Unions could make a comeback-if we help them
Michael Wasser is a senior policy analyst at Jobs With Justice.
You won’t hear opponents admit it, but unions are popular and have been for a while. Last year Gallup found that 58 percent of Americans approved of unions. Since Gallup first asked people about their support for unions in 1936, approval dipped below 50 percent just once — when it dropped to 48 percent at the height of the Great Recession in 2009.
Anti-union advocates prefer to focus on the long-term decline of union membership in the United States, which can suggest that unions are unnecessary or in an inevitable decline. It is true that union density has shrunk from its peak of 35.4 percent of the workforce in 1945 to 11.1 percent in 2015. But the erosion in union membership is not a natural, pre-ordained outcome — the reality is that intentional policy choices significantly contributed to fewer people becoming union members.
Benign market forces alone do not explain the continual loss of union membership in the midst of broad support. Take the difference in union density in Canada and the United States: Union membership trends in these similar economies closely tracked each other until the late 1960s and early 1970s. If globalization alone were the main driver of declining union membership, we could expect the countries to have comparable unionization rates. Instead, Canada — which affords real protections for people coming together as a union — has more than twice the percentage of people in unions as the United States.
Our country has allowed a broken and outdated labor law to remain in place for too long. Unlike other workplace laws, the National Labor Relations Act lacks meaningful financial penalties for employer wrongdoing, creating an economic incentive for employers to violate the law. Employers routinely influence union elections in their favor through intimidating and coercive tactics. In doing so, employers both regularly break the letter and spirit of the law, often aided by anti-union consultants and lawyers who are paid handsomely to provide advice on how to get away with manipulating the system. The fact is that current law does not offer working people a level playing field, advantaging chief executives set on denying their employees’ right to organize and negotiate together.
Despite the challenges, people continue to want to come together to have a say in their working lives. The last year saw a “wave” of digital newsroom staff joining in union. Nine thousand American Airlines passenger service agents won their union election in late 2014, doing so in the historically anti-union South. From 2000-2010, the National Labor Relations Board received nearly 3,000 requests for union elections from nursing home and non-acute care employees alone.
Americans are choosing to speak up together at work because they recognize that unions serve as a needed check and balance on corporate power. When working people can negotiate a fair return on their work, they earn higher wages and better benefits. The activism of individuals in unions has a ripple effect across communities. Non-union employees in similar industries and nearby locations generally see their working standards improve. It’s no surprise, then, that the decrease in unions has contributed to the increase in income inequality.