Unions and Employee Rights

Unions and workers’ rights help balance the unfair power of employers in job negotiations, and promote safe, healthy, and ethical workplaces. But these rights are not being enforced and union membership in the private sector has declined significantly.

The economic hollowing out of the middle class has come in some measure because of the decline in union membership over the past 60 years. Union membership declined from 35% of the non-agricultural workforce in 1945, to 12% today – and only 6.9% of private sector employees are unionized. This page examines the causes and effects of the decline in union representation.

Causes of Union Decline

This was not because unions became irrelevant. It’s partly because many union jobs got shipped overseas or to less hospitable states; it’s partly because jobs were automated; and it’s partly because business leaders have waged a strong and persistent battle against unions, with government support, starting when President Reagan fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981.

It’s hard to demand increased pay, when management is threatening to offshore or automate your job, especially when labor laws are not being enforced. Defeat of federal “card check” legislation which would have supported union organizing, is a recent example of lack of government support for collective bargaining rights.

Here’s a lengthy interview with Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He describes Wal-Mart’s labor policies and practices which have kept it entirely non-union. In particular, employees expressing dissatisfaction are induced to resign by changing their work shift and reducing their hours.

And because of our economic difficulties, where unions have persisted – in the public sector, particularly – we have the spectacle of union and non-union workers actually fighting with each other.

Protests in Madison, Wisconsin in March, 2011

In Wisconsin we had a rare chance to listen in on Republican inside anti-union strategy talks, when a blogger called Gov. Scott Walker, pretending to be billionaire David Koch, who supports extreme right-wing causes. Referring to the planned killing of collective bargaining for most public unions, Walker exclaimed, “This is an exciting time…. This is our moment. This is our time to change the course of history…”

The revelation of that phone call inspired a “Downfall” parody, that had us laughing…. (It is better to laugh than cry, isn’t it?)

Effects of Union Decline

In addition to the more obvious negative impact on worker wages, union decline also opened the door to vastly larger management salaries and bonuses, unconstrained by union wage-increase responses. Perhaps even less obvious is the effect it’s had on the Democratic Party.

Kevin Drum made a persuasive argument in the cover story of the March/April, 2011, issue of Mother Jones that the absence of a strong union movement cost the Democrats a lot of organizational muscle and substantial political contributions. It left them nowhere to go but into the arms of the business community for the lost money. This could well explain the rise of the business-oriented Democratic Leadership Council, followed by NAFTA and repeal of the Glass–Steagall Actunder President Clinton, and the less-than-robust financial re-regulation and health insurance reform under President Obama.

What could induce the Democrats to re-focus on the middle class?

On May 20, 2011, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka gave a stirring and stern speech outlining progressive values, our history of labor advances, and the economic policies being pressed on us following the 2010 elections, policies that deny working people a fair share of the wealth that they have worked to create. And his speech carried the warning of political independence of working people, who are looking for leaders who will actively counter those undemocratic economic policies.

Union Resurgence?

It’s possible that the showdowns in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan over Republican attacks on public union collective bargaining may stimulate and energize a national dialogue on the role of unions, on Republican goals, and on what’s happened to the middle class over the past 30 years. Michael Moore gave a stem-winder of a speech in Madison on March 5, 2011, in which he declared (factually) that the Forbes 400 (the 400 most wealthy people in the United States) now own more wealth than half of all American households – and led the chant “We have had it!” Wisconsin farmers arrived on their tractors for huge protest rally in Madison the following Saturday, with their slogan, “Pull together.”