(part 4 of 4)
Did organized labor (unions) play an important role in the past economic successes of the United States of America?
Do labor unions have a significant role now and can they be an important part of what is needed in the future?
You’ve probably already answered these questions with a resounding “no!” if you are someone who believes that the forces of a supply-side, free market economy, combined with trusting in the reinvestment and expansion promises of a trickle-down approach to wealth distribution, are the only things needed to produce a robust capitalism and economy. However, if you’re not part of the ownership or management class in America, these questions might have you wondering where to place your hopes in today’s economy.
Whether you have ever belonged to an organized labor union or not, you, as a worker, may owe a debt of gratitude to labor unions. Rhode Island Public Radio political analyst, Scott MacKay, sums up the labor movement’s historical importance quite well in his recent Labor Day article, Unions and the Future of America’s Middle Class:
“Organized labor was crucial in the battle to end child labor in Rhode Island and to establish the 40-hour week. If you enjoy your weekends off, well, thank the unions. Labor unions were at the forefront of the civil rights revolution and other movements to give ordinary people dignity, health care and the full rights of citizenship.”
The same could be said for every state in the union. Let’s not forget the important role the labor movement has played in forcing government regulations and safety standards to protect workers and improve work site safety. For these reasons and more all of us who consider ourselves part of the American workforce owe labor unions a tremendous amount of thanks!
Journalist, Harold Meyerson, writing for the Washington Post tells us that “from 1947 through 1972 - the peak years of unionization — productivity increased by 102 percent, and median household income also increased by 102 percent. Thereafter, as the rate of unionization relentlessly fell, a gap opened between the economic benefits flowing from a more productive economy and the incomes of ordinary Americans, so much so that in recent decades, all the gains in productivity — as economists Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon have shown — have gone to the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans. When labor was at its numerical apogee in 1955, the wealthiest 10 percent claimed just 33 percent of the nation’s income. By 2007, with the labor movement greatly diminished, the wealthiest 10 percent claimed 50 percent of the nation’s income.”
What about now, since the great recession hit in 2008? It seems that the trends are continuing: “In 2011, American CEOs saw their pay spike 15 percent… after a 28 percent pay rise the year before, according to a report by GMI Ratings cited by The Guardian. Meanwhile, workers saw their inflation-adjusted wages fall 2 percent in 2011, according to the Labor Department.”
In fact, since I was a senior in High School (1978) until the end of 2011, according to the Economic Policy Institute, CEO pay has increased 726.7% as compared with workers pay increasing 5.7% (please see graphic). Combining the continuing fall of labor union membership (11.3 percent, down from 11.8 percent in 2011 (as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports), along with the continued erosion of the power of unions (collective bargaining rights) by corporate sponsored governmental influence groups, like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), it's making it even more difficult for labor unions to survive, let alone thrive.
So to answer the questions originally proposed. Yes, the labor movement and the influence of early religious social activist groups (like the Methodist Federation for Social Service and GBCS today) played a significant role in improving both the economic strength and the quality of life for American workers. Do labor unions have a significant role to play now? To answer this, I would direct your attention to the current struggles of Fast-Food workers trying to organize across the country. In a Labor Day article, Rachel Burstein, points out the impact of what it means to be a laborer without the protection of unionization in today’s fast food industry. Not surprisingly, she shows how this greatly impacts the ideas of a living wage and is intricately tied in with all of the issues we’ve already talked about in the previous posts*, in addition to corporate exploitation.
So yes, unions and the hopes for them are still vitally important even though they have been and continue to be undermined by anti-union or union busting policies and legislation in state houses and in legislative offices in Washington, DC.
What about labor unions as a source of hope and economic stability for tomorrow? First, we have to come to a fundamental realization that workers/laborers are not a mere commodity of supply and demand. They are at once the heart of productivity for a company and a consumer of the goods produced by their company and by so many other workers at other places of employment. If we are ever going to slow and even reverse the growing divisions in wealth and frustration between the ownership/management class and the production class we must learn to value not only the profit margins of companies but the way all stakeholders are sharing in and benefitting from those profits. Benefits and free time are essential to health, productivity and personal growth. I believe this is the only way we can rebuild the sense of loyalty and job security that once existed between companies and their workers.
Yet yesterday we heard from the Department of Labor that paid leave has been on the decline in the private sector for the past 20 years. We need to find ways to reward companies that value their employees and see the benefits of a happy and healthy work environment as a good investment for their stability and future. They are out there and some of them, like Costco and Trader Joes, are even non-unionized. Take a look at Costco’s labor relations website and see how it can be done. However, in many industries like the fast-food and most big box stores (Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot to name a few), unionization is the best hope to counter the corporate greed that is crippling our hopes for economic prosperity and longevity.
Finally, we are all consumers in America and have got to become more actively involved in understanding where, how and by whom our products are produced. Putting our economic clout where our mouth is, is the quickest way to be in solidarity with workers and to help reverse the obscene trends of greed, exploitation and disenfranchisement in this country and around the world. I believe the American dream can become a possibility again, but it will never happen unless we all wake-up, get educated and most importantly; get involved! Work to make labor unions and the National Labor Relations Board (who provide governmental oversight) strong in the areas they are needed and support the companies who are doing the good work of sharing their prosperity with their workers with or without the guidance of unions.
*State of the Union & Labor (full series):
1) Setting the Stage
2) Race & Gender
3) Child Poverty, Exploitation and Access to Education
Rev. Steve Clunn serves as the Coalition Coordinator for the Methodist Federation for Social Action. Clergy in the Upper New York Annual Conference, Steve's work at MFSA focuses on coordinating United Methodist caucus groups in their support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in the life of the Church.