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Forum finds role for unions in economy

John Tierney | Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Unions and management often don’t agree at the bargaining table, but Monday night, AFL-CIO Central Labor Council President Bob Warnock, Jr. and AM General Vice President of Human Resources Gary Wuslich agreed that unions are essential for the health of both workers and the corporation at “Union Forum: The Role of Unions in Today’s Economy,” a Higgins Labor Studies Program.

“I believe there is a value to organized labor,” Wuslich, of AM General, the company that manufactures Hummers and HMMWVs, said.

Wuslich said that he has tried to build positive relationships with unions throughout his career, and has turned down positions from manufacturing firms that do not negotiate with unions.

Wuslich describes the efforts to organize labor as one of the “two great social movements of the 20th Century,” with the other being the civil rights movement.

However, he said that new generations do not understand the importance of unions. “Very few people have had exposure to unions and they do not understand what it took to get where we are today,” he said. “They take it for granted the sacrifices their forefathers made.”

Wuslich admits that his company pays more money to labor because they employ organized workers.

“Do we pay a premium? Yes. Are we willing to? Yes,” he said. “We get a better quality work, and a more efficient job. You cannot make the judgment about what you pay solely by the cost.”

According to Wuslich, unions help to bring a sense of teamwork to the workplace that would not necessarily come with unorganized labor.

“If you are able to harness the influence, power, structure, management of organized labor to achieve a common goal, you achieve far more success,” he said. This success can come in achieving both the company’s goals and the goals of a United Way campaign, he said.

Unions are essential for workers because “people need representation,” Warnock said.

“The doctors have the AMA, the dentists have their group, everybody has their group,” he said. “You need someone to represent you in your life.”

Representation should be “democratic,” and workers should be able to “vote the people in that run it, get to chose, and get the right to say ‘yes’ and ‘no,'” Warnock said.

Representation is important for all workers, not just for manufacturing workers, according to Warnock. “None of us are in total control of our lives,” he said.

Unions really are effective in representing workers, Warnock said. He cited Toyota’s recent layoffs and hour reductions at their non-union plants, but not at their unionized plants as evidence that the unions are protecting their members.

“The bargaining committee’s in there and you’ve got people representing you,” he said. “But the people who don’t have people representing them, they’ve got problems.”

In addition to their effectiveness in dealing with management, unions are a basic right, according to Warnock. He said that workers have a right to freely join a union and chose their own leadership.

Unions “do everything that the citizenry really demands,” he said.

Wuslich agreed that unions are about more than their effectiveness.

“Inherent in every democracy is the right to bargain collectively,” he said.

“On a broader, more strategic role, I believe that collective bargaining is the most democratic of democratic processes that exist,” Wuslich said. “It immediately translates to economic value or economic devalue.”

“What you do in collective bargaining makes a difference in the lives of people,” Wuslich said.

Unions are also a crucial component of Catholic Social Teaching, according to Associate Director of the Center for Social Concerns Bill Purcell. Catholic Social Teaching strongly believes in the dignity of work and labor, as it extends from humanity’s co-creation with God in Genesis.

“Not only is life important, but quality of life is important,” Purcell said. People have a natural right to decent work, fair wages and private property, he said.

According to Catholic Social Teaching, economics exist for people and systems are supposed to work for people, not the other way around.

Catholic Social Teaching also supports unions because of its emphasis on the community, according to Purcell.

“Everything that we do has to be about building community,” he said. “One of those forms is the union.”

Many of the audience members at Monday evening’s forum were local union members, representing the steelworkers, carpenters, electricians, postal workers and autoworkers unions, among others.

Also present was local activist and 1970 Notre Dame graduate David Janes. Janes argued that a discussion of unions is incomplete without mentioning unorganized labor in third world countries.

“I can’t imagine a discussion of the value and the future of unions without talking about the value and the future of unions on the Mexican-American border and in the fields of the Benediction of God in El Salvador, and in China,” Janes said. “If we’re going to talk about unions, we’re going to have to talk about unions there.”

It is only when the discussion on organized labor extends beyond national borders that Janes says we can focus on “uplifting the whole human race.”