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US Labor after Wisconsin: What if unions vanish?

Fri, Jul 13, 2012

US labor suffered a blow in Wisconsin when Gov. Scott Walker emerged victorious in the recent June 5 recall election, defeating Democrat Tom Barrett 53 percent to 46 percent. Although Walker raised $30 million, much from out-of-state, labor supporters went all out to defeat him after he proposed, and the Republican-controlled state legislature passed, a bill in March 2011 that severely restricted the collective bargaining rights of most Wisconsin public sector employees. Many pundits now argue that labor’s inability to unseat Walker has signaled the death knell for organized labor in this country.

Commentators did not argue, however, that labor was back last November when the Ohio electorate decisively overturned March 2011 legislation that limited the rights of the state’s public employees to collectively bargain with 62 percent of the vote. Even if labor had successfully removed Walker, its troubles would still be far from over. A solitary defeat in Wisconsin and a single victory in Ohio do not ultimately determine the US trade union movement’s strength which, unfortunately, has been ebbing for several decades. Union density is now 11.8 percent, the lowest rate in 70 years.

.Many conservative critics of the “labor is dead” variety hope for the disappearance of labor organizations from US society, arguing that unions, among their various ills, are major impediments in a hyper-globalized economy that ostensibly depends on the flexibility of capital and labor. But while arguing that organized labor’s decline is evidence that unions are neither wanted nor needed by US workers, these naysayers refuse to acknowledge the myriad contributions that labor organizations have made to all American workers during the 20th century.

Economically speaking, American workers benefited the most when union strength was at its apex. From 1947 through 1972, when union density ranged from its peak of 35 percent to a still relatively healthy 26.6 percent, median household income rose 102 percent. From 1947 to January 1973, American workers experienced an average annual real increase (that is, above the inflation rate) of 2.2 percent in their average hourly earnings. Such wage growth doubles the average worker’s purchasing power every 33 years.

Income inequality also declined when unions were strong. In 1955 when union density was still 35 percent, the richest 10 percent obtained 33 percent of US income while in 2007, when union density was 12.2 percent, the top 10 percent took home 50 percent of the country’s income. Moreover, while unionized workers have earned between 21 percent and 32 percent more than nonunion workers since the 1970s, studies have shown that nonunion workers’ wages in an industry that had a union density of 25 percent increased by 7.5 percent.

Besides economic benefits labor organizations have delivered to union and nonunion workers alike, all workers, regardless of union status, have also profited from the employment legislation that unions have been instrumental in passing. This includes Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. These laws prevent discrimination in hiring on the basis of race, religion, color, sex, national origin and disability. Furthermore, since the mid-1990s, unions have helped to pass living wage statutes that have raised wages above the poverty level for thousands of workers. By 2004, 130 living wage ordinances had been implemented across the United States, including in large cities such as Denver, Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Promotion of “employee voice,” however, might perhaps be the unions’ most important contribution to the American workplace. Labor law professor Joseph Slater contends that many federal employees form unions although they are prevented from negotiating over compensation and working conditions. Despite lacking influence in these two areas, Slater argues that these public sector workers continue to organize unions, in part, so that they can systematically provide daily input in running the enterprise. This indicates that public workers value employee voice, which appears to serve as a major motivation in their desire for union representation.

While the American public values (and expects nothing less than) democracy in the political arena, it appears that not all citizens appreciate the economic democracy that labor organizations bring to the workplace. In democratically representing their members’ interests to employers, unions are indispensable for the operation of a genuinely democratic society. Moreover, these organizations remain one of the few institutions that promote the political and economic interests of low-income persons and the underclass in US society. If unions in America disappear, one can expect an increase in economic inequality and more difficulty in the passing protective legislation (which could become more prone to repeal). There could also be reduced levels of employee voice in the workplace. The absence would be keenly felt by all who labor with their hands or brains – regardless of union status or their opinions of unions.

Victor Devinatz, StreetWise Contributor

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