Viewpoint: The Decline of Unions Is Your Problem Too

The weakness of labor hurts all employees in every sector

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What happened to American labor unions?

Last week came news that the share of America’s workforce that’s unionized hit a 97-year low. A mere 11.3% of workers now belong to a union, and a great chunk of those are in the shrinking public sector. In the private sector, unionization fell to an abysmal 6.6%, down from a peak of 35% during the 1950s.

Most Americans yawned at this news. On one level that’s understandable. After all, most Americans aren’t in a union. It’s a vicious cycle: as unions decline, fewer people see their fates as bound up with unions, which just accelerates the decline.

But on another level, America’s non-reaction is striking. We remain in the wake of the Great Recession. Inequality and wealth concentration are at levels not seen since just before the Great Depression. This would seem as ripe a time in modern memory for a revival of organized labor. Instead, a basic assumption now shapes most Americans’ mindset about labor: the belief that the death of unions isn’t my problem because I’m not in a union. That assumption is wrong in two critical ways.

(MORE: What the Current Economic Outlook Means for American Families)

First, the fact is that when unions are stronger the economy as a whole does better. Unions restore demand to an economy by raising wages for their members and putting more purchasing power to work, enabling more hiring. On the flip side, when labor is weak and capital unconstrained, corporations hoard, hiring slows, and inequality deepens. Thus we have today both record highs in corporate profits and record lows in wages.

Second, unions lift wages for non-union members too by creating a higher prevailing wage. Even if you aren’t a member your pay is influenced by the strength or weakness of organized labor. The presence of unions sets off a wage race to the top. Their absence sets off a race to the bottom.

Unfortunately, the relegation of organized labor to tiny minority status and the fact that the public sector is the last remaining stronghold for unions have led many Americans to see them as special interests seeking special privileges, often on the taxpayer’s dime. This thinking is as upside-down as our economy.

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This country has gotten to today’s level of inequality because, ironically, those who work for a living think like atomized individuals while those who hire for a living organize collectively to rig policy in their favor. Today’s 97-year low is the result of decades of efforts to squeeze unions and disperse their power.

To be sure, unions bear part of the blame for their own decline. Some of the work rules they’ve achieved through bargaining made their companies and their own unions less adaptive to change. That’s why a few national labor leaders, from Service Employees International Union and elsewhere, have launched a “Labor 3.0″ project to reimagine unions. And it’s significant that innovative forms of worker organizing are now emerging, like Coworker.org or the National Domestic Workers Alliance, that bypass traditional union structures altogether.

Whatever form it takes, though, organized labor keeps an economy healthy. Some conservatives now argue for a higher federal minimum wage on the notion that when companies pay their employees enough to live, the employees will rely less on government assistance and participate more in economic life. Precisely the same case can be made for unions. Consider that workers at non-unionized Walmart constitute in many states the largest bloc of food stamp and Medicaid recipients.

If we want a better economy, then, we need a better story about how the economy works, in which a union worker is not a cost but a customer. The weakness of labor is everyone’s problem — and its revival everyone’s opportunity.

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127 comments
LisaWilliams
LisaWilliams

My name is Bryan Williams I am a retired union pipefitter When I worked I felt as though I was a free man I worked hard and proudly supported my family I also seen a lot of changes In the 1970,s we had organized crime help run our union Now organized crime comes in the disguise of attorney who rake our dues and give nothing in return. Bring back the old days when we were respected by business owners .,and had a fair chance at the bargaining table We accomplished more with baseball bats and pride than all the dam attorneys combined.

cybervigilante
cybervigilante

What's amazing is Rush Limbaugh, et al, demonize almost nonexistent unions as if they have vast power and are everywhere.

CarolynKay
CarolynKay

We have three choices when it comes to wages.

1. We can force employers to pay a living wage, and pay for that in the prices of the products and services we buy.

2. We can allow employers to pay less than a living wage and make up the difference to low income workers through government programs.

3. Or we can step over their dead bodies in the streets.

We pay, one way or another. So let’s face up to that fact and deal with this issue rationally, instead of emotionally.

savewizard
savewizard

@CarolynKay  


1. Should we continue to allow imports of products that are made from less than minimum wage workers?  


2. Should we continue to allow individuals and companies to outsource jobs that pay less than minimum wage? 


3.  Should we continue to allow foreign businesses to compete in our market using workers making less than minimum wage?


The way I see it, we either need to dis-allow the above things, or we need to eliminate minimum wage all together.   Our workers are competing world wide, with workers without running water, and 12 people to 1 dirt floor room.   How can our workers compete?  


We can't institute minimum wage for the whole world. 


What we can do put huge import duties on foreign products.

IronRhino333
IronRhino333

Unions might have been good in the 1930 and 1940, they brought mandatory saftey and other restrictions into the work place, however they grew to fat and full of waste.  

FrankJimmyHines
FrankJimmyHines

There is a saying that history repeats itself and, time and time again, it’s proven to be true. 

While precise details can never again be replicated, the fundamental aspects of our history – both good and bad - have a tendency to recur like the skipping of a broken record.  Take for example the 1930’s: The gap between the rich and poor was tremendous; workers were forced into unsafe conditions, received little pay, and were made to live in poverty by company owners who exploited them for excessive profits… sound familiar, anyone?  But also in the 1930’s came another monumental event: an uprising of the workers. 

Poverty seemed an inevitable part of life; it was considered normal to struggle day to day, paycheck to paycheck… that was, until the workers started asking themselves why.  Why was it ‘normal’ for workers to suffer when the company profited hand over fist?  Why was it ‘normal’ to accept poor treatment when working harder than the bosses who merited so much respect?  Normal, they realized, is not indefinite; if you decide to change the way things are, then you set a new precedent for what is ‘normal.’  Banding together, these workers formed unions to create much needed changes.  Forty hour work weeks… overtime pay… a livable wage… safe working conditions…  none of these things were normal at the time, but became the standard at which Americans now live. 

While these changes have greatly impacted our lives for the better, another uprising has come due.  With new times have come new methods of worker exploitation for company profit.  You may find it normal if your company only allows you to work part-time in order to avoid paying for your health insurance.  You may find it normal if you’re paid wages low enough to still qualify for government assistance.  You may find it normal to take annual cuts in wages or benefits, despite record breaking company profits… after all, they’re all going to pack up and move to china, right?  It may be normal to get a write-up if you’re injured on the job.  It may be normal to ‘work through your break’ to catch up.  It may be normal to choose between bills and groceries… who doesn’t these days, right? 

Wrong. 

There is a difference between normal and cruel… though sometimes they are the same thing.  You do not have to accept these cruel circumstances as normal.  You’ve been brainwashed my friends, as many of our forefathers were before.  Day in and day out, you’re taught to obey.  You are taught that you work your way up or seek another job to “do better” in life.  Well the time has come that there is nowhere to go.  Promotions are rare and every other job pays the same pathetic wage. 

We must now look to ourselves, our existing companies and situations, to change what is wrong from the bottom up.  Workers must join together as they have so many times before.  To organize your workplace – or to become an active member if you are already part of a union – is not something to fear, but something to strive for.  It is an amazing thing to make the impossible not only possible, but a standard of living.  Imagine a world where you could pay your bills and buy groceries in the same week, where everyone was insured, where pensions weren’t something of the past.  Oh, and that’s not the limit.  Paid lunch? Yup, that used to happen.  COLA (Cost of Living Allowance)?  Add it on.  Paid sick days?  Throw those in too.  Christmas bonuses?  That’d be great.  Severance packages?  Why not?  Go crazy with ideas of your perfect world and maybe one day those too will be possible...  I’m sure that a forty hour work week sounded crazy to those people who worked mandatory 16-hour days. 

The point is, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.  So WAKE UP.  Wake up, join forces, and take these corporations by storm.  With the new technology of this day and age (i.e. cell phones, social networking, etc.) organizing has never been easier.  It’s now time for the better part of history to start repeating itself.   It’s time for workers to take back their dignity and respect – to demand a better life for themselves, their families, and even complete strangers – because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We must live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.”

RoseannPascoeBlackburn
RoseannPascoeBlackburn

@FrankJimmyHines  I would like to thank you for putting my thoughts into words. Your analogy also fits into other important areas in life such as food, healthcare and education. When our standards become low, the things in life that were once necessities then become privileges. 

HeatherSarahAdams
HeatherSarahAdams

Oh sure...... more unions and a one party goverment......... yeah that should work.  We can all be California!

Xyriut
Xyriut

Unions shoot themselves in the foot by costing employers twice the cost of an equally, and in most cases, better educated individual. Moreoever, while their process job steps ensure safety, they utterly preclude efficiency. It's one of the reasons why most folks will say that it takes three Union members to do the same job of one non-Union worker. If Unions cut their costs to their members by 25%, and in turn, the wage could then be decreased, they might have a fighting chance. Unfortunately, unless they do, China will destroy America in short order. Wake up Unions, we're global.

Guy Green
Guy Green

i will sweep floors for $28 an hour !!!!

shortie
shortie

This article does not address the inner workings of the Union.  Agreed that higher wages for skilled labor is important to the economy, however, Unions are not caring for their workers in more important ways.  For instance, there is no vacation pay or tenure that gives back to work priveledges to those that have been laid offof a job.  There is no unemployment fund to help subsidise contributing Union workers wages when they are laid off, leaving families near destitute on unemployment.  Health and Safety inspections of job sites are non-exsistent and no worker feels he can complain for fear of losing their job and becoming destitute.  It is not healthy for individuals or families to have Union workers, in physically demanding jobs, laboring 52 weeks a year without a week or two of paid vacation.  The opportunity cost of taking a vacation for most Union workers outweighs the benefits of the holiday when they are then behind in their bills and out of pocket for the cost of a family break.   In many Union jobs, workers toil in substandard and dangerous conditions.  They use buckets behind plywood sheets for toilets when plumbing has yet to be installed in the upper floors of high rise buildings, work in extreme heat in closed in new construction without ventilation/air conditioning or a simple fan, or they work in extreme cold in open air new construction in the winter.  Shame on the Unions for not demanding more from successful companies and their owners! Most dogs are treated better.  Certainly most government workers are treated better.  Not convinced that Unions help their loyal and paying members.  Instead, they take advantage of the lesser educated, working human!  Investigate that TIMES!!!!

david.chalk
david.chalk

Unions are Salt and the population are King Lear

onlyapps
onlyapps

This is a great article and it is being circulated all over facebook on many union pages.Thank you!

MilesPArcher
MilesPArcher

This is assertion with no explanation of how or why. 
Unions achieve a higher than market rate of compensation by controlling the supply of labor to an employer or group there of. There is no logical reason this would have a beneficial effect on anyone but the union members. If anything it should be a negative pressure on wages for those not in a union. The union creates a higher price for workers at some employers which means those employers higher fewer workers and/or don't hire the lesser experienced workers who compete by lowering their price. These inexperienced workers are not productive enough for the union wages. So this surplus of labor competes for the non-union jobs. 

There are other issues like time in job being more important than what an individual does, etc and so forth. 

Improvements in non-union wages come when employers compete for the most productive people. Union agreements do not by and large reward productivity. They are collective, not individual. Much of what unions claim to be their doing actually occurred when certain conditions forced non-union employers to compete for people. 

Government workers, who are largely union, who politically achieve their wages, make considerably more than their counterparts in the productive sector. As time goes on the disparity increases. Many a private company went under, because unlike government, it couldn't forcefully collect money or print it. This naturally limited the disparities at private companies but leaves it unchecked with government. Here we see how wages at non-union employers are not increasing. As the size of government creates more and more burden, those in government jobs make more while those outside government make less. How one can say unions raise all ships in the face of this baffles me. 

The richest places in the USA now are those where government people live. 

Unions are ultimately political bodies that are supposed to work for their members' benefit and must control membership to do it effectively. Their wage scale in the end has no bearing on that of those outside of it. 

dollared
dollared

Bravo for writing this.  It is obviously true.   And to all the people who argue that globalization, or bad union work rules, or the need for corporate competitiveness, or vague ideas of "freedom" mean that unions are bad or useless, I urge you to recognize how we are all losers in a a society that prioritizes the interests of an increasingly concentrated - and increasingly non-American - group of corporate owners over the interests of the nation as a whole

Mike Woodward
Mike Woodward

Yeah, let's do away with unions and let wages plummet. Also, lets make everyone part-time so companies don't have to pay benefits. Lets let corporations tell us what a fair wage is, because we all know they will be fair and equitable with their profits and not exploit us. Wake the hell up!! Without unions it's a race to the bottom....for everyone.

BodiJohn
BodiJohn

@shortie 

If you read this really quickly ten times, your head will explode!  

RebeccaBonga
RebeccaBonga

@shortie the entire purpose of a union is to raise the masses... Not one at a time, but the entire group. One voice added to many can change the world.. If you think that the corporations willingly give over benefits and wages you are crazy... When we enacted an 8 hour day, the mine owners were screaming like chicken little... "The sky is falling and we will go broke"! They fought the safety measures put in place after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire... The canneries and mills fought the child labor laws... This vilifying the unions has been a long campaign by many companies and funded by ALEC.. to divide this country. You have swallowed the dogma.. Wake up and do some labor history research....

crosslay2
crosslay2

@shortie...so what's the difference between a UNION THUG LEADER and a CEO of a major corporation? Probably both essentially top of the food chain individuals with top responsibilities correct?

Top paid Union Leader in 2012 that I could find was the Boilermaker's President at $506,000

Top paid CEO in 2012 was CEO of McKesson at 131.19 MILLION!!

It's the big corporations pulling the wool over your eyes.

Adam Patton
Adam Patton

they are a waste do away with them, there is no need to pay someone 28 dollars an hour to sweep floors

JeanGray96
JeanGray96

I think one of the biggest problems unions have is that people have lost faith and trust in union leadership. You read about huge retirements with full medical benefits, not to mention for the big unions the bosses are making sometimes 10 times what their average member makes, it can be hard to trust them. And there is the fact that your dues go to political donations for reasons you may not agree with, but doesn't matter because union leadership decided it. Unions have done good and can continue to do good, but they have become just as corrupt as the bigwigs they are fighting in many cases.

bobcn
bobcn

A question for the union opponents here (who have argued that you have to compete with low wage states and countries with a race to the bottom): 

How do you explain what's happening in Germany -- where they have strong unions, high wages, good benefits, and high quality, profitable manufacturing?

texpwr
texpwr

The hole in the article's theory is that,with the rise of international trade,the US economy isn't as vital to a company's bottom line as it once was.Coupled with the fact most non=public unions are services like telecom that  people are unlikely to go without,their profit is not as damaged as one might be led to believe.

John Lewinski
John Lewinski

Apparently most here don't work for big corporations

Jason Jimenez
Jason Jimenez

Just an observation - MI, IL, NY are pro union states. People are leaving these states in droves for more economic and business friendly states like FL and Texas. Why is that?

Tommy34684
Tommy34684

The Tampa Bay Region, not enough discretionary income to support MLB, is a prime example of what this guy writes.

J.j. Lasne
J.j. Lasne

On the other hand, neofascist-capitalist lobbies are thriving.

Ramon Trevi
Ramon Trevi

..Big Capital Leaders and Big Social Leaders --bouth of them-- are a neccesity to a Big human advancment.. and.. bouth of them--must have enough knowledge and enough money to complete the task they have to do..( Wenesday the 30 of January--2013)..Saltillo, Coah...

Rob Deane
Rob Deane

Band aid issue for a deeper cultural issue.

Drew Doemling
Drew Doemling

If the negativity and anti-union sentiment above had credence, then the stark decline in unions should be leading to more economic prosperity and opportunity. However, as the article points out, it isn't! The right to work states have lower standards of living and lower education test scores than heavily unionized ones. Try and explain why no unions are good again???

Turin Gonzalez
Turin Gonzalez

Why do you need unions if the same people who want unions love big gov labor laws? Its overkill.

Barb Butterick
Barb Butterick

I haven't read the article, but judging by the intro I really don't agree. Most companies that would otherwise have a union really don't need one. Labor laws have really went a long way in replacing the need for unions. I'm not saying all companies would be better off without them, but I have watched far too many in my area close their doors and go out of business because of strikes. When workers strike, it not only hurts the company, but the customers of that company. That makes the union company lose customers, investors, and a lot of money. I don't think unions are always horrible, and I believe that there are some companies that obviously still need them, but all in all.. they costs jobs.

Teddy Workman
Teddy Workman

FBI investigations over the years have clearly demonstrated that labor racketeering costs the American public millions of dollars each year through increased labor costs that are eventually passed on to consumers. Labor unions provide a rich source for organized criminal groups to exploit: their pension, welfare, and health funds. There are approximately 75,000 union locals in the U.S., and many of them maintain their own benefit funds. In the mid-1980s, the Teamsters controlled more than 1,000 funds with total assets of more than $9 billion. Labor racketeers attempt to control health, welfare, and pension plans by offering “sweetheart” contracts, peaceful labor relations, and relaxed work rules to companies, or by rigging union elections. Labor law violations occur primarily in large cities with both a strong industrial base and strong labor unions, like New York, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Philadelphia. These cities also have a large presence of organized crime figures. http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/organizedcrime/italian_mafia

David Bloch
David Bloch

it's sad that such an obvious concept needs to be explained to people and isn't a mainstream idea. god bless america.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

On a flip side from my other post, I was reading Michael Lewis's The Big Short earlier this month and it was mentioning that in the eyes of the company, there's 4 levels of satisfaction: ecstatic, satisfied, unsatisfied, and POed.  From the perspective of the company, the ideal spot for morale in the eyes of the executives (at least on Wall Street) was somewhere between unsatisfied and POed - low enough that you know you're ripping them off, high enough that they aren't trying to find a better job or purposely sabotaging you.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

When I was growing up, I was constantly told that I would be changing careers on average 5 times in my lifetime.  After working a few jobs, I came to the conclusion that I actually would prefer that - or even more.  In the industry I went into (software development), the rule of thumb is that within 2-5 years, it's move up or move out - not because of corporatism, but because the long term health of the company and the employee's employability depend upon it.  Changing companies exposes you to other methods and other technologies and allows you to keep up with a rapidly changing environment.  Bringing in new bodies and faces brings their experiences and knowledge that you would otherwise not have been exposed to.  You stick around too long, chances are that you're falling behind on the technology curve and a company that keeps people around is going to be stuck with progressively more stale ideas about how to move forward.

Furthermore, in my industry, skill level is far and away more important than experience.  While nobody has ever been able to prove it (mind you, nobody has ever been able to figure out how to measure or if there is even a concept of "productivity" in the industry), everybody has witness the 10:1 effect - a skilled programmer is ten times as "productive" as an unskilled programmer.  It's generally theorized I'm on the high end of that spectrum, I've certainly met people who were on the low end.  Labor jobs, this factor is generally estimated around 2:1 (which theoretically is why you'll see a retiring laborer being paid approximately twice as much as a junior one).

And finally, I want more flexibility in my schedule.  I could work a 9-5 job, but I'm less effective if I do.  I start my day anywhere from 6:30 to 10am and my day ends anywhere from 4 to 10pm.  My weeks range from 34 to 45 hrs or more - not because I'm asked to, but because I choose to.  Sure, there's industries where that's very difficult - where the machinery or the service dictates the flow, but I know of unions that penalize people for working extra hours

When I look at unions, they seem too limiting.  Yes, there are benefits to them, yes they help increase pay and working conditions, but they've never been appealing to me.  I thought continuously about going into education (even now, as I help produce software used by teachers, I constantly debate going into the profession), but it is always the union that turns me off - the union that ensures that whether I'll make it to 5 years will depend entirely upon whether they have to cut positions or not rather than based upon my skills and whether I might possibly be a better teacher; the union that ensures that pay increases are dependent upon number of years of service and the number of degrees you have rather than need; the union that prevents switching your subject to one you're still qualified for but might not have been trained in so I'm teaching the same thing for 20, 30, 40 years; the union that refuses to find material ways to encourage more people with science and math degrees to get in the industry because "educators are educators" even though there are constant reports about a shortage of qualified math and science teachers; the union that kicks out parents who want to help out around the classroom because a union employee should do it - even though the school will never be able to afford an employee who could do just that job.

And as we move towards a knowledge economy, these issues will become more important for the next generation.  The desires of the millennials entering the workforce is significantly different than the desires of the baby boomers when they were at the same age - study after study shows that.  And when I look at the unions as they exist today, I think the real crux of the problem isn't that unions are being pushed out by corporations or blasted by media - yes, both happen, but neither are the reason unions aren't being considered as much.  I think it's because they don't represent us as much.

Perhaps it is time for unions to evolve.  Perhaps it is time for them to try and determine what their deficiencies are and how they can sell their ideas to a new generation of workers.  Perhaps it is time for them to figure out why they are shunned and ignored by a growing portion of the population.  The answer is quite simple: unions have created conditions where not working feels incentivized, where work ethic isn't rewarded, and where doing your job to the best of your ability is worth just as much as doing your job at a passable level.

ljh
ljh

I'm sorry - I don't buy this argument.  First, the expense of having a union is what pushed manufacturing overseas.  That certainly helped local economies (NOT).  Second, and this is a huge one for me, it promotes mediocrity, complacency, and entitlement none of which help with quality or competition.  I refused to join a union when I was a teacher because I sat in meetings with really poor ones that were protected by the union (is it no wonder our education system is in such decline?!).  I've had to deal with unions as an employer rep and listen to good employees grumble about being paid the same as their slack-off co-workers and wonder why they keep putting in the effort.  As for public sector employees, union wages are paid through my tax dollars.  What is the benefit to me?!  I'd much rather have pay for performance and the ability to sack a truly poor performer to make way for a good one.  Unions may have once had their place but we do so much through compliance and union avoidance that there really isn't any benefit (except to union leadership) to be a member of one.

Robbert5
Robbert5

In the last decades, a massive shift in corporation's main stakeholder vision to shareholders, have left all other stakeholders behind.  The goal of companies transformed from continuity to shortterm revenue and profit gains in order to increase the shares' value and hence the shareholders profit.  This shift has a devastating effect on the long term continuity of companies and economies as a whole.  Another problem is globalization and increase of size and influence of multinationals.  These are rapidly becoming if not already are too big to fail.  That gives way too much leverage to companies, its CEO's and shareholders.  The ones suffering are the labourers.

I myself have a white collar job and I haven't had a raise in 3 years and once a bonus of 1%.  In essence I am losing money even with a ridiculously low inflation rate.  My CEO had raises of more than 100% and bonuses that are much higher than the salary.  The world is upside down at the moment and out of balance.  The unions will have to play a role to balance the current shareholder's grip on companies and they need to start addressing the current issues of globalization.

sandifjm
sandifjm

I've never been a member of a union, although I have worked in a unionized environment before, but I feel that they still have a role to play. Corporations will never treat people properly unless they absolutely have to.  Many will even attempt to circumvent existing employment  laws, and only relent as a last resort.  

The last organization I worked for froze salaries for nearly 3 years, and canceled bonuses, despite achieving annual growth of 40% year-on-year, for several years in a row.  We were just supposed to be happy to have a job, despite the fact that our efforts were making a small number of men at the top, very rich, while severely impacting our lives through extensive business travel and countless hours of unpaid overtime.  Workers have been conditioned to accept being exploited as the natural state of affairs, and when the unions demand a better deal for their membership, private sector employees invariably point out how tough they have it: "I only get 2 weeks vacation",  or "I haven't had a raise in 4 years" - rather than asking why they don't seek a better deal for themselves.

Unions need to modernize, and make a stronger case for why they're still necessary, but don't kid yourselves; without them existing in some capacity, the "race to the bottom" will only accelerate.

lapazjim
lapazjim

Well they wouldn't be shrinking if they allowed people other than family of union members into the Union.Then as PepePinguita has stated Unions are obsolete these days.About the only two of any importance are Construction workers and the Longshoreman's union.The construction workers are fine when they find work.The longshoreman are a different story though.They work 1 hr get off 2 hrs. When a ship is to be loaded at a harbor(they are the only ones that can do it) they will send out 3 shifts to load what 1 shift can do.Waste of money to whoever is having their ship loaded(usually the U.S. government).These people work all the time yet every time a new contract comes up they threaten to strike.Well next time fire them all as there are thousands of Americans without job that will gladly work in their terminated places!!