Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Sept., 12, 13 or 14
If union memberships had stayed at a level comparable to 1979’s numbers, non-union workers in the private sector would have earned an annual average of 5 percent more (about $2,700 a year), according to a new study by the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute (EPI), “Union decline lowers wages of non-union workers.”
EPI shows the decline in union membership costs non-union workers together about $133 billion per year. That translates to the average non-unionized male worker without a college degree failing to earn an additional $3,016, EPI reports, and those with only a high school diploma or less sacrificing more: $3,172.
“In the debates over the causes of wage stagnation, the decline in union power has not received nearly as much attention as globalization, technological change, and the slowdown in Americans’ educational attainment,” write EPI’s Patrick Denice, Jennifer Laird and Jake Rosenfeld. “Unions, especially in industries and regions where they are strong, help boost the wages of all workers by establishing pay and benefit standards that many nonunion firms adopt. But this union boost to nonunion pay has weakened as the share of private-sector workers in a union has fallen from 1 in 3 in the 1950s to about 1 in 20 today.”
Unions, of course, improve working conditions and pay for members, but their efforts also affect all workers. Unions’ mere presence achieves this by employers competing with decent wages, hours and working conditions to discourage organizing by non-union employees; by politicking for overall workplace gains through legislation; and through larger social influences promoting a fair share for everyday workers.
“Something changed,” writes Richard Eskow of Campaign for America’s Future. “Popular culture in the 1980s glamorized greedy Wall Streeters and celebrated the Gilded Age excesses of a tiny but highly visible ultra-wealthy class. (Remember Gordon Gekko, and ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’?) Then tech entrepreneurs hijacked our national mythos with an Internet-fueled ideological fantasy: that anybody with a great idea could become a billionaire on the Web.
“Working people lost their place in the national pantheon,” Eskow adds. “How could the rights of ‘ordinary’ men and women compete with the jet-piloting or turtleneck-wearing star power of billionaire CEOs, those temperamental tyrants whose collective passage from nerdy losers to corporate predators had forged a new Hero’s Journey for our soul-sick age?”
However, politics at state and national levels changed dramatically. The Eisenhower-era Republican Party was far different that today’s GOP. Ike – whose first-term Secretary of Labor, Martin Patrick Durkin, was a plumber – publicly boasted of the growth of organized labor. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party and its “New Democrats” in the 1980s and ’90s moved closer to Wall Street and the technology boom, dismissing unions like a pumpkin in a punch bowl. Plus, a trend has been increasingly accepted as the New Normal: the so-called sharing economy, promoting “flexible” contingent jobs such as part-time teachers and Uber drivers.
But among unions’ rank and file, labor unrest in the United States last year was more frequent and widespread, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which noted that strikes involved about 47,000 workers. That was the first year since 2011 that saw the number of work stoppages increase, and the first year since 2012 to see the number of workers involved in industrial disputes rise.
That’s an early insight in the new book “Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt,” by Sarah Jaffe, who notes recent good news in progressive mass movements and grassroots actions including Occupy Wall Street, the sit-down strike and ultimate takeover of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago, the teachers’ strike there, and the nationwide OUR Walmart and Fight for 15 struggles.
One strength of such revivals of job actions and emerging movements is what’s called “intersectionality,” the circumstance where people experience various types of oppression such as job discrimination, racism and sexism) as “intertwined, overlapping experiences.”
Such actions often are “analyzed as if they had each happened in a vacuum,” Jaffe continues. “In fact, as I followed them through the years, I would find similar patterns and even direct connections between them.”
As always, organizing is key, Jaffe writes.
“The next challenge for the movements will be creating organizations that last, that suit the needs of 21st-century troublemakers, that can be flexible and still enduring, that can overlap and connect up with one another and create more long-term plans for the future they want to see,” she says.
[PICTURED: Photo from uaw.org.]