The Union Imperative

A friend in the labor movement informs me of the following grim facts. Union membership in the United States is now down to a little over 13% of the nation's total work force. For the private sector alone, that figure drops to a mere 9%, the lowest in 70 years. Unions need to organize 500,000 workers a year just to maintain their current small share of active wage earners. To realize an annual 1% gain, they would need to add a million new members each year.

It is indeed a grim picture, but not a hopeless one. Organized labor has been down before and has rebounded in dramatic fashion. In the early 1930s, only one worker in eight belonged to a union, but by the immediate postwar period, that rose to one in three under the aegis of the Wagner Act, which guaranteed the right to organize, before declining once more starting in the late 1950s. This proven resilience may be why labor's conservative antagonists still insist on calling it "Big Labor," despite presently lagging membership rolls, and why they make ominous references to supposedly huge union campaign contributions, notwithstanding that labor is vastly outspent by politically active corporations in every national election.

Not that the union movement is dependent on its enemies to portray it as a bogeyman; the mainstream national news media has done a good job of undermining it on a regular basis with disparaging references. An ABC News report of last March, for example, dismissively referred to organized labor as a "special-interest group" not unlike the frenzied firearms advocates of the National Rifle Association -- a curious designation for millions of average Americans. Prior to that, in the late 1990s, there was the recurring theme of union corruption, revolving around discredited Teamster President Ron Carey, whose railroading on various technicalities was reported with avid glee by national news outlets that couldn't get enough of a story about union malfeasance.

A strong case can be made that organized labor's biggest problem has been one of image and perception. To many Americans, the quintessential union leader will always be James R. ("Jimmy") Hoffa, not Walter Reuther or Cesar Chavez. For this, we have Hollywood to thank, with its glamorized and fictionalized movie re-makes of the Hoffa saga (Hoffa, FIST) emphasizing Mafia ties, striker violence, and stolen pension funds. It goes without saying that few would want to join the kind of unions routinely portrayed on film. Still, the economic realities of the last 20 years for working people are causing a gradual readjustment of public attitudes. In a surprising turnaround, a Peter Hart poll taken in early 2001 found that by then only 18% of Americans expressed a negative view of organized labor.

The change should really come as no surprise. The endlessly trumpeted glories of the 1990s economic boom (rising productivity, stratospheric stock prices, job growth, falling unemployment) obscure the fact that most Americans failed to fully share in it. They had jobs, to be sure, but they were treading water economically, making little or no genuine progress. Average wage growth in the US, says the Economic Policy Institute, has lagged behind productivity (what workers produce) for well over two decades. Until the last few years of the '90s, it reports, wages for most Americans stagnated or actually fell in constant dollars. The Center for Economic and Policy Research confirms these findings; average American wages, it calculates, have not risen substantially in a quarter century, despite the ballyhooed boom of recent times.

Meanwhile, those at the top, the real beneficiaries of the boom, have surged ahead. The highest-paid one-fifth of workers (again citing the Economic Policy Institute) increased their earnings by 15% on average during the 1990s, while the lowest-paid one-fifth averaged just a 1% rise in compensation; the former now earn 20 times more than the latter, according to analyst Kevin Phillips. In fact, a full 90% of the wealth created in the past decade went to the top 20% in income. Clearly, the rising tide did not lift all boats.

At the lower end of the national income scale, the creation of an economic boom in a union-free environment had what can at best be described as a lackluster impact on employed Americans. Over half of them, an NBC poll revealed in early 2001, were having trouble making ends meet, and that was well before the present recession took hold. One-quarter of the work force (about 30 million individuals) were classified that year as "working poor," meaning they didn't earn enough to rise above the official poverty line. About a third were involuntarily toiling as temporary hires, part-timers, and contractors as the 1990s ended, with no job-related benefits of any kind and no eligibility for unemployment insurance. Most startling, food banks were regularly serving the employed but underpaid; an ABC News survey in December 2000 discovered that one-third of the over 20 million food-bank recipients nationwide actually held jobs.

Would being organized in labor unions make a difference for these people? There is no doubt it would. Researchers at the Economic Policy Institute once more provide the evidence. The latest edition of their fact book, The State of Working America, reveals that unionized employees earn hourly wages averaging 23% higher than non-union workers and receive medical insurance and pension packages that are twice to three times above what their nonunion counterparts can expect. Total worker compensation (wages, insurance, pensions), EPI finds, averages 36% more across the board for union members.

The benefits unionization can bring above and beyond simply higher pay cannot be dismissed lightly at a time when only a third of US companies still provide full health coverage for their employees (compared to two-thirds in the 1980s) and when Americans are working longer hours and getting fewer vacation days than workers anywhere else in the industrialized world. The best way to reverse these trends is an organized and, if need be, militant work force. In the specific case of medical insurance, negotiated union contracts may, in fact, be the only way to provide broad coverage in light of the congressional reluctance to pass national healthcare legislation.

The potential rewards of union membership are also psychic. As AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has said, it's not just a lack of sufficient income that afflicts American workers, but "a sense of powerlessness -- and voicelessness -- in a new economy where the old rules no longer apply." Sweeney rightly sees the labor movement as "the core of a larger effort to achieve economic security and social justice" and to create a new "social compact" for America that includes workers in the equation. The unorganized majority appears ready to listen. They had better. The decline in union affiliation over the past quarter century is in almost exact proportion to the concurrent decline in real wages, fixed pensions, and employer-paid medical benefits. We're all in it together -- white collar, blue collar, and pink collar -- and organized solidarity is the way out.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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