Viewpoint: Do My Short-Term Benefits Trump Everyone Else’s Long-Term Interests?

The labor movement is always under pressure to produce results immediately, if not sooner. The pressure may come from members who buy into a business-union approach: “I pay dues and I better get something for it.”

Or it may come from officers with the same outlook: “Our members pay dues and we have to produce for them,” the unspoken understanding being “if we want to get re-elected.”

The pressure also comes because we are under attack. Governors are squeezing blood from stones. TV talking heads are openly questioning whether unions should exist. The sense of desperation looming over labor has never seemed so dire.

Thus we often see unions making decisions that may benefit their members in the short term but, in the long run, will cause worse problems—for everyone. Recent weeks have been littered with examples.

Many unions campaigned against Wal-Mart’s entry into Chicago (top), but were undercut by the building trades, who saw short-term jobs for their members. In New York, Wal-Mart seeks to repeat this trick; activists there are campaigning for a living wage in big box stores. Photos: top: Carlos Fernandez; bottom: Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance.

Wal-Mart is trying to engineer a fracture between unions in New York City, where unions have steadfastly resisted the company’s attempts to build stores. Wal-Mart seeks to repeat its recent success in Chicago, where the building trades agreed to build new stores with union labor despite opposition from many other unions and community groups. Wal-Mart is planning to build 55 stores in northern Illinois in the next three years.

Many in labor were shocked when the Auto Workers endorsed a free trade agreement with Korea in December. The AFL-CIO and other unions opposed it, seeing it as little better than the one George Bush had proposed. The UAW claims increased car exports will boost union jobs, though the Economic Policy Institute estimates the treaty will wipe out 159,000 U.S. jobs.

UAW President Bob King defended the endorsement, saying it was important to “reward the administration for its good behavior” of including labor in negotiations. King endorsed a deal that probably is even bad for his own members—in order to be a “player.”

The Communications Workers endorsed weak “net neutrality” rules in December. The federal rules gave corporations that control access to the internet the ability to allow providers to block or slow websites and wireless applications that don’t pay for priority treatment. The CWA supported the rules, so long as regulators could watch to see if corporations “unjustly or unreasonably discriminated.”

The CWA says it’s concerned that AT&T and Verizon (where its members work) won’t build out fast internet without the incentive of charging more for speedy access. The writers unions and free-press groups decried the rules, saying the internet should be open to all even if you can’t fork out big bucks.


These three situations show what many call “pragmatism,” the philosophy that the only thing that matters is immediate gains for workers. Pragmatists deride the idea that the labor movement should have a philosophy or a vision of where we want to go, and a strategy for getting there.

But unions make few friends when they act in concert with the corporations that rule society and not the people and movements who resist them.

In the case of Wal-Mart, the building trades will get some jobs. They don’t concern themselves with the rock-bottom wages of future Wal-Mart workers or what’s happening to the standard of living for retail and production workers caught in the spiraling race to the bottom. It doesn’t seem to matter that Wal-Mart’s wages and terrible health insurance will leave employees requiring public aid, paid for through their own taxes.

The CWA gave up on the rights of internet users everywhere because the corporations demanded it. The union ignored the idea it could have raised: that government could play a role in bringing fast internet to all corners of the nation, as it did for plane travel and electricity. The result is some short-term benefits for installers but more power over the internet for corporate interests, a losing situation for everyone.

In the case of the UAW, the union got a “seat at the table.” It’s hard to see what benefit auto workers will gain. The union abandoned the struggle to keep manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and rewarded the Obama administration for doing what the Republicans want but have a hard time doing—getting trade agreements passed.

In all these cases the unions broke solidarity with the rest of labor and its community allies. The pragmatist will say that sometimes you have to do what you have to do.


But it’s possible even in the face of a recession for workers to stick together, reject the quick fix, and wage fights that reap benefits in the long run.

Here’s a very recent example. Tool maker Kennametal over a decade has forced its non-union and many union facilities to take its flex plan, a company-controlled health insurance and benefit plan.



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In the union shops, the union must give up the right to bargain over pensions, health insurance, and other benefit changes.

United Electrical Workers (UE) Local 274 represents 75 workers at the Tap & Die plant in Greenfield, Massachusetts. They’ve resisted the flex plan for years.

Negotiations for a new contract began last February, right after the shop had been shut down for 13 weeks because of the recession. In addition, Kennametal routinely threatens to move the work to its Chinese plants.

Kennametal demanded new hires enter the flex plan and take a $3 per hour wage cut. In exchange, current workers, whose average age is 55, would keep the health plan they had with no cost increases for five years.

The company bet that workers would vote their own pragmatic interest and not concern themselves with the next generation.

But members rejected the offer overwhelmingly and launched an in-plant struggle to move the company. They decided to refuse overtime and production began to drop.

Members picketed the plant before and after their shifts, to let the community know they would not sell out future workers.


In June the company put a new offer on the table, which not only kept the cuts for new hires but also doubled health care costs for current employees, as punishment.

Members rejected both plans. The company then implemented the worst plan and stopped dues check-off and arbitration.

The union collected dues by hand, and for six months only one worker refused to pay. Members argued, but the majority continued the struggle. Picketing carried on, new hires all joined the union, and unfair labor charges were eventually issued against Kennametal.

With workers still refusing or restricting overtime, the company blinked first, and members approved a new contract in January. What did they gain?

New hires don’t have to take the flex plan. The wage gap was cut in half. Co-pays for insurance will increase, but only by half as much as Kennametal imposed.

Members showed they were willing to give up short-term peace for long-term respect for the union.

At the same time as they fought this struggle, another union at a Kennametal plant voted to accept the company’s ultimatum and surrender the new hires.

That may have seemed the “pragmatic” choice. But as the UE local showed, there were other options.

Judy Atkins is a retired machinist and librarian and was president of UE District 2. David Cohen is a soon-to-be-retired UE international representative.

CWA's response to this piece.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #383, February 2011. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.