The politics around labour unions

I rarely (almost never) write about US’ internal politics because I don’t feel like I know enough about the country to comment on its internal affairs, having never been there and also just because I am so hesitant to characterise anything as “American” – just seems like an unfair stereotype. 

Anyway – I have been following the recent tussle over public sector unions (and in particular, teachers’ unions). Again, not knowing enough about their history in the US and their role (positive or negative), its hard for me to say anything very intelligent about the issue, except to recognise first up, that this is an issue developing countries grapple with all the time. I do think that paying teachers better (while holding them accountable) and giving them recognition is key to motivating teachers in developing countries. 

Coming back to the issue at hand, I recently came across this article that criticises the recent attacks on public sector unions. Excerpts – 

A popular item is going around in emails and Facebook pages among the people who are in solidarity with the workers protesting against anti-labour legislation in Wisconsin: A CEO, a union worker and a Tea Partier (a member of the emerging right-wing political movement) are at a table with 12 cookies. The CEO takes 11 and says to the Tea Partier: “Keep an eye on that union guy, he wants your cookie”…

…A public-relations campaign bankrolled by business groups and billionaires like the arch-conservative Koch brothers is aimed nationwide at not only pinning the blame for state budget deficits on its hard-working employees and their union leaders, but to tap into the envy many private sector workers and the unemployed have toward civil servants who have decent benefits…

One of the problems with organised unions is their representativeness. The US ranks 5th from the bottom among all OECD countries in terms of labour union density – with only 12% of American workers being part of labour unions. Does this feed the perception that labour unions are always self-serving and extractive? Could people be politically motivated to think that way? The current attack on unions seem more political than issue-based and one that the author is hopeful will eventually fail

As a result of this stand-off being one of the top domestic news stories in the country, Americans are beginning to see that unions are not the enemy of the economy like conservative pundits and business titans argue, but instead a force for one of the most patriotic things of all: A decent living for the average family.

In India, only 7% of the labour force is in the organised sector in the first place. I would guess its similar in many other developing countries. The remaining workforce in the unorganised sector would have to be organised only by political trade unions not directly affiliated to an industry or sector – which does seem more like a mass mobilisation strategy than one for protecting the rights of the workers. In India, public sector unions are often demonised where labour strikes have, in the past, crippled entire industrial hubs

There is, of course, some evidence that public sector unions can be progressive and instrumental in policy implementation. Really interesting, but grossly under-researched… 


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