Labor unions, credited with helping workers achieve fair wages, benefits and good working conditions, as well as the creation of a mass middle class in America in the second half of the 20th century, has fallen from favor as the calendar has turned the page to the 21st century.
Once the savior of the working man (and woman), today membership in labor unions has fallen to just 9.4 percent of the workforce in Rust Belt states like Michigan – a far cry from the 30 percent and more of the total workforce they boasted as recently as 1983.
In the 30 years or so since a third of the labor force belonged to a union, numerous factors have played into reduced membership numbers. Globalization has moved jobs not only to other regions of the United States, but around the world. Technological progress has often meant that more skilled workers are needed to do a job, or that different, more highly-trained skills are needed by an increasingly diverse worker pool. A new economy,
based on the Internet, referred to as the “Google economy”, which is a knowledge-based economy, has arisen in the 21st century, and those workers do not seek the broad protective shoulders of a union. Further, in the last decade, the economic crisis now referred to as the Great Recession hammered more nails into the coffin of the unions, beleaguered by legacy costs and retirees with heavy pensions and benefits. Where once union membership dominated in the private sector, today most union members are public sector workers, employed as municipal workers, government employees, teachers, and police and firefighters.
Y et, union leaders and activists assert that their eulogies are being written prematurely. While some industries, such as manufacturing in traditional fields like automotive have been permanently altered, with membership numbers skewed lower than previously seen in decades past, those in union leadership see new avenues for unionization in the private sector: for low skilled fast food workers, the continuation to organize health care workers as that sector mushrooms in growth, along with their efforts to stay relevant and influential in the political sphere.
The American labor union movement first began in the 19th century, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Textile mills, hiring large amounts of young women and children, were the first factories built in the United States. As the need grew for more and more textiles, factory owners and managers hired primarily unskilled women and children, often immigrants, because they were cheaper or even “free workers.” With no laws regarding hours, wages or working conditions, these factories became crowded, filthy sweatshops where workers were paid by the number or pieces they completed.
After several horrific fires swept factories in Massachusetts and other eastern states with numerous casualties, labor unions developed to give workers a voice in their working place, helping to set up laws and rules with penalties for owners.
Union membership remained low post-World War I, and transitory in most industries until the mid-20th century, as labor unions benefitted from New Deal policy decisions of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration in the 1930s, which coincided with the growth and modernization of the automotive industry. The Wagner Act, also known as the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, remains the foundational statute for U.S labor law, guaranteeing the basic rights of private sector workers to organize into trade unions, engage in collective bargaining for better terms and conditions at work, and take collective action, including to strike if they find it necessary. The act also created the National Labor Relations Board, which conducts elections that can require employers to engage in collective bargaining with labor unions.
Unions allege corporations and management began to chip away at the NLRA from the beginning, with a judgement by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1940 upholding the First Amendment and freedom of speech by management to challenge union supremacy, and culminated in the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, restricting the activities and power of labor unions.
Organized labor membership peaked nationwide in 1954, with almost 35 percent of the population belonging to a union, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the total number of union members reached its height in 1979, with an estimated 21 million members. As Daniel Disalvo stated in National Affairs in the article “The Trouble with Public Sector Unions” in Fall 2010, “In today’s public sector, good pay, generous benefits, and good security make possible a stable middle class existence for nearly everyone from janitors to jailers.”
Membership began to decline in the 1980s due to several factors, including the incursion of imported automobiles from Japan and Germany, globalization of industry around the world, and technological advances. With these changes have come a decline in wages and benefits.
“From the end of World War II to 1980 was the golden era of capitalism,” said Frank Joyce, former United Auto Workers communications director. “That’s when unions were growing, the economy was growing, benefits were growing. The economy was better distributed much more equitably than they are now. Today, the recent trends point to inequality and stagnation. For the middle class, it’s pretty widely understood that there’s more inequality, greater stagnation, and greater wage inequality, and a lot of that is because of union busting.”
“In a big picture sense, the decline in unions fits into the decline of the American economy at the moment,” noted Lou Glazer, president of Michigan First, a think tank. “Because of globalization and technological changes, industry needs less people, and there are more people competing for the jobs there are, which depresses wages. Politics increasingly is tilting towards the employers and away from the employees. Two factors are playing out, by not having minimum wage keep up with inflation, and the political climate is weakening unions through right to work. The net effect for jobs that produced the mass middle class is there is no longer enough, and the ones that are there are not high paying jobs. While labor unions have nothing to do with the number of low skilled jobs, they do have a responsibility for the pay, and weakened unions have seen pay and benefits go down.”
G lazer said politics have weakened unions, and that climate has been very effective. “That was the purpose of the politics – so they did what it meant to do.”
“Unions are able to elevate wages for working people, but on the other hand, it made the state (of Michigan) unable to retain companies. That’s the two sides of the argument. We’ve seen stagnating wage levels while employment numbers have been increasing,” John Mogk, law professor specializing in urban law and policy at Wayne State University’s law school, pointed out. “Labor has a role in elevating income levels so more individuals who are employed can earn a living wage,” which, he pointed out, forced many companies to leave the state because they could not afford to pay the wages.
T he political Pandora’s Box was borne out in what is referred to by Gov. Rick Snyder as the Lost Decade in Michigan, from approximately 2001 to 2011, when he changed the Michigan Business Tax during the Great Recession. In 2012, the Michigan legislature passed, and Snyder signed into law, Right to Work legislation, making Michigan a state that cannot mandate union membership, and the game was forever altered.
“Right to Work states tend to be low wage states,” Glazer said. “Michigan increasingly, especially for low skilled jobs, was, and is, a low wage state, before and since Right to Work. It began before the Great Recession, but it has occurred primarily in the last decade. Wages are falling all throughout the economy, with benefits going down, but most significantly in low education attainment jobs.”
“Right to Work is designed to make the already difficult lives of employees more difficult,” said Joyce. “It poses a challenge to unions to be clearer and more focused on the importance of membership. The intent and goal of Right to Work is to drive down membership. It’s too soon to tell what the impact is. It’s up to how the UAW and other unions respond to it. It’s hard – but it’s not impossible. Unions have always had an uphill battle. Otherwise there wouldn’t have been the Flint sit-down battle (with General Motors in 1936-1937), or overcoming difficult bargaining (over the years). It just depends on specific issues at specific times.”
Besides Right to Work, Glazer said politics itself have made it more difficult for unions, “and some of it is just the structure of the economy itself. We have a more knowledge-based economy. A lot of new jobs being created, like with Quicken and Google, it’s a new economy, a new knowledge-based economy. Those workers have never been in a union, and never will be. It’s those in lower skilled jobs who historically were powerful, and no longer are.”
Union leadership is not sitting still, resting on its laurels, looking back on old photos of worker strikes and remembering the good ol’ days. Unions are self-perpetuating entities which need members in order to exist and thrive. With traditional industrial factories requiring less union workers, and public sector employees seeing reduced benefits due to a recognition on the part of governments, both large and small, and boards of education regarding unfunded liabilities for retirees, unions are looking for new workers to unionize. Today, casino workers are unionized, as are engineers, many health care workers, and there is a concerted effort to mobilize and unionize fast food workers.
“What most unions have done today is they are being very careful about incurring the costs of going through the traditional NLRB process, such as in Chattanooga (Tennessee), where, in an amazingly historical case you had a company that said, ‘we’re fine with unions, they fit our business model’, but interestingly the threats (to unionization) came from the political community, not from the corporation,” said Roland Zulio, research scientist at the University of Michigan Institute for Labor, Employment and the Economy.
T he United Auto Workers sought to unionized a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga; on September 9, 2014, German union IG Metall and the Volkswagen Global Group Works Consigned a letter of intent with the UAW to organize workers at that plant as a UAW-represented facility, after workers in the plant voted 712 to 626 in February to reject UAW representation. It was considered a significant setback to the UAW.
“Everybody gets it now that we’re in a different economy. We’re facing far different obstacles. It’s very challenging,” said Joyce. “A union is an asset that can enhance my potential for success – that is a mindset, a conscious decision. Or you can see it as a liability, as a cost, something I want to get rid of. Management made a choice.”
“The threat of denying money to Volkswagen if it went union, in stark terms, from the political community, is the opposition unions face. It’s public aggression,” Zulio said. “That model is just not productive. It’s very easy for an employer to take a few steps to discourage organizing. Arguably, the law was set up to encourage organizing, but the law has been set on its head.”
Zulio said the labor movement is really an amorphous entity which grows in different ways to respond to the times. “One of the ways it has responded (to changes) is by connecting with people who don’t belong to a union but are sympathetic to them, who believe in strong public services, gainful employment, fair wages and universal health care. It’s incredibly hard for a union to negotiate for a better wage if the rest of a community is impoverished, because there’s always someone else waiting for that job. In today’s economic environment, holding onto a halfway decent job is paramount. There’s the fear someone else will take your job.”
“It’s a vicious cycle. The more that lose economic leverage, the more they lose political power, and then they lose economic power, and that’s the situation we find ourselves in now,” Joyce said. “It’s the reality of the world we’re in now. Employers have all of the power and employees have none. Some believe nothing lasts forever. Unions are now organizing fast food workers, asking for $15 an hour. It parallels the early days of union organizing, with similarities to the automobile industry and other machinery, when durable goods were emerging. Fast food is an important part of the economy. The question is, how do we find economic talking point to improve workers’ lives?”
Joyce said the $15 an hour fast food wage “helps the overall economy because if you make more money, you can spend more money. What’s wrong with making enough money for people to live? We’ve got the question wrong. It’s helpful to get those questions. That’s the role of union, and what they get right.”
Zulio said the Fight for 15, which is the term for the movement to unionized fast food workers and get them a $15 an hour wage, is being underwritten by SEIU, Service Employees International Union, which also represents restaurant, hotel, and building service workers, with about 2 million workers nationally.
Twenty years ago, Zulio said, no one thought of fast food as an industry that needed to be unionized, as it was largely populated with youthful workers in their first jobs, and transitory workers. “For some folks, today, it’s no longer a transitional job. Fast food jobs are now jobs people have to live on,” he pointed out. “Will they form unions? They having a lot of difficulty getting to that step. But it is becoming an international movement, and part of unions figuring it out, taking it to the next level, is trying to raise that base. It’s part of what unions have always been about. And part of the unique environment of the United States has been allowing unions to rise, working to rectify workplace injustice.
“Labor is trying to use other types of tactics to gain a voice,” he said. “That’s what the system does. It seeks power either through bargaining or through politics. And unions have always had political involvement. One way for a worker to get his voice heard is to sit down with management for ongoing relationships. When workers have a voice, but then if it’s closed off and they make it impossible for workers to have a voice, they turn to politics.”
Zulio pointed out that union efforts at organizing retail workers at mass merchandisers, such as Walmart, has not proven to be effective because it has been too costly for union organizers, and “Walmart is well-known for having a well-oiled machine as a strategy. It’s not a negative one against unions. Sometimes the most effective approach is a positive one, but emphasizing the positive of the company, the loyalty of the worker,” he said. “They refer to workers as Walmart ‘associates.’ They use employees in ads, and they’re called ‘models.’ These small displays of affection and flattery – there are some workers who really believe it’s fine even though they’re paid very low wages.”
oving forward, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the labor force is projected to grow .5 percent per year between 2012 and 2022, with occupations and industries related to healthcare projected to add the most new jobs. Occupations that typically require post-secondary education will grow faster than occupations that need just a high school diploma or less.
In those years, with baby boomers aging, workers 55 and older will make up one-quarter of the work force by 2022, and both men and women are expected to slow labor force growth, which will decline from 63.7 percent in 2012, to 61.6 percent in 2022. Because of the aging of the workforce, different services and goods will be needed, with 10.8 percent of the employment growth projected to be in service-providing industries. According to the bureau, the health care and social assistance sector is projected to grow at an annual rate of 2.6 percent, adding 5 million jobs by 2022, or one-third of the total projected increase in jobs. Employment in construction is projected to grow 2.6 percent annually, equalling 1.6 million new jobs over the decade.
As for education and training, the bureau projects that 19 of the 30 occupations projected to grow fastest between 2012 and 2022 will require some form of post-secondary education (college or career training) in order to enter the job force. These jobs will also see higher median wages, at $57,770 in 2012, and are projected to grow faster, at 14 percent in the decade, than occupations that typically require just a high school diploma or less, where starting median salaries are $27,670, with a 9.1 percent growth rate for the decade.
These projections do not portend well for union members or organizers, whose private sector members tend to have non-secondary education levels. The UAW notes the gaming industry is relatively new to Detroit, after the three casinos opened downtown facilities in 1999 and 2000. “More than 6,000 workers there, however, are standing by a tried-and-true principle: If you want decent wages, good benefits, and a fair workplace, you need to have a union contract,” the UAW website says. “Workers at all three casinos – MGM Grand, Motor City, and Greektown – became union members shortly after the facilities began operating, when a majority at each workplace signed union cards. Dealers, cage clerks, slot technicians, pit clerks and other workers at the casinos are UAW members.”
“The UAW is one of four unions to join together as part of the Detroit Casino Council, a coalition that represents union workers at the three casinos,” said Neil Anderson, a dealer at Greektown Casino who was a member of the bargaining committee.
Health care workers choosing representation are part of the Service Employees International Union, which was launched in 2007 to represent doctors, nurses, lab technicians, home care and nursing home workers, environmental service workers, and dietary aides. Nationwide, they have 1.1 million members, including 470,000 in Michigan.
Joyce believes the UAW, and unions as a whole, will prevail, because union membership is not now, nor has it ever been, strictly blue collar. He is a member of the United Writers Union, a UAW local, as a freelance writer.
“One of the things that is not widely known is that the UAW is not just an industrial union. It has a long tradition of representing white collar workers as far back as the 1940s, when it came to representing engineers at Chrysler, and the UAW created the Technical Office of Professionals (TOP),”he said. “There’s quite a spectrum of who belongs to the ranks, and there has been for a long time. Most of the employees in the state of Michigan belong to the UAW, including all of the government workers. There’s the casino dealers. There are engineers. There is the National Writers Union. Agriculture. The UAW has, and continues to help and elevate a lot of women to leadership, such as Cindy Estrada, who came out of Local 6000, and is currently the first woman to ever head a Big Three bargaining department (for General Motors).”