Unions’ Cultural Moment Must Be Turned Into Action
Worker momentum must become more union jobs to help America turn an important corner.
Unions are in the news. They’re fighting for change and sometimes winning. We may be witnessing the beginning of an important transformation away from an economy that favors the wealthy at the expense of the middle class, to one that rewards all people who provide good and honest work.
New York City construction unions, once again, provide us with an example of the way forward toward this egalitarian goal.
But first, let’s step into the time machine and return to the era when over 30% of working Americans belonged to a union. During this era, the income going to the nation’s upper 10% of earners and the lower 90% was pretty equal.
This was the golden age in which more Americans were able to purchase a home, send their kids to college, and establish secure retirement plans than ever before. Union membership in the USA peaked at 35% in 1979.
The idea that a successful business owner’s wealth was made possible only with the important help of labor was a commonly accepted principle. This principle guided the course of labor and the growth of America’s middle class for decades. One important indicator of the better balance of power from that era is the CEO-to-worker compensation ratio. In 1965 it was 21-1.
The balance between labor and the bosses happened because successful unions provide healthy pushback to management in important negotiations.
The idea that a successful business owner's wealth was made possible only with the important help of labor was a commonly accepted principle
But to the powerful, the equity between labor and management could not stand. Laws were established to tilt favor toward the bosses. Mud was slung that smeared labor unions with outlandish accusations. And now decades later less than 10% of Americans belong to a union.
And, no big surprise here, the top 10% of earners in America now hold 72% of the country’s total wealth, according to Forbes Magazine. CEO-to-worker compensation ratio is 344-1, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The cause-effect of fewer and weaker unions and out-of-balance income disparity cannot be denied.
It’s hard not to cry when you look at this chart.
National income balance between the top 10% and lower 90% was in hand when union membership was at its height. But decades of war against unions and the middle class has returned that disparity to frightening levels.
Fighting and Forming
But labor has never stopped fighting back and unions are having a moment right now. The awakening labor movement is developing along two discreet paths. In the first lane, more established unions have become willing to fight for hard-earned fairness, like safer working conditions, better pay, and more humane treatment. As a result we’re seeing more walk-outs, sit-ins and strikes. In the second lane, the increased visibility of the fight of unions is encouraging fledgling worker movements to organize. Bosses at large corporations now have their hands full trying to squash workers’ organizing efforts. They dust off the old union-busting playbook, with some success, but not always.
Labor Organizing and Union Drives
Kaiser Permanente: The health care organization reached a tentative deal with more than 75,000 of its health care workers, one week after a three-day walkout that disrupted appointments and services at many hospitals and clinics.
U.A.W.: The autoworkers’ union said that it had made progress in its negotiations with Ford Motor, General Motors and Stellantis, and would hold off on expanding the strikes against the companies.
Hollywood Actors: The union that represents tens of thousands of actors has resumed negotiations with the studios. The two sides announced the step after the leadership of the writers’ union
WGA – The Writer’s Guild of America voted to end its strike after they’d achieved most of their demands, from a pay increase to protection from AI.
Amazon – Workers at a few warehouse locations run by the world’s largest retailer, have voted to unionize to force change around several basic and humane issues. The retail giant is fighting to quell the worker fight.
Starbucks – Several of large locations of the international coffee-house brand have successfully voted to unionize and those branches are negotiating with management.
Allina Health - 400 primary and urgent-care providers across more than 50 clinics operated by the Allina Health System have just formed the largest group of unionized private-sector physicians in the United States.
For America, the stirring of labor is a promising development that is exemplified in a couple surprising facts. Today, more Americans approve of unions than at any time since that 1965 heyday: over 70%. And for the first time in decades, the CEO-to-worker compensation ratio went down a shade in 2022.
More to do to achieve a balance
But looking at New York City’s construction unions shows there is more to do.
New York’s construction unions provide a great product to our city and a respectful wage and work environment to their members. Despite this success, it’s still the wealthy who pick the winners and the losers in this business. Unions compete in an opaque bidding process with many unscrupulous non-union contractors who skirt legal and safety standards to make their bids lower. As a result, unions see much less work here than they should. Non-union construction labor accounts for about 70% of the city’s sizable construction workforce. Not good for New York.
No strike can settle this imbalance. We need a different kind of action. One that involves legislators and cultural influencers. From legislators, we need laws to level the playing field for unions. For example, create transparency in the construction bidding process. Allow the public to see the bid details that developers see when estimates are submitted for any project that will take public funds. Let those bids see the scrutiny of side-by-side comparison to union bids, to current laws, and to current safety standards.
From influencers, we need their help to inform our citizenry about the importance of worker representation. For example, when Robert DeNiro chooses to build his mega-studio in Astoria with non-union labor, we need voices with large followings to speak out and let people understand the harm this decision does to everyday New Yorkers.
We need more people in union jobs, because unions provide an important balance to management that makes America stronger. But even after workers successfully organize and win favorable standards in their negotiations with management, there is more to be done to ensure that the labor playing field remains balanced. Because the people holding onto the money are not letting go of any of it without a fight.
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