POLITICS: Bye bye unions?

Jim Bertalone is president of the local postal workers union and president of Rochester and Genesee Valley Area Labor Federation. He says that money from large political action committees may skew future elections. PHOTO BY MATT DETURCK


By many accounts, the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election was an omen for labor, indicating its future role in and influence on American politics.

The state’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, angered unions by leading a legislative push that stripped most collective bargaining rights from some public employees. Unions and their supporters fought back by passing petitions to force the election, which became something of a proxy battle between pro- and anti-union forces. Walker won, and many commentators said the result was a dire sign for labor.

“Labor is getting weaker,” the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein wrote the morning after the election. “And corporations, in part due to Citizens United, are getting much stronger.” (The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the door for corporations to spend unlimited sums to influence elections, as long as they don’t give directly to candidates.)

For decades, labor unions have had significant influence on American politics and elections. They could help make or break a candidate, from the president and Congress members on down to your local town board candidates.

But across the country, union membership has steadily declined, with a pronounced drop after 1980. In the 1950’s, one out of every three workers belonged to a union. In 2011, less than 12 percent did. In the 11-county area from Rochester to the Pennsylvania border, union membership has dropped from approximately 100,000 to 90,000 in the past decade, says Jim Bertolone, president of the Rochester and Genesee Valley Area Labor Federation.

Approximately one-quarter of New York’s workforce is unionized, the highest rate of any state.

The shrinking number of union members could ultimately mean a loss of political influence. To counter that, labor groups are reaching out to like-minded people and organizations. For example, they’ve worked with clergy and progressive groups to promote a minimum wage increase, Bertolone says.

And unions have also worked alongside NAACP and the Occupy movement, he says.

“We’re not just talking to our members anymore,” Bertolone says. “We’re reaching out to all kinds of working people and coalitions.”

But unions also face a second political numbers problem: money. Simply put, they’re outgunned by their wealthy, corporate opposition. The Citizens United ruling opened the door for corporations to spend massive amounts of money to influence elections. And though they can’t give directly to candidates, they can buy ads and give to large political action committees which don’t have to disclose their donors.

Some liberal commentators have used the money issue to push back against the unions-are-dying narrative. They say that the unions scored a victory of sorts in Wisconsin. Walker spent seven times more than his opponent, and 70 percent of that money came from out of state donors. Yet Walker won by only 8 percent of the vote. And they highlighted another recall race in the Wisconsin Senate, where a Democrat unseated the incumbent Republican to flip control of the chamber.

Bertolone says that after the Great Depression, the public stopped listening to the bankers, corporate executives, and railroad trusts. And he says he hopes that today’s voters will begin to resist the current corporate influence in politics and government.

A couple of days after the election, Bertolone, who’s also president of the local postal workers union, sat down to discuss the labor movement’s current and future role and influence in politics. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

CITY: What did you take away from the results in Wisconsin?

Bertolone: I’m thinking that any meaning may be overplayed and overstated as part of the news cycle. Exit polling shows the majority of Wisconsin supports collective bargaining, but 70 percent were against recall unless there was some kind of malfeasance or criminal activity. And I think that’s why Walker got back in: partly because they [Wisconsin voters] just thought the recall procedure was wrong.

There were tens of millions of dollars that came in from out of state groups and PAC’s. That, to me, is the biggest thing that you can take out of here: that this could be a microcosm of what we’re going to see on a grand scale. The majority is going to come from these Citizens United PAC’s, most of which are representing the 1 percent, and that can really skew our political system.

How do unions counter the money that labor’s opponents spend on political races?

When we endorse a candidate, some of our unions’ PAC’s will donate to their campaigns. And again, you hear all over the media how much union dues were spent in Wisconsin. It’s against the law to spend union dues in these political campaigns. The members must voluntarily contribute to the political action fund. So those are voluntary contributions.

But they don’t seek labor’s endorsement just to get money from our PAC’s. It’s because of the volunteer hours that if they had to pay for, would be huge. The labor walks that we do going door to door dropping their literature, the phone banks we do, the mailings we do to our members and to union households. Karl Rove ain’t going door to door; he’s hiring people and he’s paying for commercials. We actually go out and we try to engage our families and our members in the workplace, in our newsletters, on our bulletin boards. That is the value.

Even though, nationwide, we’re about 12 percent of the workforce, and when I was growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s one out of three workers in this country were union, if you check the last few national elections you will see that union households turn out [to the polls] at a much greater rate than non-union households.

Union membership is declining nationally. Is the pattern the same for Rochester-area unions?

Pretty close, but I think most of our losses in manufacturing were years ago. At the same time, some of the service jobs — hospital workers, who are unionized — and public employee unions, they tended to go up.             With the cutoff of federal stimulus, I think this is the third year in a row we’ve lost [union jobs]. Teachers have been laid off, firefighters and police have been reduced. So we’re starting to see it in the public sector.

Has declining union membership had an effect on the labor movement’s political strength?

[It has] on a national basis and in some states. New York still has close to 25 percent union density; we’re the most union-dense state in the country. It’s had some effect, but I don’t think it’s had a huge effect.

Can we still win? I think we’ve proved that. We had a special election here that was the focus of the whole country, and everybody’s forgetting that, and that’s Congress [member] Kathy Hochul. Republicans outnumbered Democrats in that district by more than a two-to-one margin; they [Republicans, PAC’s, and interest groups] spent millions of dollars to keep [the seat] after Chris Lee had to resign, and we won it: Western New York labor, Rochester labor working together.

I can’t remember in an election — and we work hard in Greece — where labor took the Town of Greece. It was close, but we actually took the Town of Greece for the Democratic candidate. [Greece is in Hochul’s district.]

You haven’t had a nationwide cycle since then; it’s been mostly the special election-type things. That tells me that it can be done, but the bar is going to really be high because of the super money involved.

Is there anything labor can do to counteract the effects of the Citizens United decision?

[We can] organize at the grassroots and raise our own money. But it’s a constant battle just to try to get what we see as the truth out there. If they reduce a public employee’s pension or dozens of teachers get laid off, if you can tell me how that’s improved your life or increased your income, let me know.

This will be the first full-blown election cycle with the president and Congress and everything post Citizens United. So it’s going to be interesting. This election cycle I think will be a key to see how much damage they [PAC’s and corporations] can do and how much power they have with that money to get people to vote against their own interests.

People are upset with public employees and their unions, seemingly because tax dollars are going to provide someone with benefits, early retirement, and a guaranteed pension. Is this an issue that unions need to address?

We have just been beaten over the head. What you’ve had for 30 years is cutting the money from the federal government to the states and localities as you’ve lowered the taxes on the rich, which puts the burden on local taxes.

Could there have been excesses in the system? Yeah. But I think what magnified that is it was taken away from everybody else. It used to be that if I got my union members another paid holiday or an extra week in vacation, non-union workers would say “Great, I’ve got a chance to get it.” Kodak was non-union, [so] when the unions got something, to attract the most productive and the best workers, they raised the bar, too. They were competing for skilled work and good labor. Once you destroy the unions, it’s different.

The rich are playing on, “If you don’t have it, they shouldn’t have it.”

The Wisconsin recall was ostensibly about public employees’ collective bargaining rights. Why should the average person care about the right to unionize?

Historically, in the 20th century, unions had been the most effective check on the excesses of the 1 percent and corporate power. And as we’ve been attacked and the power of unions has declined, it’s not a coincidence that Glass-Steagall [a 1933 law that separated commercial and investment banking] went away, and that we deregulated energy and that gave us Enron. Has anybody’s energy costs gone down since we deregulated energy?

We were the check and as our power has declined and our power to elect like-minded people has declined, they [corporations and the wealthy] can do just about anything. And they’re selling this same notion from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that they shouldn’t be regulated at all: “We know best, we create the jobs.”

Some say unions obstruct progress. That’s a common criticism tossed at the city schools’ teachers union. How do you change that mindset?

It’s part of the same thing of privatizing, offshoring, and deregulating everything. There are billions and billions of dollars in education, and they [the private sector] want a piece of it. That’s what privatizing and charter schools are all about.

I’m sure there are people in charter schools who really want to improve education, but a lot of these charter schools are owned and run by corporations, and people like the Waltons [the family that founded and controls Walmart] are involved. They’re trying to get the tax dollars and make a profit.

From post World War II to 1980, when unions had more power, this country created more wealth for more people than any society in history. As the power of unions has been attacked and reduced, all working Americans’ standard of living has gone down.



  1. “They’re trying to get the tax dollars and make a profit.”

    What is so wrong about making a profit, Jim? Without profit, there is no money to hire others and to pay taxes. And, BTW they are out producing the city union schools.

  2. Unions have been a force for both good and bad. They were good for countering unscrupulous businesses that wanted to force employees to work in unsafe working conditions. However, in other ways, I would say they are and have been very immoral:

    1) While workers have a right to organize to protect against unscrupulous businesses, I do not believe that they have any right to organize to increase their pay. In doing so, they are basically forming what is a legalized worker cartel that allows them to artificially increase the price of their labor. Businesses are not allowed to form cartels and neither should labor. Labor is not entitled to the profits of the company. Those belong to the owners of the business. The only thing the workers are entitled to is what the market prices their labor at.

    The idea that workers are entitled to the profits of the company, and that the company should “share,” is a socialist concept, and one not grounded in reality. The way a free economy works is that people and businesses trade labor, goods, and services, all of which are priced by the market. You yank up the cost of a commodity in an industry and something will give, whether it be higher unemployment or increases in prices. It can also drive down pay in other industries if unemployment increases in one industry, as it can result in an over-supply of workers to other industries. Unions have historically favored policies that are pro-union, but anti-worker, such as mandating that workers join a union without having any choice in the matter (right-to-work laws brought a change to this), and the minimum wage, which after a certain point will increase the unemployment rate as it’s a price control (essentially a tax on labor). Labor may be people, but it’s still a commodity to a business, so putting a price control in the form of a tax on it will have the same effect as putting a tax on gasoline, which is that after a certain point, demand starts to drop off. Originally, a minimum wage was even promoted as a way to protect white unionized labor against cheaper-priced black labor. Many union contracts are also tied to the prevailing minimum wage, which is another reason a minimum wage is favored by unions.

    A second policy favored is union card check, which takes away a worker’s right to a secret ballot vote, and thus makes it easier to unionize.

    2) The history of organized labor is tied in with organized crime, bullying, intimidation, and so forth. In this sense, unions are like private businesses, i.e. some are good and have done great things, while others are no-good, corrupt, and evil. Unions became powerful and began to abuse their power. Using rhetoric such as “the 1%” well that depends, as for many years, the unions themselves were part of the 1%. When they call large businesses “the 1%” they’re more referring to the leadership that runs the business, not the employees of the company. Similarly, the union leadership have often been a form of 1% as well.

    Some other things to keep in mind are that while organized labor achieved things like stopping the abuse of workers through horrible working conditions, excessive work hours, and so forth, we have most of those things encoded in law today. Unions were great for when such labor laws did not exist or the enforcement of such laws didn’t exist (and in certain industries unions are still needed).

    3) Public-sector unions are mostly just about power. I do not see why public-sector workers have any right to unionize. Even among the unions, the idea of government workers unionizing was originally thought to be silly. The unions changed their opinion however when they saw how much additional power that could be acquired by unionizing public-sector workers. There was never any need to allow unionization of public-sector workers. It was about increasing the power of the Democratic party.

    But there are myriad problems with unionizing government workers.

    —For one, if government workers are unionized, they can resort to bullying tactics such as calling in sick en masse or walking off the job en masse at random (California public unions have these tactics refined to an artform) that can put the general public at risk. We saw this during last year’s snow storms in New York City in which some people died because they couldn’t get to the hospital because the roads were not plowed due to union issues. For this reason, some sets public-sector workers (such as police and fire) are not allowed to strike. When JFK signed legislation allowing government workers to unionize, he exempted such agencies as the FBI, CIA, and such for similar reasons. FDR was also against allowing public-sector workers to strike if unionized.

    —Two, public-sector workers are government organizing itself to lobby itself more and more money. By their very nature, public-sector unions are organized against the public interest, and the Democratic party politicians that they wield great power in getting into office often must either do the bidding of the union (as opposed to the general public) or get voted out. No one would accept this if private businesses had such an iron grip over politicians in the way the public sector unions have had over politicians. The public unions have a great set up in that they can then vote themselves more money, which gives them more power, which allows them to vote in more politicians who will increase government even more, thus increasing the size, money, and power of the public unions even moreso. The public unions essentially are robbing the public treasury in this sense.

    —Three, at least with a private-sector union, the union knows it must be careful not to bankrupt the company. With a government union, however, they figure they can always just raise taxes in the future, which cause many a politician to essentially just “give away the store” so-to-speak. It also can make the union incredibly rancorous to deal with.

    Regarding Scott Walker’s reforms, I see most of these as good and one as blatantly political. The blatantly political reform I think was in greatly limiting the ability to engage in unionizing for groups of public workers that traditionally vote Democratic party while leaving them in place for the two groups that have a lot of Republican voters, police and firefighters. The good reforms I see are in having the union members contribute more towards their pensions and their healthcare, as they are still contributing less than comparable private-sector workers (when Christie did this in New Jersey, the unions went to war with him acting as if he was trying to destroy them, which wasn’t true at all, as he wasn’t doing anything like Scott Walker did). Also in ending the requirement that union members have to buy healthcare from the union healthcare company, which had a monopoly. Now workers have multiple choices which has made things more affordable. And finally in ending the requirement that people are required to join the union, which was one of the real things the unions didn’t want as union membership has drastically declined in the state since this reform was enacted.

    Regarding the Citizens United decision, I think some misunderstand what this was about. It was about freedom of speech, as the campaign finance laws it shot down were blatantly anti-free speech. One thing to remember is that while when most people hear the word “corporation” they think of a business like Exxon-Mobile, a corporation is really just a form of legal structure, one that happens to be used by a lot of business organizations, but which is also used by quite a few non-profits and civil rights groups. Prior to Citizens United, you legally could censor such corporations during political campaigns (one of the original purposes of such a law was to censor the NRA during campaigns). Now this is America. We can’t have censorship of groups of people who create an organization that is structured as a corporation to promote awareness of an issue they are concerned about, no matter what end of the political spectrum they are on. It also opened up too much arbitrariness in deciding what constituted a legitimate news organization or not. With such censorship allowed, one could censor the likes of talk radio or even Fox News (which the administration said they do not consider a real news organization) during a campaign under the guise that they aren’t “real news,” but rather a form of corporate political speech. Now even if one despises all of these, we can’t censor them. No moreso than any leftwing organizations should be censored either. So the SCOTUS struck down the campaign finance laws for reasons such as these.

    One last point I wanted to make is about the wealth creation of the United States during so much of the 20th century. Yes, it is true that post WWII to 1980, the U.S. created a tremendous amount of wealth. However, the most wealth ever created was from the period of 1980 to 2007. The reason for the wealth creation post-WWII and on was in spite of the unions, not because of them. Unions technically act as a parasite on a business. They do not contribute to economic growth. The additional money that goes to the (over-priced) workers is done by taking wealth away from others. Basically taking wealth from the productive and giving it to the less productive. There is no net benefit there, and if anything, there’s a cost, as the more productive will stop being as productive. The reasons for the massive post-WWII wealth creation were the following:

    1) World War II itself. A TREMENDOUS amount of money was spent on research and development in electrical engineering, materials science, mechanical engineering, physics, etc…during World War II. All of this had carryover to the civilian sector after the war.

    2) The position of the United States at the time. After WWII ended, most all of the industrialized world have been bombed into ruins and was rebuilding. The United States, on the other hand, not only emerged unscathed but had spent the whole war building up a massive amount of industry and also as mentioned engaging in an enormous amount of research and development. So the U.S. held a dominant position in the global economy that was a historical anamoly and likely will never happen again.

    3) The Space Race. Many do not realize, but the modern world as we know it is due to the Space Race. Everything from the modern computer, to the Internet, to the GPS system, Silicon Valley itself, to tremendous advances in medical science and technologies, aerospace engineering, materials science, mechanical engineering, innumerable advancements, are from the space program. Many think all we got out of the space program were landing a few men on the Moon, collecting some Moon rocks, and bragging rights, but the reality is that the space program had arguably the greatest return-on-investment of any government program in world history and continues to create spin-off technologies.

    4) The Interstate Highway System. The construction of this contributed enormously to our economic growth in terms of the growth of cities, towns, businesses, and commerce overall.

    5) The New Deal. The infrastructure that was built during the New Deal allowed whole areas of the country that had been very rural to develop into booming, thriving economies after the war.

    6) The Cold War – the space program ties into this, but the Cold War overall created a large amount of financing for research and development.

    In the 1980s, the economy recovered due to a combination of a glut in the oil industry, resulting in cheap oil, dergulation policies which freed up over-regulated industries, tax cuts which incentivized people to move money out of tax-safe trusts and commodities and into the stock and bond markets, and advancements in finance such as high-yield debt (“junk bonds”) which allowed the financing of many businesses, and also the actions of the Federal Reserve, which helped end the inflation at the time. The computer revolution underwent another phase, with people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and others, and then of course this continued into the 1990s with the Dot Com bubble.

  3. j.a.m. · · Reply

    Anybody surprised to learn that this pitiful shriveling state is the most union-infested?

  4. Thanks, Kyle, for your thoughtful response to Mr. Moule’s boilerplate bumperstickersisms.

  5. If you have ever had a job, the hours of your work week (40), benefits (like days off/vacations), and protections (child labor laws/job safety standards), are all a result of unions. Unions, though not perfect (what institution is?), pulled the work experience out of the dark ages for everyone. You all are welcome to go back to 19th Century working conditions yourselves, but I don’t think anyone else, including people in management, would want to work endless hours with no time off and no protections.

  6. Craig Henry · · Reply

    Again, what is it about the distinction between opposition to public employee unions and opposition to unions categorically (which isn’t expressed above) that folks, especially leftists either can’t seem to comprehend or obtusely ignore?

  7. Mike Abraham · · Reply

    Unions, like many organizations, have become outdated – they are not needed, we have way too many lawyers and phones with videos for wrongs not to be righted in the laborforce. Collective bargaining is a power not a right – and the Union mgmt abused that power in the past and now that abuse is being corrected through the legislative process. Hopefully it is just the begining and the politicians in NY State will see the light and follow the lead that Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and others have taken.

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