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Unions For Beginners

Unions For Beginners

by David Cogswell, C.M. Butzer (Illustrator)

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Do you appreciate your forty-hour, five-day workweek? Appreciate having a safe working environment? Unions made this all possible in one way or another. Unions bring value to all sectors of a society. As the champion of people power versus corporate power, unions help to spread the benefits of production throughout a society. Regardless of the state of the economy,


Do you appreciate your forty-hour, five-day workweek? Appreciate having a safe working environment? Unions made this all possible in one way or another. Unions bring value to all sectors of a society. As the champion of people power versus corporate power, unions help to spread the benefits of production throughout a society. Regardless of the state of the economy, there is the timeless struggle of workers trying to gain or retain their rights. However, a vast amount of Americans (including union members) are unaware of the full history of unions and how they have impacted the American workplace today. Unions For Beginners provides an introduction to that essential history.

Written and illustrated in the user-friendly, accessible style of the For Beginners series, Unions For Beginners presents the epic story of the labor movement in a simple, memorable way. The role of unions in empowering working people to rise above unfair payment and work conditions to become full-fledged participants in the American dream they helped to build is told in vibrant detail. Unions For Beginners presents the history of unions and the labor movement, the principles underlying union organizing, the decline of unions in the shadow of the rising corporate state, and the resurgence in the 21st century of union activism.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"As David Cogswell reminds us, America’s economy boomed when union membership was at its height and descended into stagnant wages and underemployment as unions eroded. The author doesn’t entirely dismiss the corruption and lack of fair play that characterized some unions. However, he argues that, in balance, those organizations promoted a social ethic as well as prosperity, buoying the wellbeing of members and non-members alike." — The Milwaukee Express

"Organized labor surged in the twentieth century, but not everyone understands their purpose in the modern day. Unions for Beginners discusses the role of unions in the American workforce as well as its history. David Cogswell provides a comprehensive introduction of what unions do for the modern worker, telling their history, and their place in today's corporate world that may be leading to their decline. Unions for Beginners is an intriguing modern history lesson, well worth considering for history and social issues collections." — Midwest Book Review

"[Unions for Beginners] is still recommended for everyone. It's recommended for those interested in the less well known parts of American history, it's recommended for union members who are unfamiliar with their history, and it's recommended for part of the explanation as to how America got into its present financial mess."— Paul Lappen, Midwest Book Review

Product Details

For Beginners
Publication date:
For Beginners
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

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Steerforth Press

Copyright © 2012 David Cogswell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-934389-78-2


The Labor Movement—What Is It?

In the Beginning ... there were no labor unions.

The labor movement is the historical progression of working people joining forces to bargain with their employers for better working or living conditions, such as better hours and better pay. The labor movement may be seen as a part of the larger historical march of human beings toward human rights, self determination and justice. It is part of the long struggle of individuals banding together to defend themselves against tyranny and illegitimate authority.

The labor movement is not one single, coherent movement. It is a history of many diverse people struggling for their own interests, banding together to achieve their objectives in various ways. The history has had many twists and turns. Over and over again, unions have made gains, then alternately suffered losses. Unions have had their problems struggling with management, and they have had their own problems from within.

But overall, unions in America have contributed greatly to the general welfare of the people and have helped create advances in the quality of life for large numbers of people. Unions have helped create balance between the rich and poor, and an economy that functions well for rich and poor because they have helped working people have money to spend to buy products and keep their producers in business. The benefits unions have created for their workers have also helped other workers who are not members of unions by raising the standards for all. The work of unions has helped to create the middle class. And, conversely, the decline of unions has precipitated a fall of the middle class.

What defines a union is people banding together, uniting, to combine forces to bring some power to bear on employers to force them to share more of their profits with workers. As such they have become an important part of the functioning of democracy. Unions have been the vehicle for working Americans to fight for themselves against the forces of big money who own the businesses and largely control the political system.

Collective Bargaining: How Unions Achieve Their Goals

The essential principle behind unions is collective bargaining. People who share the same interests will naturally join together to fight for their shared interests. And their power as a group will be greater than their power as individuals. Collective bargaining is the tool by which working people without the power of capital or ownership fight for justice against those who hold the capital and power in society. Collective bargaining is one of the ways democratic societies are built.

Collective bargaining may be a discussion over a negotiating table, but usually that occurs only when other kinds of action have forced the employers to the bargaining table. Usually direct action taken by unions uses as leverage the ultimate purpose of corporations: creating profit. From a strictly business point of view, businesses exist primarily to create profit. But it is arguable that business is about more than making money. As Fezziwig in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol said, "Money is not the only reason one has a business. One has a business to maintain a way of life that one knew and loved." A newspaper publisher may love publishing and providing news and information to his community. A clothing manufacturer may enjoy creating the best clothes in the market. But as businesses get larger and become corporations, they are increasingly motivated by profit only.

In fact, corporations are mandated by law to maximize shareholder value and that alone, and that means make as much profit as possible. There is no other purpose for the existence of corporations under existing corporate law. Workers with a grievance cannot appeal to the sympathy of the corporation. Corporations, though legally defined as people, are not people — they do not have hearts or souls. And though they are owned and directed by people who may have human feelings, the directors of a public corporation are legally mandated to pursue only one goal, that of increasing profit. So the only way to appeal to a corporation is through its profits. Anything that threatens to reduce profits, whether it is a strike or work stoppage, losing too many employees, low employee morale or inciting public anger, can be an effective bargaining chip when dealing with the corporation.

Companies that are not public corporations may have more interest in other humanitarian values. And when they do, there is seldom a need for unions or collective bargaining actions. But for the most part, profit is what business is about in a capitalist society, and profit is the primary fulcrum upon which workers can exert power over employers.

A Pillar of Democracy

The U.S. Constitution names the free press as an essential part of maintaining a democratic society. The free press is not an official part of government, it is free and independent by its very nature, but the Constitution calls it the Fourth Estate. The Constitution names three branches of government: the judicial, the legislative and the executive branch. And then it designates the free press as the Fourth Estate. The press is not part of the government, but essential nevertheless for the maintenance of a democratic society.

Unions are also not named in the Constitution, but have come to be recognized as an essential force in maintaining the balance between the collective power of capital in a corporation and the general population. As such unions are an essential part of maintaining what the Constitution names in its opening paragraph as one of the essential reasons for the creation of a government: promoting the general welfare.

Unions and the General Welfare

The purpose of government is defined by the document that created the U.S. government, the U.S. Constitution. The first paragraph of the Constitution says, "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

As the country evolved and corporations became stronger and wielded more power in society, they became more oppressive (power corrupts). To defend themselves, working people banded together. Unions became an important part of the maintenance of economic democracy, without which there can be no political democracy.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor and labor historian at the University of California Santa Barbara, writes, "If you look at the last 150 years of history across all nations with a working class of some sort, the maintenance of democracy and the maintenance of a union movement are joined at the hip. If democracy has a future, then so, too, must trade unionism."

Political columnist Stephen Herrington wrote that, "Labor unions are not optional. Unions exist for a natural tidal socioeconomic reason in balance to and because of capitalism, and they are an integral part of the success of capitalism."

The hardcore right wing industrialists, like the ubiquitous Koch brothers, David and Charles, push for a world in which there are no unions and they can do whatever they want with no resistance from employees. But in fact the big capitalists would also suffer from a collapse of economic balance in society. If the workers have no money to spend, the big capitalists have no one to buy their products. In the early 21st Century, multinational corporations no longer have as much stake in maintaining a middle class in America because they can find markets in the rich sectors of other countries. But as the Great Recession kicked off by the global financial meltdown enveloped the world, the economic slowdown took over virtually the whole planet.

As Republicans try to enrich their rich donors by destroying union resistance to their profit-seeking activities, and to protect the rich from having to pay taxes, they are tearing apart the foundations of civil and economic society. "If people are poor they only buy staples," explains Herrington. "If governments are poor they can't accomplish collective goals. Commerce is layered on top of these two fundamental behaviors of peoples. You may want to create something wonderful, but without a public sufficiently wealthy to buy it, your iPad will be a street corner vendor's curiosity show instead of a multi-billion dollar market."

This is the underlying problem with the Great Recession of 2008. The American middle class has fallen so far in spending power, and has used up all its credit, so that it is no longer able to drive the economy through consumer spending. For multinational corporations, the failure of the U.S. economy is not a problem unless it affects their profits adversely. And so far during Great Recession they have shown that it doesn't. As the middle class collapses, corporate profits continue to soar. Major corporations have no national loyalties. They are multinational by definition, and seek only profit, according to the corporate mandate.

However, for the American people, for whom the state of the economy and "general welfare" does matter, the destruction of the unions is disastrous. According to Herrington, "Economies are measured by what they consume. There is no other measure because there is no other reality ... The highest median consuming publics, the largest economies, are those in which the populations are more highly paid. Economies are built on the median income of their citizens. It's not rational to believe otherwise. But the combined forces of increasingly irrational capitalism, including a dyspeptic legion of economic hired guns, seem hell bent to prove otherwise. The natural counter balance for capitalist irrationality is unions. That's not to say that in some other epoch that unions will or have not been irrational in their demands, it's just that the balance of economic power has so shifted to capital that unions are, once again, a countervailing force that is prudent and necessary."

Nouriel Roubini, chairman of Roubini Global Economics, professor of economics at the Stern School of Business, New York University, and co-author of the book Crisis Economics, writes, "Mediocre income growth for everyone but the rich in the last few decades opened a gap between incomes and spending aspirations," which led to the downturn in which businesses in the advanced economies of the world were cutting jobs because of inadequate demand leading to excess capacity. Cutting jobs weakens demand and weakens the economy further.

"The problem is not new," writes Roubini. "Karl Marx oversold socialism, but he was right in claiming that globalization, unfettered financial capitalism, and redistribution of income and wealth from labor to capital could lead capitalism to self-destruct. As he argued, unregulated capitalism can lead to regular bouts of over-capacity, under-consumption, and the recurrence of destructive financial crises, fueled by credit bubbles and asset-price booms and busts. Even before the Great Depression, Europe's enlightened 'bourgeois' classes recognized that, to avoid revolution, workers' rights needed to be protected, wage and labor conditions improved, and a welfare state created to redistribute wealth and finance public goods—education, health care, and a social safety net. The push towards a modern welfare state accelerated after the Great Depression, when the state took on the responsibility for macroeconomic stabilization—a role that required the maintenance of a large middle class by widening the provision of public goods through progressive taxation of incomes and wealth and fostering economic opportunity for all."

The rise of the social-welfare state was a response of market-oriented liberal democracies to the threat of popular revolutions, socialism, and communism that would recur during the periodic severe depressions of unregulated capitalism.

After regulations on the financial industries were instituted under President Franklin Roosevelt, the cruel boom-and- bust cycles of laissez-faire capitalism were somewhat tamed. Although the Supreme Court and conservative forces in the country blocked many of Roosevelt's initiatives to spur the economy, World War II ushered in a war economy. America had no arms industry. Roosevelt told the car manufacturers, you're going to make tanks now. It was the opposite of a laissez-faire, hands off free market, it was a command economy. But as a side effect of mounting a war effort, the economy was churned into productivity that produced a high standard of living in America in the post World War II years. From the late 1940s to the mid-1970s the U.S. enjoyed a period of relative calm in regard to the cruel boom and bust cycles that plagued capitalism of the previous two centuries.

That cycle too played out and then came the 1980s and the rise of Reagan-Thatcher conservatism with its determination to slash regulation everywhere that it might hamper the profit seeking enterprises. It was a reaction to the excesses and failures of a bloated welfare state in Europe, which led, according to Roubini, to "yawning fiscal deficits, regulatory overkill, and a lack of economic dynamism that led to sclerotic growth then and the eurozone's sovereign- debt crisis now."

Thatcher went so far as to deny the very existence of society. On October 31, 1987, in an interview with Women's Own magazine, Thatcher said, "I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbor. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation." [Italics added]

Now at the dawn of the 21st Century, the pendulum has swung back to the other extreme, and the underlying principles of the Reagan/Thatcher revolution have become dead dogma, an empty ideology that no longer addresses the problems of contemporary society.

Thirty years after the advent of Reaganism, Roubini says, the "laissez-faire Anglo-Saxon model has also now failed miserably. To stabilize market-oriented economies requires a return to the right balance between markets and provision of public goods. That means moving away from both the Anglo-Saxon model of unregulated markets and the continental European model of deficit-driven welfare states."

According to Roubini, this is a very serious problem. "Any economic model that does not properly address inequality will eventually face a crisis of legitimacy. Unless the relative economic roles of the market and the state are rebalanced, the protests of 2011 will become more severe, with social and political instability eventually harming long-term economic growth and welfare."

Unions help protect the economic security of the middle class and protect the big capitalists against their own excesses.

Natural Enemies: Unions and Fascism

Unions are the natural enemy of fascism. Oppositions to unions is one of the primary defining characteristics of fascism. Dr. Lawrence Britt, who studied the fascist regimes of Hitler (Germany), Mussolini (Italy), Franco (Spain), Suharto (Indonesia) and several Latin American regimes, found 14 defining characteristics common to all of them. Number 10 in that list says that under fascist regimes, "Labor Power is Suppressed - Because the organizing power of labor is the only real threat to a fascist government, labor unions are either eliminated entirely, or are severely suppressed."

Remember, the creator of the first fascist state, Benito Mussolini, said, "Fascism might well be called corporatism because it is the merging of corporate and state power." Fascism is the takeover of government by corporate power. Unions are the "only real threat to a fascist government." Get the picture?


Excerpted from UNIONS FOR BEGINNERS by DAVID COGSWELL, C.M. Butzer. Copyright © 2012 David Cogswell. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

David Cogswell is a writer based in Hoboken, N.J. He has written thousands of articles on business, travel, politics, and the arts for various print and online publications, including Democratic Underground, Bushwatch, Prison Planet, Indymedia.org, Fortune.com, Travel Weekly, the Hudson Current, and the Jersey Journal. He has contributed pieces to a number of political books, including Fortunate Son, The Making of an American President, by J.H. Hatfield; Ambushed: The Hidden History of the Bush Family by Toby Rogers; and America’s Autopsy Report, by John Kaminski. He’s the publisher of the political and media commentary website HeadBlast (www.davidcogswell.com), which was banned in China and named as a notable antiwar website by The Guardian.

C.M. Butzer was born and raised in a small town in Oregon just outside of Portland. In 1992 Butzer left Oregon to attend Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle where he earned a BFA in Illustration. After school he worked for Wizards of the Coast. In 1997 he travelled all over the American West bouncing from teaching environmental education, bartending to a half dozen other things. In 1998 he moved to Florence, Italy to become a tour guide on the Italian renaissance. In Florence, he met Luigi Galante, who ran a didactic illustration studio. C.M. apprenticed for six months and was hired on as a full time illustrator. He worked for Studio Galante for nearly five years before moving to New York City to earn his MFA at the School Visual Arts. Butzer Graduated 2005 and worked since as a Cartoonist and Illustrator. In 2009 Harper Collins published his Gettysburg the graphic novel. He is currently working on his second book and working as a storyboard and concept illustrator at JWT advertising agency. His work has been featured in the Society of Illustrators, American Library Association, and the Graphic Novel Reporter.

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