This is the first part of a series to spur a serious discussion about unions, the larger labor movement, and their impact on the American workforce. Please join in. All respectful commentary welcome.
Ugh. Labor pains. The percentage of union workers is the lowest its been in almost a century. The labor movement is buzzing about the recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that points to a grim reality for America's workers. Different takes by different sources provide an overview, but we're a LONG way from a solution.
If you’re one of the millions of Americans who wish unions would go away, you’re getting your wish. Last year, union membership declined to 11.3% from 11.8% of all workers, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released Wednesday...
As the labor unions have declined, professional corporate managers have formed increasingly powerful guilds of their own... This is how they end up on each other’s boards, approving each others’ compensation packages.
In this subtle way, CEOs have built the most successful union in all of history.
It is the greatest spin job in all of economics and politics. When someone making $943 a week tries to organize, and fend for their own economic interests, Americans have been conditioned to call it socialism. But when someone making several hundred thousand dollars a week does it, they call it free enterprise.
The report showed particular drops in union membership in two groups where unions have long been strong: local government employees and manufacturing workers...
The portion of private sector workers in unions fell to just 6.6 percent last year, from 6.9 percent in 2011... Private sector union membership peaked at around 35 percent in the 1950s.
The biggest decline came in the public sector in the wake of rampant union busting in Wisconsin, Indiana and elsewhere. But USA Today/Gallup polling showed public support for public sector bargaining rights just as the Walker regime here was going after public sector unions: Poll: Americans favor union bargaining rights.
Another Gallup poll at the height of the controversy found this: More Americans Back Unions Than Governors in State Disputes
Over a year later, in August 2012, Gallup polled on the overall issue of public approval for unions and continued to find majority support: In U.S., Labor Union Approval Steady at 52%
There are variety of surveys on the web about what percentage of workers would join unions if they could, but the thing to remember is that unions never represented a majority of the workforce. At its peak, union membership was around 35%, yet the effects of that was felt throughout the entire economy, raising the standard of living for all workers and creating working and middle classes that were the envy of the world. Now, not so much. US Wages are lagging behind less antiunion and more labor friendly nations.
One result of having a weak labor movement is that average wages in the United States have fallen behind those of 10 other industrialized democracies that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). What is most confounding, for Republicans at least, is that nine of these countries also have lower unemployment, which contradicts their view that high wages (and high minimum wages) harm employment.
And while workers' standard of living directly tracked the decline of union membership, income inequality in the US soared: GRAPH: As Union Membership Has Declined, Income Inequality Has Skyrocketed In The United States
More info here: As Union Membership Declines, So Do Wages - Despite Job Growth
And even as the nation struggles to recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depresion, look who's reaping the benefits: Richest 1 Percent Account For Nearly All Of U.S. Recovery's Gains: Report
Another modern phenomenon attributable, at least in part, to the waning strength of labor unions is the radical increase in outsourcing of regular, permanent jobs to temp agencies that pay low wages and have little to no benefits.
Protected by the era’s gender biases, early temp leaders thus established a new sector of low-wage, unreliable work right under the noses of powerful labor unions. While greater numbers of employers in the postwar era offered family-supporting wages and health insurance, the rapidly expanding temp agencies established a different precedent by explicitly refusing to do so. That precedent held for more than half a century: even today “temp” jobs are beyond the reach of many workplace protections, not only health benefits but also unemployment insurance, anti-discrimination laws and union-organizing rights
So what's going on? Why is union membership going down as workers' wages are on the slide and inequality rises? It's all about the labor laws, argues the following author (and if you talk to anyone who's worked in the labor movement for awhile, you will hear a resounding, "Amen").
It’s conventional wisdom that the post-industrial workforce doesn’t want to be unionized. But survey data show that workers’ desire to join unions has been growing since the 1980s, and a majority of nonunion workers would now vote for union representation if given the opportunity. So if workers want unions, why is unionization falling?
Commentators have also blamed the decline on everything from globalization to technological advances to the hollowing-out of American manufacturing. But those factors are only part of the story.
Canada’s experience offers another answer.
Given the current political environment, we are not going to see any meaningful pro-worker labor law reforms anytime soon. Workers are consequently looking for new ways to form common cause to improve conditions. Most notably, the movement has seen some bright spots surprisingly among some of America's lowest paid, most vulnerable, nonunion workers: In Walmart and Fast Food, Unions Scaling Up a Strike-First Strategy.
These workers are launching one-day strikes and walkouts all over the country by resurrecting a little known right under existing labor law:
The law we enforce gives employees the right to act together to try to improve their pay and working conditions or fix job-related problems, even if they aren't in a union. If employees are fired, suspended, or otherwise penalized for taking part in protected group activity, the National Labor Relations Board will fight to restore what was unlawfully taken away.
Remember, not all workers are covered by the NLRA. Some, like railway and airlines workers, are under the Railway Labor Act. Individual states have labor laws as well, but generally follow the NLRA for the private sector. Public workers are a whole other thing.
The main thing is, DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Know the facts. Know your rights. And don't buy the baloney manufactured by antiunion, billionaire-funded organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Heritage Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, and so on. They don't give a damn about you. If you're an average work-a-day person like most of us, unions are absolutely in your economic interest whether you belong to one or not.
More info here: Learn About Unions