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In turn, Sherk asserts in articles published through the Heritage Foundation that unionized businesses are left at a disadvantage when competing with non-unionized shops. In Detroit, for example, General Motors was hindered by its salary agreements with the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. Weighted down by labor's demands, the company was left with less money to invest. Innovation stagnated. That's largely what hurt GM.
"Active and retiree health benefits alone add $1,200 to the cost of each vehicle GM produces," Sherk writes. "The UAW has also saddled them with complex work rules that allow only certain workers to do certain tasks, and no one else. Ford's Master contract with the UAW is more than 2,200 pages long and weighs more than 22 pounds. Those work rules prevent the Big Three from opening any integrated and competitive plants."
Other union watchdogs say labor's claims of deep-pocketed and illegal resistance to organizing efforts are overstated. In fact, NLRB board member Peter Schaumber told the American Bar Association last winter there's no hard evidence to back up claims of union busting.
"As to the asserted increasing willingness of employers to violate the (NLRA), I have yet to see any persuasive empirical evidence to support that assertion," he said. "Certainly, it does not square well with the Board's own statistics that show a significant decline in unlawful labor practice complaints being filed over the last several decades, from 6,230 in 1980 to 1,108 in 2008."
Schaumber argues that declining union participation among contemporary workers can largely be chalked up to changing times.
"I would maintain, as some others have argued, that of the several factors involved in the decline of union density is dissatisfaction with that model; that contemporary employees, particularly more skilled workers, want a more cooperative relationship with their employer," he says.
As it stands, workers have a right to vote on whether or not they want to organize. Brown says they're simply making a conscious and informed decision based on organized labor's sales pitch.
"Employees are voting," he says, "and they're voting to not join the union."
Rather than blaming external forces, Brown thinks unions need to look within themselves.
"The promises that are made by union organizers, there's no weight behind that," he says. "I think it's more an issue of, what are they offering to the workers? What value are they offering?"
Pat Williams doesn't make this a fight between those who favor unions and those who don't. In his opinion, all working people benefit from union advocacy.
"Interestingly, because of labor's success in raising the salary and benefits of their members, all workers in Montana, union and non-union, have better benefits and wages than they would have had," he says. "Every study demonstrates that paying dues to a union is a good investment, because unionized workers are better off."
With such a clear benefit, the longtime public servant says he's saddened by the downfall of private sector organizing.
"Although it's not spoken about much, the failure to modernize America's labor laws is a national tragedy," he says. "It used to be that leaders of other nations wanting to enact good labor law would come to America to find out how we did it. Now our labor leaders and members of Congress go to other countries to see how they're doing it."
Houseman is similarly disappointed by the current plight of unions, especially the many misconceptions about what organized labor represents. For instance, he vigorously disputes the Heritage Foundation claims that unions burden innovation.
"There are a lot of places where money can come from besides the workers themselves," he says, pointing instead to auto industry CEOs. "They're the same guys who flew down to beg for money from the government—and each in individual planes."
Maybe they should have sold their jets and used that money to innovate, he adds.
"People are going to scream class warfare, but you're looking at the richest 1 percent owns like 24 percent of the wealth in this country," he says. "It's just amazing to me."
From Houseman's perspective, the issue of organized labor moving forward is one of message.
"The question is, how do you educate young people to basic labor rights?" Houseman asks. "There needs to be some branding and some basic advertising."
That's a primary reason the 29-year-old was elected president of the Steelworkers Local 885. When he stepped into the position in January 2008, Houseman stood out among his USW peers who were almost double his age. He quickly worked to improve and modernize communication, reviving a monthly newsletter and creating a text message list for union members. In essence, Houseman simply looked for ways to translate lessons learned in Butte's copper mines into the modern era.
"It's important that we recognize that history," he says. "But how do we translate that history for the 21st century?"
It's slow, but there is a shift to modernize underway, Houseman says. For instance, the AFL-CIO opted to independently broadcast its Wall Street rally in New York.
"There really wasn't any major media press coverage," Houseman says. "So they live streamed the speakers, they live streamed the march. And basically said, 'All right, if the major media isn't going to cover it, we'll cover it ourselves'...I see that and I have a lot of hope, you know what I mean? This is a good start. Now the question is, how do we integrate that and make sure it works with social media."
Organized labor advocates like Williams, Houseman, McGarvey and Anderlik agree that, no matter what the answer is to today's challenges—be it rallies, public parodies, social media or something else—that answers must be found. Labor built Montana. Without it, workers will face even tougher struggles. And that's not an option.
"It's just like any other organization," Houseman says. "You have to evolve or die."This story was corrected on May 26, 2010.