}

Friday, September 06, 2019

Unions make us strong

Monday of this week was Labor Day in the USA (New Zealand’s Labour Day is the end of October), and also the 125th anniversary of the first one. For years now, a common narrative has been about the decline of unions, and the Right has constantly added rhetoric about how awful they think unions are. In fact, things are better than they have been in some time, and they’re likely to get better.

The graphic above is by Gallup who recently reported, “As Labor Day Turns 125, Union Approval Near 50-Year High”. Gallup explains it this way:
Union approval averaged 68% between Gallup's initial measurement in 1936 and 1967, and consistently exceeded 60% during that time. Since 1967, approval has been 10 points lower on average, and has only occasionally surpassed 60%. The current 64% reading is one of the highest union approval ratings Gallup has recorded over the past 50 years, topped only in March 1999 (66%), August 1999 (65%) and August 2003 (65%) surveys.
That sounds like good news, but tGallup also reported:
Higher public support for unions in the past few years likely reflects the relatively good economic conditions in place, particularly low unemployment. By contrast, the lowest union approval ratings in Gallup history came from 2009 through 2012, years of high unemployment that followed the Great Recession. Gallup also observed relatively low union approval during the poor economic times in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Put another way, the one thing that will stand up for workers—unions—are shunned when the economy turns bad. That could plausibly mean that workers blame unions for higher unemployment, rather than the corporations cutting costs to maintain profit levels.

We see some evidence for that assumption in the data about union membership. Again according to Gallup, around 10% of the USA’s full and part-time workers belong to a union, which continues record low levels.

The largest share of unionised workers are in so-called “white collar” jobs, especially workers in all levels of government. While there’s little statistical difference in party identification (union members are slightly more Democratic than Republican), the biggest differences are in geographic region (workers in the South are least likely to be unionised), and income (workers earning over $100,000 per year are more likely to be union members).

In recent years, unions have been working to unionise low-paid workers, such as fast food workers, whose employment conditions and schedules leave them vulnerable to being disadvantaged or even exploited by their employers. That means that generally low-paid workers in industries like fast food, retail, and service jobs (including “gig economy” jobs like ride-share drivers) could be a real growth area for union membership, just as it was for similarly vulnerable workers in factories a century ago.

This post was inspired, in part, by a US Labor Day post by Roger Green, “Labor Day: unions; corporate greed”. Roger discussed the current state of work in the USA, and referred to a piece titled, “The Answer to Burn Out at Work Isn’t “Self-Care” — It’s Unionizing”, which included my current favourite observation about work in the Corporatist Era: “Eating a salad isn’t going to fix the systemic problems at your workplace.” Indeed. But unionising would help.

Labour unions have fallen on hard times, relative to their past, but the same economic forces that have made things so dire for ordinary working people in the USA may also help unions rise again. Sick of being exploited and constantly losing out, they tried voting for a political party actively working against them, and many of them put their trust in a presidential candidate they knew to be a con-man and fraud, all in a desperate hope that things might get better for them. They haven’t, and they won’t. To really change things will require doing things differently, and joining a union could be an important step in that direction.

Also, voting for the Democratic Party wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. Nothing they’ve tried so far has changed things. It’s time to try something different.

Related:

Robert Reich talks about “The 5 Biggest Corporate Lies About Unions”:

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