America Is Strong When Our Unions Are Strong

This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture as part of the Making It In America project. I am a Fellow with CAF.
America was formed as a government of, by and for We, the People. It says so right in the first words of our Constitution. To get that Constitution we rebelled against the King and England’s aristocracy and their corporations, with their concentrated wealth and power. And we continued that fight and over time we extended our system of one-person-one-vote, adding women and minorities to that equation.
The fight has gone back and forth. When our democratic government works, it pushes for increasing the protections and benefits of a strong economy for We, the People. This has included, for example, the mandated 40-hour workweek and minimum wages to fight exploitation, both pushed by labor. But at other times our government was “captured” by the power of concentrated wealth and working people are not well-represented. Even then we’re still not necessarily each on our own. During those times we have depended on labor unions to push back against that power of concentrated wealth. Working people can organize into labor unions to bargain for higher wages and better treatment than workers could obtain individually.
What difference can unions make? In 1945 labor unions represented about 1/3 of all workers. When American unions were strong working people got the minimum wage, the 40-hour week, weekends off, paid vacations, health insurance, pensions, dignity and respect. This was when America built the middle class that everyone has been taking for granted since. Even the wealthy benefited greatly over the long run as more consumers with more money to spend lifted the whole economy.
But what has happened to us since the Reagan Revolution, when concentrated power of the big corporations weakened America’s unions? Since the days of FDR membership in unions has fallen, but in 1980 unions still represented 24% of American workers. The Reagan administration famously launched an all-out assault on organized labor, resulting in membership falling to 16.4% by 1989. And the trend continued: by 1998 union membership fell to 13.9 percent. By 2009 that had decreased to 12.3%, but only 7.6% in the private sector. And here are the results:


This is a chart of working people’s share of the benefits from our economy. Note the brief return to normal under Clinton, erased by Bush II. But the assault on working people has recently been bipartisan. Clinton pushed to pass the Bush I-negotiated NAFTA treaty which hammered the bargaining position of workers, while Bush II consolidated the practice of “outsourcing” labor competition from non-democratic countries where workers didn’t have rights or protections.
As we all know, since the Reagan Revolution weakened the negotiating power of working people, wealth and income have concentrated at the top, our country’s debt has massively increased, household debt as well, the country is crumbling and everyone except the wealthy few and big corporations is generally worse off.
Unions still make a difference. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “In 2009, among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $908, while those who were not represented by unions had median weekly earnings of $710.” Union members also often have paid vacation, paid sick leave, health insurance and other benefits that non-union workers do not. The difference is dramatic. In March 2009, 78 percent of union workers were covered by health insurance through their jobs, compared with only 51 percent of nonunion workers. Seventy-seven percent of union workers participate in defined-benefit pension plans, compared with 20 percent of nonunion workers.
When you hear someone complain about unions and complain that people in unions are paid better than the rest of us, let them know that they are reaching the wrongest conclusion. They shouldn’t resent union members and complain about their pay, they should join a union and support unions, so they they and everyone else can come out ahead.
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