduction of unions but the elimination of all unions for all time everywhere. As long as one union exists the opponents of labor will work to end that union.

And why not kill unions, what do they offer America?

Well, once upon a time labor unions fought for and created a living wage and by doing so helped create the American middle class. These same unions greatly improved working conditions in many industries, saving lives and fingers and toes from their successes.

The unions helped workers earn good health care and pensions to supplement Social Security in retirement. These unions contributed to their communities, helped families in need, developed training programs that provided young men and women the skills for successful careers.

And these unions participated in politics, advancing the goals of many Americans in employment issues and middle class values.

And yet, in spite of these contributions to society unions were successfully targeted for extinction.

But they are not gone yet.

Today, at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., there is a movement to organize the first foreign-owned auto manufacturer in America. The AFL-CIO claims it has a majority of workers ready to organize. And plant management and parent ownership are, in part, supportive of change in the relationship of workers and owners in Tennessee.

The Volkswagen management group has suggested the creation of a Workers Council at the plant, a European model designed to create participation by all workers, management and labor, salaried and hourly, in decision-making for the plant.

The democratic process reduces labor conflict by the sharing of information and may even seat workers on the corporate Board of Directors.

The Work Council model does not conduct bargaining actions for wages or benefits, but it does connect all workers together with the plant owners. During the Great Recession worker councils in Germany elected to reduce the hours of everyone instead of lay-offs for anyone to work through the crisis. The result? A lower unemployment rate than many countries, including the U.S.

Today the German unemployment rate is 5.2 percent compared with the US rate of 7.3 percent.

It is a new idea for American workers, but workers need new ideas to fight for their very survival.

There has been a parallel in America; when unions suffered in the past 30 years all American workers wages suffered while corporations thrived.

The issue of wage inequality has been, in part, directly related to the demise of organized labor.

Workers need a more perfect union today.


Jim Crawford is a retired educator and political enthusiast living here in the Tri-State.