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Stephanie Luce: Union members earn on average 27% more, yet union density drops; Obama takes labor law reform off his agenda

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics last week reported on the numbers of workers in unions. Let’s just back up a step first. In 1955, 35 percent of workers were in unions. Most of those were private-sector workers. Well, last week’s report says that private-sector workers were down as low as 6.6 percent. Thirty-five percent of public-sector workers are unionized, for an overall rate of 11.3. One more time: 1955, overall rate of unionization 35 percent; last week, 11.3 percent.

Now, in that same week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average on the stock market broke 14,000 for the first time in five years—the market’s at a historic high.

Now joining us to talk about all of this is Stephanie Luce. She’s an associate professor of labor studies at the Murphy Institute School for Professional Studies at the City University of New York. She’s the author of Fighting for a Living Wage and coauthor, The Living Wage: Building a Fair Economy and The Measure of Fairness. She joins us from New York. In fact, she’s in Brooklyn.

Thanks for joining us, Stephanie.


JAY: So let’s focus on the main number here, which is from 35 percent in ’55 down to 11 and change now. That’s a rather drastic decrease. Why do you think this is happening?

LUCE: Well, I think, you know, this steady decrease has been going on for several decades. And for a while, the number of workers in unions was going up as an absolute number, but the density was falling. And now density is falling as well. And I think really you can kind of divide this into different categories of explanations.

One of the explanations is that unions themselves are to blame. They were slow to recognize a changing global economy. They were resistant to immigrant workers belonging to unions. They were not innovative in their organizing strategies and not aggressive about corporate globalization.

But on the other hand, there’s a lot of external forces, too, which is that employers have really been on the offensive against unions in the last 30 years and have in fact changed laws, changed regulations, and even broke—you know, they’ve—breaking laws as a way to fight unions and keep unions out of the workplace. So we see weak labor law, weakly enforced labor law, but also changing global rules and regulations around workers’ rights.

JAY: Well, let’s start with some of the internal factors first, and then we’ll go to external. I mean, it seems to me one of the internal factors is that the leaders of many of the major unions get paid very, very well. I mean, some of them are in the $200,000, $300,000 mark, plus they get all this expense accounts. You can often run into, you know, leaders of major unions eating steaks, you know, $40, $50 steaks and such for lunch. And I’ve seen it. This isn’t just some stereotype. And, frankly, it’s, you know, their argument as well: people that run businesses, you know, live this way; why shouldn’t the leaders of workers live like this? But that’s exactly the point is they started living and thinking like people that run businesses.

LUCE: Right. Yeah. There’s no doubt that we’ve had bureaucratization and some corruption and a greater hierarchy within the labor movement. That certainly is a problem. There are a lot of unions that are not really democratically run. They don’t really involve their members. You know. And I think that for some people to say, well, that should suggest that we don’t need unions or unions are outdated, I often say, well, that’s also true in Congress. We see a lot of members of Congress, you know, engaging in corruption and not so democratic. But we’re not necessarily calling to abolish Congress, right? We’re calling for reform and revitalizing to make it more democratic and more engaging. And I think the same is true of unions, which is that, you know, unions’ leaders have had faults, but I’m not ready to give up on them as institutions. I think they still represent one of the only chances that workers have for a democratic voice in the workplace.

JAY: Well, one of the numbers in a recent blog you wrote I think is important, which is, the average union member earns 27 percent more than the average nonunion member. So, I mean, I think that shows that, you know, whatever the weaknesses of our unions are, they’re still rather—it’s a hell of a lot better being in one than not being in one.

But in some ways has that not also been part of the problem, which is, for, you know, post World War II there was a kind of a gravy train, especially for the upper tier of workers, like autoworkers and workers in transportation and critical sectors of the economy, where they got very significant wage gains—it wasn’t just the union leaders; many of the workers were doing very well. It wasn’t unusual to, you know, have a couple of cars and know you could afford university and all the rest. But they didn’t give a damn about all the unorganized workers and some of the other sectors of the economy. They kind of were just looking after their own people. And then one day they look around and they find out, oh-oh, we’re next.

LUCE: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think on the first part is that, yes, unions led to, you know, workers getting a decent income and having some stability, maybe buy a home and send their kids to college. I don’t know that we want to—I don’t know that I would critique that as too high, because I think workers were getting a share of what they were producing.

But on the second point, you’re right: they should have been aggressively trying to organize more workers, getting nonunion workers into unions, keeping ahead of what’s going on in the economy in terms of changing industries and sectors. And I think not enough of them did that. I wouldn’t say no one was doing that, but certainly not enough. And they for the most part, you know, got lazy and behind the trend and didn’t keep up with where the economy was going.

JAY: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s important. There are some unions that are actively organizing and a few unions that are quite militant about their own members and reaching out to others. But I would say the majority have not been—although now that they’re being targeted, I mean, maybe you could see a kind of turning point with Reagan and the air traffic controllers. Since that point, sort of the guns have been pointed at some of these stronger American unions.

Again, before we get to external factors, let’s talk a little bit about the politics of this. I mean, part of the issue is, when there’s been Democratic Party governments, either at state levels and nationally, the unions don’t seem to have used the clout they used to have to get legislation that might have made it easier to organize unions. And now that they’re so weak, they don’t have much clout.

LUCE: Yeah. And, in fact, even going back to when they were stronger, in the 1970s, we had, you know, Jimmy Carter in office, and we—the Democrats controlled everything, and yet unions were not able to win major labor law reform. So I think that the Democrats have really not been the friend of labor that unions might think that they are. It’s not that union leaders are all stupid, but they also realize that they don’t have a real exit strategy in this political system, so they’ve aligned themselves with the Democrats, and for the most part that’s been a losing strategy.

I think that it didn’t work so well even in the ’70s when they were strong, and today, as you just said, it certainly is not a way to win any major reform. I think that unions have to seriously rethink their allegiance to the Democratic Party. If it’s not realistic to start their own party, they could at least think about withholding their contributions in terms of money and time that they give to electing Democrats over and over again who turn around and sometimes stab them in the back.

JAY: This number stands out for me, that unionized workers make 27 percent more than nonunionized workers. Why isn’t that fact better known? Like, instead of spending all these millions of dollars of union money promoting the Democratic Party, why don’t they spend millions of dollars promoting the fact that unionized workers make more than nonunionized workers? ‘Cause I don’t think most nonunionized workers know that.

LUCE: Well, I think, you know, it’s not just wages. They’re actually much more likely than nonunion workers to receive health insurance, pension, paid days off, and job security. And a union contract is one of the only ways that workers have to gain any kind of job security in our employment-at-will system.

I think there’s a little bit of a double-edged sword there, which is, sometimes by promoting that union workers do better, they’re afraid that they make themselves more of a target from employers. Like, if they highlight how much, you know, they provide to workers, then does that in fact make unions a greater target? I think that’s a mistake, because they already are a target. Employers certainly know this themselves. You know.

And another interesting point, though, that I want to highlight is it’s not just that—union members make more money than nonunion members, but a lot of research suggests that by having greater union density actually brings up the economy as a whole. So it’s good for even nonunion workers when there’s greater union density. Some research by Bruce Western at Princeton, he estimates that about 20 to 33 percent of the growth in inequality in this country is because of the falling union density, and he says that what unions did is create a general sense, a norm of equity, a general sense of wage fairness. And what unions do is also reduced inequality between workers. They actually reduced discrimination, for example, between male and female workers or between white and black workers. So there are lots of positive benefits of unions that help not just workers but the economy as a whole.

JAY: There’s quite a deep-seated feeling, though, amongst unorganized workers that organized, unionized workers, higher-paid unionized workers, is pushing work outside the country, and they blame the unionized workers.

It’s interesting. We covered a strike in Sudbury, Canada, which—the dynamic here is similar, although unionization rates in Canada are still somewhat higher than in the United States. But this is essentially a one-industry town, a nickel mining town. The nickel miners spend all their money in the town. It’s because they’ve been highly paid that the town does relatively well. They go on strike. And I think—you know, I can’t give a scientific take on this, but a majority of ordinary people in the town we talked to were actually blaming the workers for wanting to be highly paid even though they’re the spending money in the town, because the company’s threatening to go get the nickel somewhere else in the world—which is kind of funny, ’cause obviously, you know, they wanted that nickel.

But this division between organized and unorganized workers, I don’t see the unions actively fighting it, ’cause even in Sudbury the union wasn’t doing that much public relations work to make people understand why that’s good for the town.

LUCE: Well, I do think some unions are trying. Some unions are active in things like living-wage campaigns and labor-community coalitions to help, you know, low-end workers. But I think, you know, you’re right that they need to do a better job of explaining what’s going on.

I mean, what’s interesting is a lot of the drop in unionization in the last year was not because—you know, some of it’s jobs moving overseas, but a lot of it is in the public sector. These are not jobs that are moving overseas. This is just, you know, governors attacking workers’ rights to form unions.

Another huge drop in unionization over the last several decades was in construction. Again, these are not because the employer’s moving those jobs to China. These are the same jobs, they’re staying here in the United States, but they’re being converted to nonunion jobs.

So I think you’re right. We need a better story and understanding of what’s going on in the economy, and that it’s not just an inevitable result of globalization that, you know, unions are going to die off.

JAY: Yeah. The one words or letters that we have not heard from President Obama during the last presidential election—we haven’t heard anything now that he’s been inaugurated—was EFCA, the Employee Free Choice Act. This was supposed to be the grand bargain, if you want, with the unions, that President Obama’s going to reform labor legislation. And not a whisper of it now.

LUCE: Right. Right. And I’m not surprised, because I didn’t ever believe that Obama was just going to come in and sign this sweeping labor law reform that, as I said, Jimmy Carter and the Democrats didn’t do in the 1970s. I don’t think we’re going to see any kind of widescale reform like that without massive social protest. I think the unions were grossly mistaken to think they were going to get something in through backdoor channeling, lobbying, or whatever it might be instead of having, you know, massive sit-downs or, you know, people marching in the streets or other forms of social protest. And I feel Obama himself even kind of made that comment when he was first elected. But the unions really didn’t pursue that avenue.

JAY: Right. Well, thanks for joining us, Stephanie.

LUCE: Thank you so much.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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