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Is it Time to Give up on Unions?


by Stephanie Luce

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual report on union membership last week. Union density – the percentage of workers who belong to unions – is now down to 11.3%, far below its historic high of around 35% in 1955. This is bad news for workers –  unions are still one of the only ways workers can get any job security or protection against ‘at-will’ employment. And despite unions’ losing power over the past several decades, unionized workers are still far more likely than non-unionized workers to receive health benefits, a pension, and paid days off. And on average, unionized workers make more than 27% more than non-union workers.

But falling union density is also bad for the economy overall. The labor movement was a major force behind winning many of the benefits union and non-union workers enjoy today, from public education to social security to overtime pay laws. Labor unions can stabilize labor markets, decrease inequality, and positively affect growth. Futhermore, as even conservatives have noted, labor unions represent a fundamental plank in a true democracy. As more states move to outlaw collective bargaining for public sector workers, we might remember the words of none other than Ronald Reagan, who remarked in 1980: “Where unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.”

There is no doubt that many unions have played a role in their own decline. The U.S. labor movement has suffered from racism, sexism, and nationalism – and many leaders have failed to recognize fundamental changes in the economy as they were happening. Some chose to have faith in an old way of doing things, either fearing change or unwilling to take risks. But much of the decline in union density comes from forces beyond the control of union members or leaders. “Union-avoidance” consulting has grown into a multi-billion international industry over a few decades, and employers now have a sophisticated arsenal of tools to break unions or keep them out. As trade policy and financial regulations have shifted, they have given more power to employers in place of workers. Labor law, weak to start with, is often not enforced – allowing employers to violate it frequently with little penalty. And now, the attacks that private sector unions saw in the 1980s and 1990s have come to the public sector. Given that the majority of all union members now work in the public sector, it is likely we could see an increasingly rapid decline in union density, as entire states wipe away worker freedoms with the stroke of a pen.

Are unions destined to become obsolete? For many reasons, the future seems bleak. But recently, we’ve seen more signs of life from workers who are willing to stand up to their employers to demand living wages, fair treatment and respect – from non-union Walmart workers to fast food workers to already-unionized but increasingly militant teachers in Chicago. Increasing union membership will take more than a small victory here and there, but despite the BLS numbers, it is too early to give up on the labor movement. As long as we live in an employment-at-will “free market,” unions – while flawed – are the best hope workers have.

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