Union Boss Explains What’s Killing The Labor Movement

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An influential union boss admitted Thursday that decades of union self-interest has led to the sharp decline in membership over recent years.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is one of the most powerful unions in the country, but it’s been losing influence as its membership roles decline. While speaking with David Axelrod on a podcast that aired Thursday, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry blamed the decline on unions becoming too self-interested and disregarding the interests of workers who aren’t members of a union.

“We kind of peaked in 1974 in setting wages and conditions for the majority of people that work for a living,” Henry said. “We ceased to be relevant to ordinary people. We were no longer a catalyst for creating a better life for everybody.”

Henry argued the main issue was a need to protect what unions had fought for. She notes in the decades to follow the 1960s, unions began caring exclusively about protecting the wage and benefits they managed to achieve for their members, rather than caring about the interests of all working Americans.

“So the 35 million people that used to have collective organization is now down to 16 million,” Henry said. “By next summer we’re going to lose another two million because of a Supreme Court case.”

Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association could end mandatory union dues for all government workers. The teachers in the case assert mandatory union dues violate their right to free speech, but the union says workers should be required to fund union activities, because workers could start getting union benefits without anything in return. Oral arguments are scheduled for Monday.

Union approval jumped to 58 percent in August, after nearly a decade of dismal numbers, according to Gallup. But their membership rates are still declining. The decline in membership has prompted President Barack Obama to take action. He has issued new rules to help unions recover their declining membership rates.

Labor unions are not as critical for workplace protections as they once were. Employers and the government provide many of the benefits unions used to fight for. But supporters say unions are critical for worker rights and must be strengthened.

Henry said she’s concerned about the 2016 election, noting that if Republicans win it could increase the chances of right-to-work spreading to more states. Twenty-five states have passed right-to-work laws, which outlaw mandatory union dues or fees as a condition of employment.

But her biggest concern, she said, is Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

“I think this is a very dangerous political moment in our country,” Henry said. “I think he’s touching this vein of the terrible anxiety that working-class people feel about their current status, but more importantly, how terrified they are for their kids not being able to do as well as they have, never mind doing better.”

The immigration and refugee policy proposals defining Trump’s campaign are a big concern to Henry. Trump has called for tougher immigration controls, including increased enforcement and wall on the southern border. He has also proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.

“That broken sense of the future and that emotion having an easier appeal to fear than to what’s possible is what we found is why,” Henry said. “We’re doing one-on-ones with every one of our members right now.”

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