Unions are more popular today than they have been in 60 years. So why are so few American workers able to join one?
A rising vibration is emanating from workplaces across the country. It’s the sound of the American labor force waking up to the notion that they can affect positive changes in the way we work.
More and more, Americans are appreciating and seeking the balancing power of unions.
Americans' opinions of unions today is the most favorable it’s been in 60 years. Among all adults, 68% approve of unions, and among adults between 18 and 34, the approval rate is 71%. Approval of unions has been on a steady rise since a nadir of 49% in 2009.
Our New Gilded Age
It’s easy to understand why people’s opinions are changing: We are now in the midst of a new American gilded age. While 90% of the American workforce toils for just 30% of the total domestic wealth, the 10% at the top who form our corporate and business leadership have consolidated the other 70% of our cumulative wealth for themselves.
71% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 have a favorable view of unions, but less than 6% of the private sector actually belong to one.
According to Federal Reserve statistics, the share of wealth controlled by the top 10% of earners in this country has nearly tripled in the last 40 years.
While workers at companies fight for a mere living wage and workplace dignity, the individual owners of those companies amass more wealth than most nations can claim.
The last time such a disparity existed between an uber-wealthy management class and the financially oppressed labor force was during the lead up to the Great Depression. Finance, railroad, steel and oil barons called the shots and amassed unfathomable wealth on the backs of workers who had no representation in labor agreements.
It took the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, and the formation of worker unions to strike a better balance with management. From then until 1980 the American worker — and America — enjoyed a golden age like no other before. Union membership grew to over 30% of all workers and a thriving middle class was born. America’s net wealth was shared 50/50 between the powerful 10% and the working 90%. More Americans bought a car, a home, and sent children to college for the first time, than ever before.
And their ballooning cumulative tax contribution helped fund a social safety net, new industries, new towns and schools, an unmatchable military, and an inspiring space program. Without the NLRA of 1935, we get no middle class, and we remain the bifurcated society with lush benefits for the wealthy and only the promise of more toil for the worker.
In 1981 President Ronald Reagan fired the 11,359 air traffic controllers who were on strike to combat unreasonable work conditions, which they argued made the skies unsafe for air travelers. The union was broken. Some experts say this event opened the door for a raft of anti-union propaganda and legislation that has continued to today, weakening unions. See the chart above for what many economists believe is the result of this anti-union activity.
Without Unions, the Middle Class is Disappearing
Well, some 85 years after the NLRA the extreme economic inequality between management and labor that defined that earlier age has returned. Powerful forces in government and business have spent decades successfully weakening collective bargaining rights and busting union efforts. And now too many workers see no progress in their living standard though they have a fulltime job, or hold more than one job. In fact, they often witness the opposite, as their childcare and housing expenses rise, medical expenses receive less coverage, and inflation drives up the cost of monthly necessities. And the line between “middle class” and “just hanging on” becomes more tenuous.
For too many hard-working people, this reality butts up against the knowledge that the owners of some of their companies have more wealth than is easily understandable. After putting in long hours for wages that don’t pay their bills, they watch their management take joy rides into space with other ultra-wealthy dilatants.
Workers have had enough of this grotesque imbalance and they’re organizing.
Unions and worker organizations has some friends in the New York legislature, like Senator Jessica Ramos, shown here with members of NICE, New Immigrant Community Empowerment, who fight to improve the lives of vulnerable and precarious immigrant workers. Senator Ramos led the recent successful passage of the Wage Theft bill into law.
In Buffalo a group of Starbucks workers became the first employees of the chain to unionize and more are expected to follow. In Alabama, after Amazon managers were found to have employed typical union-busting tactics, workers will get another vote to form a union. And workers at four other Amazon warehouses are collecting pro-union signatures. Four unions are now arguing that National Guard members mobilized by the governor of Connecticut should be able to form a union— a right enjoyed by other civilian state employees. Teachers unions around the country, particularly in Chicago, use their strength to keep teachers and students safe during a pandemic.
But a huge gap remains between the number of workers who have union representation, around 10%, and those who want it but don’t have it, now close to 50%.
What We Love About Unions
The reasons so many working Americans want to join a union are well-documented. Because unions raise wages for both members and non-members — for women in particular — and reduce racial economic disparities. Because unions diminish income inequality, for members and non-members. Because unions offer incentives for growth, and strong job protection, and better work-life balance.
What’s preventing those Americans from exercising their freedom to join a union is equally well-documented.
Empowered by big business lawyers and the political class they donate to, many state legislatures have enacted “Right to Work” laws that bestow huge advantages to anti-union companies over the rights of American workers. Today, large swaths of the country have basically made unionizing illegal. So, while most Americans may want a union, many of them cannot create or join one and remain right with the law in their states.
In a sign that things may be changing, the U.S. House approved the PRO Act in March, which would protect the right of all U.S. workers to organize. It’s stalled in the Senate.
To truly emerge from the current gilded age and improve the lives of millions of unrepresented workers in this country, and to reward working Americans with the representation they want, then we must encourage our representatives in state and federal government to draft legislation that will protect workers’ right to form a union.
A huge gap remains between the number of workers who have union representation, around 10%, and those who want it, nearly 50%.
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