Labor unions need to change their strategies before they can improve working conditions, said UT law professor Julius Getman on Thursday.
Getman gave a talk in the UT Law School about his book “Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement” and the state of labor unions in the U.S. today. While labor unions are the best way to improve working conditions in today’s economy, they should return to their roots as a social movement to regain the strength they once had, he said.
In 2009, 12.3 percent of American workers belonged to a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Union membership has dropped steadily since 1983, when more than 20 percent of workers were unionized.
“Everything I’ve written has in a way been critical of organized labor,” he said. “I think that they blame management for all of their woes, but it’s too easy to say that the reason we’re doing so badly is because management is breaking and violating laws, so it’s not our fault. I’ve done enough field work that I can statistically demonstrate that that’s wrong and that unions bear responsibility.”
Economic disparity is as bad now as it was during the 1920s after the decline of labor unions following World War I, said Elliott Becker, a UT law student and senior events coordinator of the American Constitution Society.
“It’s just as bad now as it was during that Snidely Whiplash, robber-baron sort of period,” he said. “We’ve done enough glosses of work safety so that 8-year-olds aren’t losing limbs in factories now, but people are ultimately in just as bad of conditions.”
Becker said workers today continue to live as tools for the economic machine and deserve the autonomy that labor unions can give them. He said he organized the event to raise progressive students’ interest in labor unions, which he believes is the answer to giving workers access to the resources they need to gain economic independence.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of choice in my life, and I think there are enough resources in the world so that everyone can have choice,” he said. “I’d like to see that happen, and I think labor unions are the way to do it.”
Labor unions are not perfect and should have a greater impact on today’s economy than they do to improve working conditions, said UT law student Andres Pacheco-Fores. He said Getman’s lecture provided historical context and insight into how organized labor can remain relevant.
“I don’t think unions are as relevant as they could be or should be,” he said. “I’m on Professor Getman’s side. “They’ve been screwing up a lot lately. They should be stronger; they should be a movement.”