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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153 comments
captainm2015
captainm2015

Everything is for the shareholder. Unions are being squeezed out by the rich and powerful because we cut into their profits. So they attack us, make us villains, and move our jobs out of the country. We are the most efficient and most productive workers in American history, and we are rewarded by our employers and our politicians with job loss and factory closures. The corporate profit margin is the greatest it has ever been in American history, and stupid American workers are complaining about union workers making a decent wage. You morons, divide and conquer is working and the rich are laughing all of the way to the bank.

peonybloomer
peonybloomer

Good grief, from scrolling these comments, it's still amazing how so many Amricans are fooled by mega multinational corporations. The country is dieing right now, and yet people complain about unions and say they caused all the trouble.


The problem is a lot deeper than the narrow view that is being spewed by the disgusting frothing mouths of yellow journalists, politicians and who else who enjoy causing grief and division between the people of the USA. It's working, though, of course, because we can see instead of the citizens defying who really controls, they decry their own neighbour. Citizens are being divided, in order to be conquered.  It's a war strategy that has been used for centuries. The entire union debate, and additional "big debates" (that are merely band-aids on wounds) ensures this will occur.  People are too distracted to realize these tactics being used on them.

We live in the age of destroying the community, destroying the family, and destroying the people who can band together to become more powerful. Because the government is scared of the power of people when they band together. That's why they, and their cozy bed buddies, Big Corpy and the various media outlets (2 sides of the same coin), love to brainwash and slam down your throat all this garbage about "individualism" and your "freedom of choice". What a joke. No American, except for the filthy rich, has "individualism", and the bonds between fellow citizens are being broken right now. So, Americans slowly will have nothing. until they realize they are being lied to.


Keep on thinking unions were the sole cause of job loss in the USA.

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.”

chingon
chingon

@FrankJimmyHines I'm currently in a campaign. Your post is very well said and thought provoking. Can I use this on a Facebook post? 

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.