Bruce Maiman

We need unions – so why are they fading?

Published: Sunday, Sep. 2, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E

Why do we have such animosity toward labor unions when they have contributed so much to our shared prosperity and a robust middle class?

I mean, of course, private sector unions, not public ones, which are a very different animal with very different problems.

It's puzzling why so few Americans are represented by labor unions, particularly at a time when a shrinking middle class struggles to get, let alone keep, its share of the economic pie.

A century ago, less than 10 percent of American workers were unionized. America's wealthiest 10 percent was earning 40 percent of all national income, a figure that widened to nearly 50 percent in the 1920s. But in 1935, the New Deal era granted workers basic collective bargaining rights. Union membership grew to more than 35 percent of the workforce while the upper 10 percent's share of salaried income fell to less than 35 percent. The result after World War II was a 30-year period of unparalleled prosperity in the United States.

The last 30 years has seen a reversal. Wages stagnated and earned income imbalance returned to near 50 percent. Government figures show the median full-time salary in 1980 was $46,889, when adjusted for inflation. In 2010, it was $47,715. During that same period, income for the top 1 percent of earning households grew 275 percent.

Meanwhile, private sector union membership fell from 27 percent to below 7 percent, roughly where it was in 1928. Every scholar I spoke with blames dwindling union membership for a shrinking middle class.

"For generations, unions were the core institution advocating for more equitable wage distribution," University of Washington sociology professor Jake Rosenfeld says.

Studies repeatedly show that in fields where union rates were high, nonunion members enjoyed better wages and benefits. Treating workers well helped management avert the threat of union organizing. In a way, unions created their own form of trickle-down economics.

Why, then, are unions so unpopular?

Actually, they're not. According to Gallup polls, a majority of Americans today approves of unions. More than half of nonunion workers would support a union if given the opportunity, part of what scholars call a "representation gap" – the gap between the percentage of employees who desire union representation and those who actually have it.

"Our gap is double that of any other rich democracy," John Logan, a senior labor policy specialist and professor at UC Berkeley, tells me. "Survey evidence indicates there's a very substantial, unmet demand for unionization – 25 million conservatively and as high as 40 (million) to 50 million."

"If our unionization rate simply reflected the demand for unions among American workers," Rosenfeld adds, "membership would be closer to 50 percent, not seven."

Waning union membership has many causes. Outsourcing, certainly. "But," Rosenfeld notes, "unions declined in nearly every single private sector industry, not simply goods-producing ones. Telecommunications, trucking, other transportation, mining, construction – all these industries that are not 'outsource-able' still saw their unionization rate drop precipitously."

Some of that is attributable to technological advances, robotics and automation. When one machine can do the job of 30 bodies at a fraction of the cost, what industry can resist?

Powerless to halt unabated outsourcing, union membership seemed a pointless exercise. Why seek union representation when you can still lose your job?

Unions also became victims of their own success. After union leaders fought effectively for workers, government assumed custody of key union provisions. Work hours, overtime pay, workplace safety and dozens of other protections became mandated by state and federal law, enforced by government agencies instead of the unions.

But government also failed unions. Many scholars, like political science professor Ken Thomas at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, credit Ronald Reagan with accelerating labor's decline. As president in 1981, he fired 12,000 air traffic controllers after they went on strike.

Reagan's actions, Thomas says, "legitimized anti-union tactics once considered unacceptable." The message: "If it's appropriate for government to break the union, it's appropriate for employers to use the same tactics."

Layoffs of striking workers followed at Hormel, TWA and Continental Airlines. National Labor Relations Board appointees stopped protecting worker rights and yielded to political will. Fear of layoffs kept workers in line and some workers began voting to end their union representation. Unions weakened, lawmakers became less dependent on their support, political incentive to back pro-union legislation withered.

Unions didn't exactly help themselves either with past blunders, including:

• Fighting foreign encroachment instead of competing with it.

• Erecting barriers to firing incompetent workers, which earned well-deserved scorn and seething resentment, and gave employers powerful reasons to oppose unionizing.

• Replacing economic justice with identity politics, morphing labor's image from its tradition as a defender of worker rights to "just another special interest group."

Unions could help themselves by correcting these miscalculations. Other crucial and cooperative changes are needed, Logan says. Workers thrive in Germany and Sweden "because labor, management and government conjoined to invest in upgrading worker skill sets, making them more desirable. While they cost more to hire, they're cheaper in the long run than low-wage earners because they're more efficient, more productive, which generates higher profits."

Can such planning happen here without it being a bitter, protracted ideological battle? Scholars are doubtful. Who will pay for implementing a long-range investment in our employment infrastructure? Why should employers be incentivized to invest in the skills of their workers when they can easily outsource the work for less?

In the age of globalization, why does any company need an American to make its product?

Today, 146 million Americans – including an increasing number of working Americans – are below the poverty line or fall into a low-income category. The recession has done much of that. But if it is true that the fate of the middle class is tied to private sector unions and middle-class wages continue to shrink as these unions fade away, the American worker, who is a principal consumer, will be less able to participate in buying goods and services, which reduces demand, which retards production, which brings our economy to a standstill.

"This is why these problems are dealt with collectively in Europe," Logan says, "because they believe they will all benefit as a result."

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