With Unions On the Decline, Will Workers' Alliances Take Their Place?


The decline in union membership in the U.S. over the past four decades has stalled wage increases and cost many workers their pensions and employment benefits. A recent optimistic piece in the American Prospect suggests that non-union worker associations — often supported by unions — are beginning to fill the vacuum by offering those "union free" workers a way to protect workplace rights. Though I applaud such efforts to preserve workplace equity, they are a poor substitute for a real union structure with traditionally bargained contracts that provide for fair wages, hours and working conditions.

The main attraction of union membership has always been that of collective strength. The union anthem, "Solidarity Forever," declares that no force on earth "is weaker than the feeble strength of one." The anthem, written for the International Workers of the World and other unions in 1915 by Ralph Chaplin, is polemical, but even today the sentiment of strength in numbers rings true for many working people.

From 1973 to 2011, the share of the workforce represented by unions declined from 26.7% to 13.1%.


As union membership declines, what have workers lost?

Here’s a summary from a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute:

-De-unionization accounts for about a third of the entire growth of wage inequality among men and around a fifth of inequality growth among women from 1973 to 2007.

-Those covered by a collective bargaining contract earned 13.6% higher wages compared to those doing the same work in non-union shops.

-Unionized workers are 28.2% more likely to be covered by employer-provided health insurance and 53.9% more likely to have employer-provided pensions.

-The decline of unions has affected middle-wage men more than any other group, and explains about three-fourths of the expanded wage gap between white- and blue-collar men and over a fifth of the expanded wage gap between high school– and college-edu­cated men from 1978 to 2011.

Erosion of pensions has been especially severe, with only about 1 in 5 private sector workers in the U.S. now having any sort of secure retirement benefits. Such secure pensions are generally the defined benefit sort that guarantees a worker a pension based on years of service and final wage regardless of how pension fund investments perform. Most private employers with pension plans now offer defined contribution pensions similar to 401ks with no fixed benefit guarantee and pensions based on how those investments performed over time. Many workers with such pensions saw their retirement savings evaporate in the crash of 2008 and may never recover real retirement security. Meanwhile, in a race to the bottom for pensions nationally, public sector workers still do better, but are seeing inroads on their pensions in an increasing number of jurisdictions as well. 

The principal drawback to non-union worker associations is that they work primarily not to build rights, but to fight attacks on already established worker rights, such as filing lawsuits to protect minimum wages and access to sick leave and overtime pay.

While it is important to protect such rights, without contracts to protect them, the associations are in a weak place when trying to create workplace equity. That’s been the traditional role of unions, sitting down at the bargaining table and hashing out a contract that lays out worker and management prerogatives, including mechanisms for resolving grievances against management and unfair labor practices by both workers and management.

Such collective worker strength was central to establishing workplace rights now so long in place we forget it was unions that forged the agreements that created them. Such rights include: an end to child labor; the 8 hour workday and paid overtime; improved workplace safety standards and workers' comp benefits for on the job injuries; unemployment insurance; the minimum wage; Social Security and secure pensions; health insurance; paid sick leave, vacations, and holidays; plus passage of the Civil Rights Act; the Occupational Safety and Health Act and Family Medical Leave Act.

Worker associations and associate union membership for those in non-union employment will continue to be valuable as an adjunct to unions themselves. But if union membership levels decline to insignificance, the best such associations will be able to do is to fight a losing rearguard action against inroads to those hard-won worker rights and benefits.