Labor Day 2019: Unions Weather the Storm and Look to Build a Brighter Future

These last few years have been particularly challenging times for the American Labor movement as we’ve faced everything from a host of anti-labor policies coming from Washington to a Supreme Court decision designed to gut public sector unions.  The good news is that despite all of that, the union movement has persevered and the number of Americans who support unions and say they would like the opportunity to join one is the highest it has been in decades.  

Of course, the difficulties that unions face aren’t just the product of the politics of the present.  They are, as labor writer Steven Greenhouse observes, the product of what he calls an American “anti-worker exceptionalism” that makes us stand out in comparison to most other developed nations with our lack of things like national laws guaranteeing maternity leave, paid sick days, or vacation time.  

The United States also has one of the lowest minimum wages and the second highest rate of low wage workers next to Latvia.  American corporations are exploiting their employees to an ever-increasing degree and the level of economic inequality is at historic heights with the rich and powerful not just winning the economic game, but dominating our politics as well.   

As Greenhouse points out in a recent New York Times piece: 

Numerous studies have found that an important cause of America’s soaring income inequality is the decline of labor unions — and the concomitant decline in workers’ ability to extract more of the profit and prosperity from the corporations they work for. The only time during the past century when income inequality narrowed substantially was the 1940s through 1970s, when unions were at their peak of power and prominence. 

What did that period of increased union power bring?  In his new book, Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present and Future of American Labor, Greenhouse reminds us that:

By uniting workers’ collective power, unions have made many important advances for American workers—advances that many now take for granted. In the late 1940s and the 1950s, through landmark contracts with General Motors, Ford, and other industrial giants, unions played a decisive role in building the biggest, richest middle class the world had ever seen. Unions also played a pivotal role in winning enactment of the federal minimum wage, Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, occupational safety laws, and the civil rights laws of the 1960s. (There is much truth to the bumper sticker: “Unions: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend.”)

Union members earn 13.6 percent more than comparable nonunion workers, after adjusting for education, age, and other factors. Seventy-five percent of unionized workers participate in employer-sponsored health plans, compared with just 49 percent of nonunion workers. Eighty-three percent of union members have an employer-sponsored retirement plan, while just 49 percent of nonunion workers do. Unions also help reduce the gender pay gap. Women workers in unions are paid, on average, ninety-four cents to the dollar paid to unionized male workers, while nonunion women earn seventy-eight cents to the dollar compared with nonunion working men. African American union members earn on average 16.4 percent more than comparable nonunion black workers.

Unions have played an important, but often unappreciated role in reducing inequality; the decades when unions were strongest—the 1940s through 1970s—were the decades when there was the least income inequality. One study found that the decline in union power and density since 1973 explains a third of the increase in wage inequality among American men and a fifth of the increased inequality among women. Two economists at the International Monetary Fund found that the “the decline in unionization” (and the concomitant decline in worker bargaining power) “explains about half of the rise in incomes for the richest 10 percent” in advanced industrial nations and about half the increase in those nations’ main measure of income inequality. Unions often reduce inequality by pushing for higher pay for typical workers, more generous Social Security benefits, higher taxes on the rich, and greater restraints on executive pay.

Thus, the answer to the profound economic insecurity facing American workers at a time when 80% of them are living from paycheck to paycheck and most can’t really afford college, childcare, housing, or healthcare is to go back to the future and do everything we can to rebuild the labor movement.  Workers need more economic leverage in their places of employ and more say in our politics. The issue of economic inequality along with the intersecting concerns of racial and gender inequity are the most fundamental challenges to our democracy.  

These are not problems in need of technical fixes—they are deep and profound matters of social justice that force us to ask what we need to do to live together equitably.  What kind of society do we want to have?

Fortunately, amidst the many challenges we face, the recent wave of teachers’ strikes from West Virginia to Los Angeles have shown that energized workers uniting their own bread and butter interests with the needs of the larger community can win with a social justice union vision. This year’s big victory in Los Angeles as well as hopeful signs like Bernie Sanders campaigning on a Workplace Democracy Plan to double the size of the union movement show us that maybe there is a better future to be had if we all work for it.  

This has never been easy, but it’s safe to say that it has never been more important.  Let’s get to it.  

Happy Labor Day Fellow Workers and Friends.