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.

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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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126 comments
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.

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.”

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.

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?

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.

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. 

cybervigilante
cybervigilante

@HeatherSarahAdams I'd like to say that was a kind of stupid and non relevant reply. What does this have to do with California? BTW, they have much better wages, education, and living conditions than the "red" South.

crosslay2
crosslay2

@Xyriut You are simply regurgitating Fox news my friend. I'm a union worker and have always voted Republican. The parties are both out of control and wrong nowadays... that said, I am becoming more and more disgusted how ultra-conservatives are putting the blame on union worker's. (I could go on and on about things the extreme liberals support) Union's make up 11.3% of the workforce...you are giving us too much "credit" on the decline of American economics. And if you are saying that if we American worker's that are in Unions better give up 25% or we will be taken over by China...you are nuts. China is being employed by greedy American Corporations (that tend to be conservative). So here is the choice, I as an American worker should give up 25% of my income.. that is taxable (taxes that support our economy), that is spent in the United States on food, housing, transportation, fuel....etc..... and if I don't give up 25% of my income, I and my group of horrible union friends will FORCE the greedy corporations to send the work to China where none of their money supports our economy??? So that the corporation can get wealthier and supply a few (in comparison) individuals with gigantic salaries and benefits and luxuries most will never have. Now, I am not saying that many of those highly educated CEO's, CFO's, so on and so forth don't earn a good living...I am saying, too many are selling you this idea....while becoming part of the top 1%. You want a UNION THUG employee that is a normal American worker supporting their family and living as a dying part of the middle class to join the lower income by giving up 25% so that CEO's aren't "forced" to send US jobs to a foreign country???

I could go on and on....I'm just throwing out a guess here also...but, HeatherSarahAdams...what do you do for work and what is your higher education?

daveshaver
daveshaver

Says the "beach bum in recovery" lol

lock1347
lock1347

@shortie You just named most of the reasons that we need unions. Problem is most workers today are not willing to make the sacrifices that it takes to have strong union representations. Union are only as good as their members and as strong as those members want to be. I was a union shop steward for 25 years at a major metal producing company.  During those years I saw this decline coming. People become complacent just as they are with voting.  When I retired their were 2500 hurly people at that plant and there were only about 500 true union members there.  They mostly concern with their own situation and selfishly turned a blind eye to the other guys issues.  Sound familiar,  the younger people of this country have no sense of the labor movements history and have smoke blown up the rear so bad that they can't see the truth with it right in front of them.  The demise of the unions will be the demise of the American worker in the near future and take us back to the days of company stores and servitude.  You obviously have use of the internet make use of it and research the history of the American labor movement and see just how it was back then, and you will see what is coming. If you don't believe it will happen think again, it has already started.  A Pennsylvania town has already cut their Police and Firemen down to minimum wage, and that is just the start. All those "right to work laws" that were passed last year are all so a big step in that direction!

lock1347
lock1347

@MilesPArcher Another Ignorant person with no concept of how he and his fellow parasite got the rate of pay the enjoy today. The 40 hour work week, vacations, insurance, overtime pay, job security were all due to the sacrifice of union workers before you were born . Just because you believe the lies that you non-union employer feeds you doesn't make them true. You need a history lesson as well. 

shortie
shortie

@Mike Woodward If you believe this then make your Union step up to the plate.  The way I see it, Union men and woman are getting very little for their contributions which line the pockets of Union leaders.  You deserve paid holidays, decent work conditions and private health care from YOUR EMPLOYER-- not just decent wages!  If you work hard, then you want JOB SECURITY and a feeling of calm and satisfaction that goes along with that.  The US Unions take advantage of workers that are not highly educated and private insurance cover is the Ace of Spades that they hide behind.  Demand more from your Union -- a decent life and some securtity for your family is the dream.

SteveMehlman
SteveMehlman

All you anti-union folks complain because you claim that "union bosses" make more money than the average union member does.

If you really care about what is happening to American workers, why aren't you screaming about the fact that the CEO of an S&P 500 Index company made, on average, 380 times the average wages of U.S. workers in 2011? 

lock1347
lock1347

@JeanGray96 You could not be further from the truth with your outlandish statement that " union dues go to political donations for reason you may not agree with". Nothing could be further from the truth,  Union are barred by law from using union dues for political purposes, and they are closely monitored by the Federal Government to make sure that it doesn't happen.  All the money that unions contribute to politicians is through a PAC which is "strictly voluntary.  You have again been suckered in to believing a lie, by the non-union people you work for.  They should know all about forced contributions, because that how they do the salaried or company people. That is also against the, law but then what salaried workingman will take a chance on losing their job, because they have no representation!   Lost faith you think they have lost faith, they have been duped by their employers into believing all their lie.  I shutter to try to decide if your problem is naivety or just plain stupidity.

onlyapps
onlyapps

@JeanGray96 You are incorrect about dues going to political campaigns. They do not. My dues are less than 2% of my total paycheck. I have a full pension- not half as you claim. I have a Cadillac medical plan, dental and vision that I pay peanuts for a family of 4. You might want to inform yourself before you start an anti-union rant that is false. My wages and benefits package would make you envious, but I'm worth it. I am a skilled dependable employee, and work hard for my company. I am a 30 year CWA Union member and former steward.

bobcn
bobcn

@JeanGray96 Do you think pensions and medical benefits are a BAD thing? 

What do you plan to do when you get old?  Live off of food stamps and die early?  Hope you've saved enough (after you've put your kids through college) to get by?  Or do you plan to drop dead at your desk?

Pensions and medical benefits are a GOOD thing. Not so long ago they were normal and expected.  In other industrial countries (like Germany) they are still routine  It always amazes me how eager people are to jealously complain about other people having them -- rather than demanding the same benefits for themselves.  

We keep hearing billionaires complain that if the people who produced the wealth that made them rich were to get a pension or health benefits then the billionaire would have to cut their hours.  How about not cutting their hours and only being a hundred-millionaire instead?

onlyapps
onlyapps

@Jason Jimenez  MI is no longer pro-union. They elected a Republican governor who just made the state right to work. MD is a pro-union state. Check out the demographics and local statistics there.

bobcn
bobcn

@Jason Jimenez Why is that?  Weather.

BodiJohn
BodiJohn

@lock1347 @shortie The incredible irony is that the right has been successful in convincing many working people that they should screw themselves in order to screw progressives/democrates and the hated Obamaites.  Many who post on these sites are willingly walking off the cliff.  

Heather is a perfect example: 

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

WTF!!

onlyapps
onlyapps

@shortie Have no idea what union that you could possibly be referring to. I have been a union member for over 30 years. I have excellent wages, healthcare, pension, 401K, 6 weeks of paid vacation plus sick day pay and holiday pay. When I work OT, get paid well for that also. My dues are less than $20 a week. OSHA oversees all safety conditions. I am a skilled, dependable employee of a company that makes billions of $$ in profit, and can well afford my collective bargained contract for my service. You need to do a little more investigating before you throw an ignorant rant.

BodiJohn
BodiJohn

@shortie 

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

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.

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....

lock1347
lock1347

@shortie As I said before you know nothing of which you speak. Have you ever belong to a union or paid any dues. Those people who server as union official make no more than the people that they represent. If you had ever tried it you would know better than to make such statements.  The worst part of being a union representative is having to represent people that are no more intelligent than you seem to be.

shortie
shortie

@onlyapps @JeanGray96 Your employer should pay your benefits and provide you with a retirement fund. They should also give you a paid vacation and decent work conditions.  You should not have to fear pointing out problems or terrible health and safety breaches in the workplace to your employer.  You should be treated as well as any other skilled worker in any other industry.  Union leaders can do more!  Sounds as if you have been a lucky one - interview the list of men waiting to go back to work after being laid off!  

JeanGray96
JeanGray96

I'm not saying they are a bad thing. The bad thing is when the union boss gets something better than the workers being represented. The union boss gets a Cadillac health plan for life - the worker gets a bare bones plan until they are eligible for Medicare. The union boss gets a 100% pension - the worker gets 50%. That's the bad thing. It's also hard to scrape by on your salary once dues, taxes, health care fees, pension contributions etc are taking out and your union boss is making big six figures with an expense account to wine and dine. It's hard to think someone like that really represents your best interest. I feel that same way about Congress. They are overpaid and underworked.

And European countries, residents there pay around 40% income tax to fund things like higher education, health care and pensions. Public transit (which isn't as cheap as everyone thinks) and rail (which also is not the good deal it once was with it being cheaper to fly many places) are subsidized through high gas taxes which tack on roughly $4-5 per gallon across Europe. Germans get a card they have to show at the hospital to show they are current on their taxes. It's not free- it comes out of very high taxes. I lived there for 3 years. Northern Europe understands if you want far reaching social services, they have to be paid for.

Honestly, I don't mind paying higher taxes to get more services from the country. But we can't keep promising to spend more money without taking in more money