by Samuel Murray, columnist
Since the mid-19th century, labor unions have been instrumental in fighting for worker protections and fair wages in the United States. With the industrial revolution’s rapid expanse in the 1800s, major advances in technology emerged, spurring innovation and heightened demand for specialized manual labor. However, as corporate power and capitalism flourished, workers began to push back against unfair labor practices, fighting for the eight-hour work day, a minimum wage, and the right to collective bargaining. Thus, the power of labor unions emerged, leading to major improvements for the livelihood of workers around the country, the effects of which we still feel today.
In rapid development, union membership exploded after the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the subsequent formation of the National Labor Relations Board in 1938. The NRLA encouraged collective bargaining, protected the rights of employees, and curtailed harmful labor and management practices in the private sector. But in recent decades, this union power has been declining. While unions are still prevalent across many industries, membership as a percentage of the workforce has declined by about half since 1983. In 1983, about 20% of the workforce, or 17.7 million were union members, compared with 10.8% of the workforce today, amounting to 14.3 million in 2020.
However, despite the decline, unions are still vital to the American workforce. The largest labor union in the United States is the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), with a membership of 12.5 million active and retired workers. Union membership additionally varies by type of employment, with 34.8% of public sector workers in a union, compared to just 6.3% in the private sector.
Unions also remain popular among the public. Despite a steep decline in popularity during the 2009 recession, union membership retains a healthy 65% approval rating in the U.S., according to a recent Gallup poll. This poll indicates that two-thirds of the nation continue to support unions as an important intermediary for protecting workers from abuse or neglect by their employer, corporate or not. But this differs greatly by party, with 85% of Democrats approving of union membership, but only 45% of Republicans.
Those who oppose unions tend to blame them for the failings of their respective labor division. Teachers’ unions in particular have received disproportionate criticism along these lines, despite the fact that many of the failings cited can be attributed to underfunded districts largely dictated through conservative tax structures. Membership is often threatened by employers: Corporations often seek to alienate workers and stigmatize the idea of being in a union. According to an Economic Policy Institute study, the majority of employers, upon hearing employees would unionize, respond with threats of firing or cutting wages.
These assertions and threats are unfair, and there are concerns among many Americans regarding the trend of declining membership. We are in a time of wage stagnation, and hopes of a national minimum wage increase have recently been complicated by the Senate Parliamentarian’s ruling that blocked the measure from being included in the upcoming budget reconciliation. There are still many Americans fighting for access to healthcare, and income inequality in the U.S. is the highest out of the G7 nations.
For these reasons and many more, labor is attempting to make a comeback. In 2017, there were 25,000 workers participating in organized strikes, in 2018 there were 500,000, with a similarly high number in 2019. COVID-19 has exposed the exploitation that can occur when employers force individuals to work in unsafe environments. There have been major strikes across the country over the last two or three years, from teachers unions, grocery store workers, autoworkers, and Amazon workers in multiple states. Union activity is gaining the attention of the media and those in politics, though this has yet to yield major changes in membership numbers. America may be an economic powerhouse in terms of nominal GDP, yet the nation falls short compared to nations like France, Canada, Japan, and other modern industrialized economies in delivering federal guarantees for worker safety, good pay, and access to essential services such as healthcare.
Research has shown that a decline in worker power, whether it be the influence of labor unions or general organized labor, leads to an increase in corporate profitability and increase in monopoly power. Labor unions play a vital role in controlling the greed of their employers, forcing negotiations on wages, time off, healthcare, and more. Without these controls, employers can seek to pay their employees the minimal amount possible, while maintaining major profits. Declining labor negotiating power, paired with a monopolization of the market, can compound the problems workers are facing. Searching for a job in an industry led by one major corporation, which may exploit workers, narrows the possibilities of a job search. Americans cannot afford to search for jobs to find the precise best fit, so many take jobs that are lower paying simply to not be unemployed.
In order to give workers more power over their lives and well-being, labor unions need to not only expand dramatically, but to be insulated from the consequences of retaliatory employers. The PRO Act, recently reintroduced in the House, can do this. The PRO Act seeks to eliminate an employer’s ability to fire someone who participates in collective bargaining arrangements or wants to start a union, and strengthens labor unions’ ability to function as intended. This would be a great first step for ensuring a better-quality organized labor system in the United States.
Worker protections and corporate liability go hand in hand, both would greatly improve the livelihood and well-being of all working Americans. Public policy like the PRO Act could reduce income inequality and create a healthier work environment for all. Unions need to make not just a recovery, but come back stronger than ever.