Reflections About the Labor Movement on Labor Day
Labor and capital are two sides of the same coin – a productive economy or a failed economy. Right now trade unions represent only 10% of American workers, down from over 1/3rd in the 50’s, and only about 6% of private sector employees. The union movement is weak, as we have entered a new Gilded Age of great and rising inequality in our society.
Real wages have been stagnant since the 70’s. The economy has been primarily rewarding the top 1% while the bottom half has lost both purchasing power and household wealth. https://inequality.org/facts/income-inequality/ Some attribute this to the decline in union membership.
Since the 50’s, jobs in our economy have evolved away from agriculture and manufacturing (where unions are common) and towards service sector employment, where unionization is less common. Many service sector jobs are well paid, for example architects, doctors, nurses and lawyers. Many are blue-collar jobs such as mechanics and repair and maintenance. Many are public sector such as teachers, police and fire, sanitation or road maintenance. Unions such as SEIU have focused on organizing service sector employees, and Justice for Janitors has been a prototypical success.
Unionization rates are well over 30% for public sector jobs and under 7% for private sector employment. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/union2.pdf New York, California, Minnesota, Michigan, Washington, and Illinois all had far higher rates of unionization (over 15%) than did the Southern states like Texas or Georgia (under 5%). Industries fled from the higher wage unionized North to the lower wage non-unionized South; for example textiles and shoe manufacturers left Massachusetts for the South where wages were less and unions were uncommon. Later they left the US for Asia where wages were lower still. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.t05.htm
The gig economy includes temps, part timers, part year, contract workers, independent contractors and the self-employed. It has been fast growing but often without benefits or labor law protections. Covered California and other aspects of Obamacare offered access to more affordable health coverage for workers in the gig economy. California’s AB 5 will reclassify many workers in the gig economy as employees; they will then be protected by minimum wage and unemployment compensation and workers compensation. https://www.salon.com/2019/07/13/how-californias-gig-economy-bill-will-affect-the-rest-of-the-country/ Labor groups like Working Partnerships were key in making the case for treating gig workers as employees rather than independent contractors.
Labor support is and has been key for many issues on which our society needs to make important progress. On many environmental issues, labor has had a mixed record due to its concerns about job losses in traditional industries with high rates of pollution or excessive reliance on fossil fuels. Likewise on educational issues, teacher’s unions have led the fight for better pay, but been laggards and frequently major obstacles in embracing educational improvements to better educate low-income children. The CIO affiliated unions were leaders in embracing new immigrants and in eliminating racism in employment; the AFL affiliated unions were quite the opposite and had to be sued to secure job access for workers of color.
We need more unions, and we need better unions in this country. We need a revival of unions to better improve wages and fight growing income inequality. At the same time we need a reform of union practices to improve educational outcomes and spread the safer practices of community policing. We don’t need feather bedding or excessive protectionism coming from unions. We need greater union help on the necessary transformation in the economy to reduce pollution and fight climate change. We need stronger union leadership in confronting the rise in white supremacy and anti-immigrant movements and in spreading informed and educated participation in the democratic process for all our citizens. We need unions who will strategically ally with small businesses, family farmers and environmental groups and other community members being hurt by monopolistic and oligopolistic practices of unionized industries; we need fair competition. We need unions who can see and act globally in the best interests of all workers who live in their communities and on this planet. The enemy is not the worker in Mexico or the US worker of Mexican descent; the enemy is not the worker in China or India or Bangladesh or his/her family members who live and work in the US. We need a revived union movement with higher and broader visions and aspirations for our nation and for our planet.
Prepared by: Lucien Wulsin