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The Changing Face of Unions

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Last night, I went to Expedia to book a plane ticket home to Minneapolis, a hub of Northwest Airlines. Expecting to reserve a seat on a discount airline like I usually do, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Northwest was actually offering lower prices than any of the discount airlines. Although my flight is only guaranteed 30% on time, its cancellation prediction as of now is miniscule. And that is just fine with me.

If the lower prices are Northwest's attempt to encourage people to book their flights and prove that they can keep operating in spite of the current mechanics', maintenance workers', and cleaners' strike protesting Northwest's plans to cut jobs and decrease wages and benefits in general, then as a consumer, I rejoice.

As a student of history and politics, however, I cringe at the seemingly decreasing power of unions and workers, perfectly exhibited by Northwest's ability so far to maintain their flight schedule and ticket sales despite the strike.

Unions themselves seem to know they're in trouble. When the Service Employees International Union and Teamsters recently became the first unions to disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO, they acknowledged that unions needed a makeover in order to increase organization numbers and thusly, increase their say in today's world of corporate giants like Wal-Mart, who successfully keep their workers decidedly unorganized, however socially controversial the means of doing so may be.

In addition, with the rise of technology and international outsourcing, American workers of all trades -- doctors, engineers, and factory workers alike -- are seeking new ways to save their jobs from going abroad.

These conditions seem to have been a rather quick development. Not long ago, unions were still effective as the main protectors of workers' salaries, benefits, and safety, and a vital reason American workers maintained higher wages than those overseas. Images of factory workers banding together to fight their unfair, corporate bosses resonated across the country and convinced thousands of people that they had the power to protect themselves and their families.

The Northwest strike symbolizes a major turning point in the history of unionization, perhaps even more so than the mass AFL-CIO disaffiliation, because it illustrates that unions have more against them now than ever before. The scene has certainly changed since Sally Field stood up to her bosses in the 1979 film, Norma Rae. That romanticism has dissolved in the face of our global economy, and I can't help but ask myself how much power can even be regained through changing the way workers organize -- and how much has been lost for good.

Last updated: Aug 25, 2005




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