A Word About Unions

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Sometimes bumper stickers get right to the truth. Case in point, the bumper sticker that reads, “The Labor Movement: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend.”

Unions fought hard for victories that still benefit the overwhelming majority of Americans: safe workplaces, child labor bans, healthcare benefits, pensions, and of course, the 40-hour work week, aka the weekend. Fighting for these benefits was hard, dangerous work. As recently as 1937, 10 demonstrators were killed by Chicago policemen in the Little Steel Strike. Since that bloody day, attacks on unions have become stealthier but no less effective.

So if brave union members earned so many victories for working people in the United States, why has the labor movement become a national punching bag? Why are union workers’ numbers dwindling? Why are so many of labor’s hard-fought gains being clawed back? And why have unions become synonymous with sloth, inefficiency, and corruption?

There are at least two answers to these questions: a) corporate interests have steadily and systematically worked to stigmatize unions and erode their gains for working people, and b) we let them do it.

Labor’s power has collapsed. In 1955, 30 percent of the American workforce was unionized. Today it’s 11 percent.  

How did this happen? Ever since Congress overrode President Truman’s veto of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, unions have been declining in membership and power. Taft-Hartley was the first of a steady drumbeat of laws and regulations designed to empower corporations and to gut unions. Passed at corporate behest, Taft-Hartley limited closed shops, the ability to strike, and opened the door to “right-to-work.”

Right-to-work laws, which are named to erroneously create the impression that unions prevent people from working, empower corporations to force people to work for less money, put in more hours, and get fewer benefits. Most recently, the Supreme Court nixed unions’ power to collect dues from those who are not union members but still benefit from unions’ collective bargaining. Next on the chopping block: the right of government workers to unionize.

The decline of union membership if often portrayed as workers themselves opting out of unions or the labor movement outliving its usefulness. The truth is corporations, with the help of lawmakers, have slowly been draining the lifeblood from unions.  

The steady erosion of union power has had the desired effect: more money now accrues to executives and shareholders, while less accrues to working people, fewer of whom have the power of unions behind them.

The “power of unions” is not a phrase used lightly. Unions do have power. For instance, union workers earn 10 percent to 20 percent more than non-union workers. This why the weakening of unions’ power is exacerbating inequality in the United States. Since corporations began effectively using the federal government to weaken unions around 1955, wage inequality has skyrocketed, and working people are not the beneficiaries. Statistics show that “incomes for the 0.0001 percent of richest Americans increased 636 percent between 1980 and 2014,” according to a UC Berkeley paper reported on by Business Insider’s Pedro Nicolaci da Costa. But real inflation-adjusted incomes didn’t budge for those in the bottom 50%.

Moreover, the top 1 percent earned 81 times as much as those in the bottom 50 percent in 2014, according to the UC Berkeley research. In 1980, that top 1 percent earned “only” 27 times more. The downward pressure on working people’s wages continues unabated. Today, despite near full employment, thanks to 2.8 percent inflation, production and non-supervisory wages actually decreased 0.1 percent in the last 12 months, according to NYMag.com.  

There are, of course, a constellation of reasons for the rise of inequality and flatlining real wages for workers. One of the primary culprits has been the slashing of taxes on the wealthy over the past 40 years, which has only increased their power to pay legislators to pass laws even more beneficial to corporations and the rich, and to further weaken union and blue collar power at the bargaining table.

Unions have seen some successes lately with hotel strikes in Chicago and elsewhere earning victories for labor. Strikes in West Virginia and the Midwest have also earned hard-fought gains for severely underpaid teachers.

But if the middle class keeps sneering at unions, the gains of the past century will keep being stolen away, one by one. First they came for your overtime, then they came for your pension, then they came for your healthcare. As for your weekend—cherish that, if you still have one.  

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