Monday marks the 130th celebration of Labor Day Monday in the U.S. For many millennials, Labor Day simply means a day off from work. However, Labor Day is also an important time to reflect on the social and economic achievements of American workers, and think about what we can do to support a strong working class. There are many reasons why every millennial, whether you work in an industry with a union presence or not, should care deeply about the future of unions in America. Here are three of the most important ones:
- Unions promote fairness in the workplace, giving workers (that includes you) a stronger voice on the job.
- Unions promote economic prosperity.
- Unions encourage participation in the workplace community and the community at large.
1. Unions promote fairness in the workplace
Without union representation, the on-the-job life of many employees is subject to the whims of the boss. Most individual workers simply lack the leverage to demand a voice in how things are decided in the workplace. I’ve personally represented unions in hundreds of cases where the union has helped employees ward off unfair discharge (for example, for taking care of a sick child, for having one “fender bender” on the job, or for being falsely accused of theft or discourteous treatment of a customer); hang on to holiday and vacation pay they’ve rightfully earned; avoid unfair layoff; and escape job loss because the employer wants to outsource the work to a cheaper contractor. Union representation hardly guarantees worker demands will be met, but it increases the odds dramatically.
A fairer workplace goes a long way towards increasing the overall life satisfaction of workers. A 2005 study shows that self-reported life satisfaction rises with union density, and that union members have higher life satisfaction than nonmembers (Patrick Flavin, et al., Labor Unions and Life Satisfaction: Evidence from New Data). Unions improve the lives of the American workforce.
2. Unions promote economic prosperity
Unions boost employee wages and promote a healthy economy for everyone. Improved wages are of course good for the worker who receives the raise, but they are also good for the community as a whole. Our economy is consumer-driven, and when the broad-based consumer society cuts back on consumption, our whole economy suffers.
There is no disputing the fact that the gap in wealth and income between those at the top and those who are not is greater than at any time since the 1920s, or that over the last three decades the wages and salaries for those in the bottom 90% have grown about 15%, while those in the top 1% have seen an increase of almost 150% and those in the top 0.1% of more than 300% (Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality).
Unions and their ability – even if limited – to increase income for the 99% can help address the growing income gap in America, and create a stronger economy for all of us.
Increased economic equality also helps give every American a voice in the political process. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis remarked, “We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
3. Unions promote democracy
Unions encourage and facilitate a sense of workplace community among employees, and in doing so, unions foster worker participation in the community at large. Unions and their members get involved in politics at the local, state and national level. Unions increase the likelihood that workers will register and vote, and increase workers’ involvement in democratic politics.
Union activism is crucial to achieving goals that are good not just for “labor,” but for everyone. You all have seen the bumper sticker that says, “Labor Unions – The folks who brought you the weekend.” Yes, unions did play a pivotal role in the creation of the five-day work week. They were also instrumental in the passage of many other laws that have made our lives more humane, including child labor laws, workplace safety laws, the eight-hour workday, and civil rights and family and medical leave legislation.
What’s happened to unions?
In 1955, 33.2% of the private workforce was unionized. In 2012, only 6.6% of all workers in the private workforce were union members. What happened?
Many factors have contributed to the labor movement’s decline, including the gale force winds of globalization, but employers’ increasing willingness to exploit the weaknesses of American labor laws have also been a huge factor.
Workers are fired every day for union activities, and nonunion workers know it. In one survey, 43% of workers in a sample believed they would be fired if they joined a union (David Brody, Labor Embattled).
Employers have little to fear if they are found guilty of violating labor law. One sample suggests that the average penalty an employer faces for illegally firing an employee because of union activities is only $2,700.
American unions have also been weakened in recent decades because the power of labor’s main economic weapon, the strike, has been decimated by employers’ use of “permanent replacements.”
Permanently “replaced” strikers are technically not fired; they are put out of work until an opening becomes available at some point in the future. For a worker, this sounds an awful lot like being fired.
Employers used to shy away from “permanent replacement.” Then in 1981 President Reagan fired over 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, and in one stroke emboldened private employers to use their “permanent replacement” weapon in response to almost every strike. Since then the frequency of strikes in the U.S. has plummeted.
A weak labor movement has gone hand in glove with a decline in good jobs for American workers. Over the last decade or so, more and more jobs are in the low-wage service industry. Good paying jobs that support a middle class that can afford a good education for its children are becoming harder and harder to come by. Many low-paying jobs that used to be entry level or seasonal jobs reserved for those just starting out in the job market are now being counted on to support families. We seem to be heading toward a future in which people will no longer be able to work their way out of poverty. A strong labor movement is not a panacea for these ills, but it’s certainly one of the medicines in the cabinet.
What you can do to help
The silver lining in all this is that millennials actually do care about the future of unions in America. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, fully 61% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 view labor unions favorably. That’s 10 points higher than the national average.
Is there an opportunity here for organizing among younger workers? Yes, but only if they will take up the cause. Huge changes need to be made in our culture and our politics, changes that cannot happen overnight.
In the meantime, those who care about the labor movement in the U.S. need to spread the word that “union” is not a dirty word, and that politicians and employers who trash unions don’t speak for the majority of us. Think twice about what it means to buy the cheapest product available. Employers justify harsh working conditions by claiming you, the “consumer,” demand low prices, which require cheap labor. Don’t ever cross a picket line, and, even when a labor dispute causes you an inconvenience, consider what the dispute means to the workers involved.