When compared to the steady decline in middle-class income over the past 30+ years, a nearly identical, parallel decline in the number of union jobs in this country seems to have an undeniable connection, particularly since organized labor and collective bargaining serve as a great equalizer between employees and employers. Union membership saw its last uptick just before Ronald Reagan took office in January of 1981 and it has declined steadily since, along with middle-class income. Since August, 1981, when President Reagan abruptly fired the striking, unionized air-traffic controllers, unions have experienced a decline in membership, and have seen their representational power at the bargaining table nearly disappear. Coupled with our vanishing middle-class, the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs, our halted generational mobility and our economic decent, it is hard to see any winners from the fall of organized labor, unless you count the mega-wealthy and multinational corporations, who have benefited from taxes incentives and trade agreements that have rewarded them for moving good-paying jobs overseas. The losers are lots of skilled workers, much of the middle class and our economy. Corporate lobbyists have fought successfully to weaken workers’ power, suppress wages and eliminate tariffs and tax regulations that protected America-made products. In the long run, everyone is harmed by these short-sighted policies because as workers’ wages fall and their skills diminish, our economy suffers and it becomes more difficult to compete.
A Decline in Unions since Reagan
Reagan’s 1981 firing of the air traffic controllers hushed many unions, as the newly empowered Phelps Dodge and International Paper quickly followed suit, replacing their striking workers. The next great blow to manufacturing, most of which comprised of union jobs, came in 1994, when President Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), resulting in the loss of 682,900 manufacturing jobs. Then, in 2004, President Bush signed the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), from which followed the closing of 40,000 manufacturing plants. According to the National Association of Manufacturing (Nam.org), the U.S. claimed 19.5 million manufacturing jobs in 1979 and 17.2 million today, but union jobs in that sector is down to 9.6% today, from 24.1% in 1979.
More recent efforts to weaken unions and eliminate collective bargaining abilities have occurred in various states, through the “Right to Work” legislation that is now the law in 25 states. This legislation dilutes unions by forcing them to represent and defend non-union employees in labor disputes and even allows those nonmembers to sue the union if theyare dissatisfied with their representation. Other laws have been inserted into the bargaining process to make it more difficult for unions to represent members. For example, a law now requires employees to prove their individual support for their bargaining representative before collective bargaining can begin. This not only slows the process, but it contributes to additional and early conflict among members even before the negotiating can begin.
Prominent Economists Support Strong Unions
According to many economists, the loss of strong, unionized workers hurts business and the economy in the long run. A statement signed by forty prominent economists on February 25th, 2013, called for businesses to help restore unions and cited studies showing that businesses with union employees are no more likely to fail than those with non-union workers. In fact, dedicated, better-trained and well-paid union workers have a greater stake in a company, which helps stabilize businesses, particularly in a recession.
Furthermore, it is misguided for businesses to view employees as adversarial, when all parties benefit from a profitable company and collaboration. The only businesses that benefit from an adversarial relationship are the vulture capitalists, who profit from using their vast wealth to buy successful businesses, leverage their assets by acquiring debt and then file bankruptcy, reaping great capital gains for themselves, but leaving the carcass of the once thriving business and workers in the dust.
Years of favoring such practices have left a tremendous tear in our economic fabric. The middle-class has been beaten down by wrong-headed policies and their struggle just to survive is evident in the country’s overall decline in competitive innovation and economic standing. They have been burdened by a Federal and corporate income tax structure that favors the ultra-rich and corporations. The deregulation of banking and Wall Street crushed middle-class retirement savings and the value of their homes. But the middle-class has the power to reverse these harmful policies, stop the cyclical recessions, help restore our economy and strengthen our global, competitive strength. When more Americans are well paid and have job security, they stimulate the economy through increased local spending.
Signs of Unions’ Sprouting Rebirth
There was a time in this country when labor was recognized as the driving force behind capitalism, from which grew the great middle class that built this country on “American ingenuity,” making the U.S. the king of industry and innovation. Written into the National Labor Relations’ Act of 1935, was the recognition that business benefits and protects itself “from injury, impairment, or interruption…by encouraging practices fundamental to the friendly adjustment of industrial disputes arising out of differences as to wages, hours, or other working conditions and by restoring equality of bargaining power between employees and employers.”
There are some hopeful signs that there may be a restored interest in unionizing workers. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement of 2011 demonstrated the need for people to unite in shared economic interests. And the recent protests for better wages by fast-food workers are showing younger and unskilled workers that there is power in the collective. The “Employee Free Choice Act,” which simply allows workers the choice to organize a union through a simple majority, is catching on, too. And, finally, the Affordable Care Act is the first legislation that begins to unchain employers from providing medical insurance to employees, thereby equalizing labor costs with other industrialized countries. The odds are still stacked against workers, but there may be a glimmer of hope that the U.S. will be on the leading edge again. And global competitive factors may force these changes sooner than we may think.