October 01, 2023

OPINION: Unions making a comeback

For half a century, membership in unions had been declining, falling out of favor with the public for various reasons. Analysts point to the recession of the 1970s as one cause, plus the emergence of Japan in two major industries: automobiles and steel. They also blame corporate greed and labor laws favoring employers passed in the 1950s.

Of course, automation, the digital explosion and outsourcing also played a big part in union decline. To top it off, when President Ronald Reagon fired 11,385 striking air traffic control workers in 1981, he strengthened management’s position, while making union workers out to be the villains.

From then on, strike breaking occurred frequently. Some employers actually encouraged their workers to strike so they could fire them and replace them with non-union workers. Union membership became very unpopular in America, considered even a detriment to labor. Strikes that had occurred by as many as 140 in 1981, declined to around 15 per year.

Union membership, which included nearly 40% of workers at its peak, fell to just 7% at the lowest point. Workers’ incomes also fell dramatically, income disparity between labor and management widened considerably, and the middle class began to disappear. When the U.S. was hit with the Great Recession in 2008, just before President Obama was inaugurated, banks and companies were on the verge of collapse. The federal government bailed out the banks, and against some opposition, Obama decided to bail out the failing car companies, as well. Auto workers made huge sacrifices in their own pay to help save the auto industry, setting them back for several years. Today, as the recovered car companies reap enormous profits, workers are on strike for better pay.

Fortunately, there is a union renaissance happening in America; a legitimate nationwide trend for unionization. Workers are reenergized to take action as the U.S. economy flourishes. They’re not blind to massive corporate profits and the enormous salaries paid to CEOs. Unions simply want an equitable share in salaries and benefits for their members.

In 2021 the average CEO salary was 324 times that of middle-class workers. Today, we are witnessing unions’ organizational efforts to even things out. A Gallup poll finds seven out of ten Americans now approve of labor unions, and most Americans think the decline in union membership was bad for the country. Seventy percent of non-union workers would support a union, if given the opportunity. The imbalance in compensation today is exactly what made workers in the past look to unions for protection.

Unions still need more numbers to advance their cause. Analysts say they need to use new, more innovative ways to organize -at the company level – not exclusively at the factory or workplace level. Understanding the needs of various cohorts of workers is vital, too. One group that supports unions and will make good members are the Gen Zs. This group is known for being less judgmental about their fellow workers’ values, ideology and gender.

It would strengthen unions if Congress passes the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a huge overhaul of U.S. labor laws. Democrats passed the bill when they controlled the House of Representatives. It would increase fines on employers for violations of labor law and ban state right-to-work laws. Unfortunately, the bill is stuck in the Senate because of the ridiculous 60-vote rule. Democrats need ten Republicans to help them pass it. President Biden will sign the PRO Act the minute it comes to his desk.

It was President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal that first granted workers basic collective bargaining rights in the 1930s, and Democrats have been pro-union ever since. Biden has supported unions his entire life and no one has been stronger in his commitment to them. He is the most pro-union president ever and a consistent, vocal proponent of a strong middle class. Biden understands how the whole nation prospers when the labor force is strong.

All the initiatives Biden has put in place: the Infrastructure Bill, the CHIPS Act, the American Rescue Plan, etc., result in economic growth and good jobs. All are exciting opportunities for labor. President Biden wants and needs a strong, dynamic labor force to carry out his plans for America, and he believes labor is at its strongest when organized into unions.