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January 18, 2011: Can Labor Save Us?

Topic Host: Philip Graham

In 1935, at the height of economic turmoil, Congress enacted the Wagner Act (or National Labor Relations Act ). The Act allowed employees to organize collectively, which created a balancing of power, making employees and corporations "partners" in a successful economic recovery. Since the 1970s, unionization has been on the decline in the United States and apathy towards the same has risen to the point where, for example, some attribute the recent fall of the auto industry, in part, to overly powerful unions. Against this perfunctory backdrop, the question is if, in the current recession, a resurgence of unionization is the key, if not an essential, tool in rebuilding the economy.

The prep materials are intentionally non-academic and brief (don’t be fooled by the number of links) because in my opinion the essence and true discourse of labor issues does not necessarily occur in an intellectual vacuum, but are reasoned and decided on shop floors, in lunchrooms, and offices of ordinary people. Whether there should be a resurgence in unionization to improve the economy will not be determined by Congress but is left up to the average worker. These decisionmakers generally know little about profit margins, deficits, economic theories, and corporate bottom lines. These workers rely heavily on their instincts to determine if unionization will bring them added job security, financial gain, and strengthen the economy. We as individuals are among these workers and are charged with determining if Labor Can Save Us! Our discussion circle is akin to a shop floor where opinions, beliefs, and feelings are cast about and form the basis of a vote to institute a union or not.

As you review the materials, contemplate the following:

1. How is the socioeconomic climate of the Great Depression (where unionization helped with the economic recovery) different from today’s Great Recession? Do these differences support or refute claims that unionization is the key to overcoming the recession? Consider:
a. Globalization / International competition
b. Foreign cheap labor
c. Inflation and your cost of living

2. How might your own economic situation be improved or worsen by unionization?

3. Typically those who favor union activity in a recession point to the ability of unions to secure higher wages, which then allow workers to help spend the country out of a recession.

4. The National Labor Relations Act (1935) was established to empower unions and to equalize the power imbalance between employees and corporations - is this necessary in today’s recession?

5. Do unions have the same negotiating power that they did in the 1930s? Why or why not?

6. What about the unemployed, can unions help to put people back to work?

Time permitting, before the discussion I will post a rough outline / additional questions that may be considered and addressed when we meet. My apologies to those kinesthetic learners, I could not find anything for your benefit but will continue to look and post anything I find.






“The unions might be good for the people who are in the unions but it doesn't do a thing for the people who are unemployed. Because the union keeps down the number of jobs, it doesn't do a thing for them.”
- Interview with Brian Lamb, In Depth Book TV (2000)

"The strongest argument for free enterprise is that it prevents anybody from having too much power. Whether that person is a government official, a trade union official, or a business executive. If forces them to put up or shut up. They either have to deliver the goods, produce something that people are willing to pay for, are willing to buy, or else they have to go into a different business."
- "Free to Choose" (1980), segment 2 of 10, "The Tyranny of Control"

"This is an issue for not just the labor movement, but for our country as a whole," he declared. "Germany has been hit with the same economic crisis that hit us, but the suffering you see there is far less than the suffering you see here. The crucial difference," Cohen said, "is the higher degree of workers' rights in that country. Yes, we need a second stimulus and yes we need to fix regulations, but we must move ahead on workers' rights, particularly the right to collective bargaining, and that is why we are pushing so hard for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act."
- "Worker rights are key to economic recovery, union leaders say." (2010)

Supplemental Reading (not required)


  1. This is going to be a great discussion. Thanks for hosting it.

  2. Cover story of the Economist this week


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