Unions are Vital to the Welfare of the American Worker


We head into 2013 with union membership in the U.S. at or just above its lowest ebb in decades. A January 2011 New York Times piece notes that union membership in the US has sunk to a 70-year low of about 12% of the civilian workforce, down from some 35% of the workforce at its height in the mid-1950s. Is this the end for American organized labor? Should the AFL-CIO accept that the time for unions is over and have the last one out of its Lafayette Square HQ in Washington, D.C. just pull the shades and turn out the lights?

I don’t think so.

For anyone who, as I have, has long believed in the value of unions, the numbers are certainly disheartening.

The decline, which accelerated in the bad years of the Great Recession, seems to have slowed a bit. I suspect that’s partly because of returning jobs and partly because the fall in private sector unionization may have hit a bottom where a core of union strongholds remains (building trades, remaining manufacturing, service industries). Union strength is now greatest in public sector jobs, and the imbalance between public and private sector workers is huge, with some 37% of federal, state and local workers belonging to unions, while only 6.9% of private sector workers belong.

Some see one bellwether of union decline in the advance of so-called right to work laws, which prohibit mandatory union membership dues payments as a condition of employment. Twenty-three states have now enacted them, the latest being Indiana and Michigan. There is no law against unions per se in those states, but their right to work laws starve unions of membership and funding. Still, I note, that leaves more than half the states – comprising 53% of the population – covered by laws guaranteeing union rights. Of those states, I see only Wisconsin, Missouri and Kentucky as outside possibilities to enact right to work laws anytime soon.

In researching stats for this piece, I came across one stunning table. It shows that for virtually every year since 1918, the higher the top 10%’s share of U.S. income, the lower the proportion of union members. That, I note, is a correlation (a relationship) and not necessarily a demonstration of cause and effect. Still, the chart shows that from 1958 on as wealth steadily got concentrated more and more in the top few percent of Americans, the percentage of union members in the workforce steadily dropped. My conclusion is that as union clout at the bargaining table fades, the average American’s ability to get a fair share of the nation’s wealth also drops.

An AFL-CIO blog notes that “declining unionization was responsible for roughly one-third of the growth of wage inequality among men from 1973 to 2007, a new Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report finds. Declining unionization can explain roughly one-fifth of the growth of wage inequality among women over the same period.”

In politics, organized labor puts its money where it will best support candidates who will stand up for fair wages, hours and working conditions for workers. But with declining membership, those resources are also dwindling. As a result, as of July 26, 2010, while labor as a whole spent $33 million on federal lobbying on behalf of working families, that was a tiny fraction of the more than $2 billion that was spent on lobbying by corporations and special interest groups, giving them a huge advantage in passing pro-business, anti-worker legislation.

Whether or not you are aware of it: unions were the major movers of many of the rights and benefits we today take for granted. Before you say good riddance to unions, you should know what unions have done for the American worker: Union efforts helped enact laws to end child labor; created Social Security/Medicare; establish the eight hour work day, the 40 hour week and paid overtime; win unemployment and workers’ comp benefits; secure a guaranteed minimum wage; improve workplace safety; win pensions and health care for unionized workers; gain paid sick leave, vacations, and holidays as standard benefits for most workers and gain passage of the Civil Right Acts and Title VII which outlaws job discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Those who oppose unions claim their day has come and gone. But it is clear to me that unions must remain a principal and vital voice for working people, and that as union strength and clout decline, so does the quality of life working Americans have come to see as a fundamental part of living in this country.