The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, September 20, 2019

Enthusiasm for unions is solid, but attacks have hit pay levels, organizing

By The Building Tradesman

By Heidi Shierholz
Economic Policy Institute

A huge swath of U.S. workers do not have the union representation and voice at work that they want and need. The share of workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement dropped from 27.0 percent to 11.7 percent between 1979 and 2018, meaning the union coverage rate is now less than half where it was 40 years ago.

Not coincidentally, the share of income going to the top 10% has escalated in this period—these high earners now capture nearly half of all income.

Are today’s workers just less interested in being in a union than workers of prior decades? Not in the least. The share of workers who are either covered by a union contract or report they would vote for a union if a union election were held at their workplace was 50.8 percent in 1977 compared to 54.2 percent in 2017. (We use these years here, instead of 1979 and 2018, due to limited data availability). 

Given the decline in union membership during those same years, the share of workers who would vote for a union if a union election were held at their workplace is now more than four times as high as the actual share of workers who are covered by a union contract.

Why? Impeding union representation has been a primary goal of corporate interests in recent decades, and these interests have convinced conservative policymakers to attack collective bargaining through legislation, executive rulemaking, and the courts. Meanwhile, policymakers claiming to care about the economic struggles of typical Americans have too often turned a blind eye to these attacks. But if workers are not able to effectively organize into unions, broadly shared prosperity that extends to most working people has virtually no chance.

Collective bargaining benefits workers.

It’s no surprise that workers want unions. When workers are able to come together, form a union, and collectively bargain, their wages, benefits, and working conditions improve. On average, a worker covered by a union contract earns 13.2 percent more than a peer with similar education, occupation, and experience in a nonunionized workplace in the same sector.

Union workers are more likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance, and their employers tend to contribute more toward those plans. They are also more likely to have paid vacation and sick leave, more input into the number of hours they work, and more predictable schedules. Union employers are more likely to offer retirement plans and to contribute more toward those plans than comparable nonunion employers.

Unions also help shrink racial wage gaps. For example, black workers are more likely than white workers to be represented by a union, and black workers who are in unions get a larger boost to wages from being in a union than white workers do (i.e., the “union wage premium” is larger for black workers than for white workers). 

These two facts together mean that today’s unions help narrow the black–white wage gap - and research shows that this phenomenon isn’t new. Starting in the mid-1940s, black workers began to be more likely to be in unions and to have a larger union premium than white workers. This means that the decline of unionization has played a significant role in the expansion of the black–white wage gap.

Private employment in almost every state in the U.S. is “at will,” with employers free to dismiss any worker at any time, with no warning, for almost any reason (except for the few reasons specified by law, e.g., on account of race, religion, age, sex, national origin, pregnancy, or disability). Union contracts, on the other hand, provide workers due process protections. Unions also create safer workplaces; because union workers are protected by their unions from repercussions for reporting safety issues, they are more likely to report safety concerns, and this increased reporting can lead to a reduction in work hazards.

Furthermore, the benefits of collective bargaining extend beyond those employees who are represented by a union. Where unions are strong, they effectively set broader standards that nonunion employers must meet in order to attract and retain the workers they need and to avoid facing an organizing drive. The combination of the direct effect of unions on union members and this “spillover” effect to nonunion workers means unions are crucial in fostering a vibrant middle class and reducing income inequality.

The decline of collective bargaining is the direct result of employers’ anti-union activities.

The decline in collective bargaining in recent decades has distinctly not been a “natural” phenomenon, as the public commentators and policymakers who prioritize the interests of corporate executives and shareholders over those of working people would like you to believe. Quite the contrary. Fierce corporate opposition has suppressed workers’ freedom to form unions and bargain collectively. Intense and aggressive anti-union campaigns - once confined to the most anti-union employers - have become widespread; it is now typical, when workers seek to organize, for their employers to hire union avoidance consultants to orchestrate fierce anti-union campaigns.

And though the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) makes it illegal for employers to intimidate, coerce, or fire workers in retaliation for participating in union-organizing campaigns, the penalties are insufficient to provide a serious economic disincentive for such behavior (there are no punitive damages or criminal charges under the NLRA; penalties may consist of being required to post a notice or reinstate illegally fired workers). 

This means that many illegal tactics can be actively pursued; for example, employers often threaten to close the worksite, cut union activists’ hours or pay, or report workers to immigration enforcement authorities if employees unionize. More than one in seven union organizers and activists are illegally fired while trying to organize unions at their place of work.

In the face of these attacks on collective bargaining, policymakers have egregiously failed to update labor laws to rebalance the system. In fact, in many cases policy is moving backward; 27 states, including Michigan, have passed so-called right-to-work laws, which are intended to undermine union finances by making it illegal for unions to require nonunion members of a collective bargaining unit (who don’t pay union dues) to pay “fair share fees”—fees that cover only the basic costs of representing employees in the workplace. 

And the Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME—a case financed by a small group of foundations with ties to the largest and most powerful corporate lobbies—made “right-to-work” the law of the land for all public-sector unions.

Conclusion: We need to protect workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively. Efforts to erode worker power have paid off handsomely for the small sliver of people on the winning end of rising inequality.

(The Economic Policy Institute is a labor-backed policy center).