National Consumers League

Union membership hitting new low


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SG_HEADSHOT.jpgThe sad news that union membership has hit the lowest levels on record in the U.S. means a further depression of wages and benefits. According to a report by the U.S. Labor Department (DOL), only 10.7 percent of workers were union members last year, down from 11 percent in 2015, and nearly 20 percent in the early 1980’s.

This is unfortunate because union members earn better wages and benefits than non-union members. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), on average, union workers’ wages are 27 percent higher than their nonunion counterparts.  

Furthermore, unionized workers are 60 percent more likely to have employer-provided pensions. More than 79 percent of union workers have jobs that provide health insurance benefits, but less than half of nonunion workers do. Unions help employers create a more stable, productive workforce—where workers have a say. There is no question that unions help bring workers out of poverty and into the middle class. In fact, in states where workers don’t have union rights, workers’ incomes are lower.

So why is unionization at such a low point? Some argue that is because manufacturing jobs that were typically unionized have been shipped overseas; that is undoubtedly a factor, but even when there are blue collar jobs, employers fight like the devil to keep unions out and often win through fear and anti-union propaganda. 

The recent International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers' (IAM) efforts to unionize at Boeing in South Carolina is a case in point. In a vote last week, 74 percent chose not to unionize. Why? According to the Machinists, “North Charleston Boeing workers endured a multi-faceted anti-union campaign, which included captive-audience meetings and massive TV, radio and billboard ad buys."

“Boeing management spent a lot of money to make sure power and profits remained concentrated at the very top. The company’s anti-union conduct reached new lows,” said IAM lead organizer Mike Evans. “The IAM remains committed to getting Boeing South Carolina workers the respect, wages and consistency they deserve.”

South Carolina is one of the most hostile states for unionizing workers. Indeed, Boeing was lured there on promises that there would be no support for unions from Governor Nikki Haley and other officials, not to mention the state’s Right to Work (for less) laws.

But as the BLS numbers show, unionized workers make more money, get better benefits, and are able to rise into the middle class because of it. It’s unlikely that President Donald Trump’s political appointees will be of any help, despite his broad support from union members. Certainly his failed DOL Secretary nominee, Andrew Pudzer could not have been more antagonist toward workers—fighting minimum wages, making misogynist comments about women, and saying he favored robots because they didn’t bring discrimination complaints. Alexander Acosta, the new Labor Secretary nominee, doesn’t seem too friendly to unions either based on his record with the National Labor Relations Board but AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says to give him a chance. 

The huge profits companies like Boeing earn should be shared among those who do the day-to-day work. And workplaces with good labor management relations tend to thrive, as demonstrated by many European models. So the future doesn’t look terribly bright for maintaining even the current unionization numbers in the U.S. and workers pay every day for that in lower wages and opportunities.