Friday January 18, 2013

We can thank labor unions for many advantages in this country. It is union members who secured the five-day workweek and the eight-hour workday. They brought about the end of sweatshops and child labor in the 20th century and introduced minimum wage, paid overtime and holidays. They helped inaugurate such benefits as Social Security and Medicare, and established job safety laws and civil rights protections. The power of collective bargaining has clearly seen glorious days in American history. Now, however, union membership and public support for unions is steadily declining. The power of unions to negotiate is dwindling, which can only have grave consequences, particularly for middle class Americans.

After World War II, writes Harold Meyerson of The Washington Post, over a third of the American workforce was unionized. In the peak years of unionization from 1947 through 1972, both productivity and median household income increased by 102 percent. As the numbers repeatedly show, unions can and have made an incredible difference for the American workforce. A 2012 report by Lawrence Mishel from the Economic Policy Institute says those workers covered by a collective bargaining contract earn 13.6 percent higher wages than their nonunion counterparts. Additionally, they are 28.2 percent more likely to be covered by employer-provided health insurance and 53.9 percent more likely to have employer-provided pensions. They also enjoy an average of three extra days of paid time off.

It isn't only the union members, however, that reap the benefits of collective bargaining. According to Princeton economist, Henry Farber, nonunion workers in an industry that is merely 20 percent unionized enjoy wages 7.5 percent higher due to the presence of unions. This is because employers in heavily unionized industries have to compete with union employers. They often meet union standards simply to avoid the emergence of a union in their own workplace. This is sometimes known as the "union threat effect," although it doesn't always have to be threatening. Many benefits, such as pensions and heath insurance, were first instituted by unions but soon became commonplace, applying to all workers, union members or not. Additionally, unions don't just bargain for higher wages or more paid overtime. Collective bargaining can accomplish a whole host of things that benefit all of us, from smaller class sizes in schools to better patient care in hospitals.

Today, only 13 percent of the workforce is unionized, a number decreased by half since the early 1970s. The Economic Policy Institute partially blames the erosion of unions on a harsher economic context due to trade pressures, the shift to services, and ongoing technological change. Other factors have been employers' militant stance against labor unions and the ease and convenience with which politicians belittle unions' service. There have also been changes in the application and administration of labor laws that weaken unions. Many states are attempting to curtail collective bargaining, especially states with Republican governors such as Wisconsin's Scott Walker. One motivation for this restriction of bargaining rights according to Meyerson is purely partisan: weakening labor weakens the Democratic vote, as unionized blue-collar whites vote Democratic at a 20 to 30 percent higher rate than their nonunionized counterparts. The decline in unionization doesn't just weaken the Democratic vote, but impacts workers and their families everywhere. There are several adverse consequences of unions' disappearance.

Ultimately, with the weakening of unions comes the strengthening of those at the top at the expense of those at the bottom. Unions no longer have the power to keep all corporate revenue from going directly to top executives and shareholders. Americans know that today's middle class is economically stagnant and downwardly mobile. They may not know, though, that according to Meyerson, in recent decades all the gains in productivity have gone not to the workers but to the wealthiest ten percent of Americans. In 1955 during the peak of the labor movement, the wealthiest 10 percent took home only 33 percent of the nation's income. In 2007, that number was 50 percent of the nation's income. The last decade has been a "lost decade" for wage growth. The decline in unions explains about three fourths of the expanded wage gap between white- and blue-collar men, but both men and women have seen an increase in wage inequality between high- and middle-wage workers. Average wages have dramatically fallen in some sectors. According to an article by the National Public Radio staff, unionized jobs in the auto industry once paid upwards of $28 an hour. Now, workers in both unionized and nonunionized plants are hired at about $13 to $15 an hour. Limiting workers' power to bargain for increased wages and benefits have also limited the "spillover effect" of nonunionized firms competing with union standards, so all workers experience the repercussions of union decline.

The bottom line is: if we want to stop the economic decline of the middle class, we can't do it without the bargaining power of organized labor. The demonization of unions must end. Unions are just people gathered together to improve their lives and the lives of others. In a CNN article on the benefits of unions, political contributor Donna Brazile cites one of the core tenets of unionism: "All work has dignity," she says. "All work deserves respect. And all the people who perform it deserve respect." Unions are just groups of people like you and me who believe in their right to that respect and are willing to fight for it. Times may be hard, but it would be a tragedy if unions gave up now. The workers of yore never did.

Aurora Phillips is a senior at Brattleboro Union High School. She will be attending Tufts University in the fall.