This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
Here’s a Labor Day quiz:
Most Americans support unions, but just over 10% are union members.
Business leaders claim that American workers don’t want or need unions anymore. But the Gallup poll reveals that Americans’ support for unions has been increasing — from 48% in 2009 to 65% today.
Researchers at MIT found that if nonunion workers who wanted to join a union could do so, union membership would skyrocket from its current 14 million to 70 million.
So why do unions have such a hard time recruiting new members? The answer is fear.
Americans have far fewer rights at work than employees in other democratic societies. Current federal laws are an impediment to union organizing rather than a protector of workers’ rights. The rules are stacked against workers, making it extremely difficult for even the most committed workers and talented organizers to win union elections. Under current National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regulations, any employer with a clever attorney can stall union elections, giving management time to scare the living daylights out of potential recruits.
The workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama know this first hand. In early August, the NLRB ruled that Amazon federal violated labor law in its successful attempt to stop a union organizing drive at the warehouse in the midst of the COVID pandemic. The company — whose founder and largest shareholder, Jeff Bezos, is the world’s wealthiest person, worth $197 billion — spent a small fortune in propaganda to thwart its workers’ attempt to win better pay and working conditions. The NLRB determined that Amazon even convinced the United States Postal Service to install a mailbox in front of the warehouse where workers were encouraged to vote, watched by security cameras and surrounded by a tent festooned with pro-Amazon propaganda.
Amazon’s campaign against the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) was just one example of how big business spends big bucks to undermine workers’ rights.
Consider an American election where one political party is prohibited from communicating with voters. That’s often what happens during union campaigns. Employers can force workers to attend meetings that feature anti-union speeches, films and literature. Unions have no equivalent right of access to employees. Union organizers are often banned from company property. To reach workers organizers must visit their homes or hold secret meetings. This is hardly workplace democracy.
Companies routinely hire expensive anti-union consultants to intimidate workers from publicly expressing support for union organizing drives. Try wearing a union button at a mandated Walmart or Amazon employee meeting and see what happens.
A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found that employers are charged with violating federal labor laws in 41.5% of all union election campaigns, but even that figure is an undercount because workers don’t always report (or even know about) their companies’ illegal activities. At least one-fifth of all employers illegally fire one or more workers — typically union leaders — during union organizing drives, scaring other workers from joining the campaign. Federal penalties are so small, or nonexistent, that companies treat these violations as a minor cost of doing business.
The 30 years after World War II were the golden age of American capitalism. Prosperity was widely shared. Unions allowed many working people to achieve the American Dream. They could buy homes and cars, take vacations, send their kids to college, afford health insurance, and retire with dignity.
Union membership has plummeted from about one-third of all workers in the 1970s, to one-fifth in the 1980s, to one-tenth today.
Among private sector workers, union membership is now a dismal 6.3%. Big business’ assault on workers’ rights has had real consequences. Income inequality has widened, wages for working people have stagnated, the middle class has shrunk and American families are deeper in debt.
A union worker earns, on average, 11% more than a worker in the same occupation with a similar education background and work experience who is not a union member. Black union members earn 13.7% more on average than non-union Black workers. Latino workers make 20% more than Latinos working in nonunion workplaces. Hourly wages for women represented by a union are 5.8% higher on average than for nonunionized women with comparable characteristics. Clearly, unions reduce discrimination by employers that accounts for the race and gender wage gaps.
Right-wing politicians and their corporate backers want to further weaken — and, preferably, completely crush — the labor movement, which still remains the nation’s most potent force for progressive change and the most effective vehicle for electing liberal and progressive candidates. Anti-union billionaires like the Koch brothers and groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the National Right to Work Committee, the Sarah Scaife Foundation (backed by the estate of billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife); and the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation (backed by the family of Donald Trump’s former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos) have spent tens of millions of dollars to support so-called “right-to-work” laws designed to weaken unions and help elect anti-union Republicans. These laws, passed in 28 states, allow employees to opt out of paying dues, even though the union is obligated to represent them. Even if they aren’t dues-paying union members, they get the same benefits that other workers received. Right-to-work laws are a vestige of the Jim Crow era designed in the 1940s to keep Black and white workers divided.
The right-wing billionaires have also funded lawsuits designed to destroy unions, such as the Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus decision which ruled by a 5-4 vote that a public sector employees who benefit from their unions’ collective-bargaining efforts owe no obligation to financially support those unions. It’s like allowing people equal police and fire protection even though they refuse to pay taxes.
Over the past decade, America has witnessed an upsurge of labor unrest among employees in hospitals, nursing homes, hotel and tourism, janitorial service, education, retail stores (including big-box outlets and drug stores), warehouse, and fast food (including McDonalds and Starbucks) sectors as well as domestic workers and Uber and Lyft drivers. In response, many cities and states have adopted higher minimum wage laws and some pandemic protection relief (such as “hero pay” for front-line workers in grocery stores), but the activism has netted few union representation victories.
The Amazon workers’ union organizing defeat in Alabama highlighted both the obstacles and opportunities for a new wave of labor organizing. It is unclear at this point whether the election at that warehouse will get a re-run, but the effort raised concerns about taking on huge corporations one workplace at a time. At its recent International convention, the Teamsters — America’s largest union — passed a resolution stating that a top priority for the union would be organizing Amazon’s 900,000 employees. Randy Korgan, the Teamsters’ national organizing director, has called for “shop-floor militancy,” and a return to some of the strategies that labor used successfully in the 1930s. “The next labor upsurge is on the horizon,” Korgan recently observed.
In the next decade or two, if labor stumbles toward irrelevance, our overall society will become nastier, more unequal and more individualistic than it already is.
Fortunately, help for American workers could be on the way. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives on March 9 this year. If approved by the Senate it would significantly strengthen the ability of private sector workers to form unions and engage in collective bargaining for fair wages and better working conditions. It would make it easier for people to join a union while also keeping unscrupulous employers from unfairly meddling in the election process. If passed, it would be the most significant pro-labor legislation since the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. But it faces an uphill battle in the Senate, because it would require reforming the filibuster, something that all Senate Republicans and a handful of Senate Democrats oppose.
President Joe Biden has embraced the PRO Act, saying that it would “summon a new wave of worker power to create an economy that works for everyone.” The president said that “the middle class built this country, and unions built the middle class. Unions give workers a stronger voice to increase wages, improve the quality of jobs and protect job security, protect against racial and all other forms of discrimination and sexual harassment, and protect workers’ health, safety, and benefits in the workplace. Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union. They are critical to strengthening our economic competitiveness.”
The PRO Act would override “right-to-work” laws. It would also eliminate employers’ monopoly on information about its workers. The law would require employers to provide unions with the names and contact information of employees eligible to vote for representation — including their email addresses, cell and home phone numbers, and home addresses — in order to guarantee a fair election in which workers can hear from both employers and unions.
The PRO Act would speed up the election process to make it harder for companies to use delays to mount expensive anti-union campaigns. It would also prohibit employers from taking action against workers striking in solidarity with workers at other companies.
When workers are illegally fired for union organizing they are, at the moment, only entitled to be rehired with back pay minus any amount they could have earned elsewhere in the interim. Companies treat it as a mere cost of doing business. The PRO Act would make it harder for employers to break labor laws — including firing union leaders during an organizing campaign — without suffering serious penalties. It would require employers to give workers full back pay, without any reduction for interim earnings, as well as damages. It would also establish meaningful civil penalties for employers who violate federal labor law. It would allow workers to sue employers if the NLRB does not prosecute their case.
Other democratic countries have more even-handed labor laws and, as a result, more union members. In Sweden, 88% of workers are union members or covered by collective bargaining agreements. In Denmark, 82%, Spain 80%, Australia 61%, and Germany 54%. Even in Canada, with a very similar economy, and many of the same larger employers, as the U.S., the union membership rate is 27%, while 31% of workers are part of collective bargaining compacts.
American workers do not derive the benefits of prosperity compared with their counterparts elsewhere. Not surprisingly, countries with higher union rates also have less poverty and inequality and more worker- and family-friendly social policies. Workers in other countries have shorter work weeks, earlier retirements, and longer vacations. Unlike every other affluent country, the U.S. has no statutory minimum vacation policy.
The United States is the only democratic society without universal health insurance. It spends less on job training, child care, and affordable housing, and more on prisons, than do other nations. Our environmental and workplace safety laws are weak and poorly enforced. The pay gap between men and women is wider in the U.S. than in other affluent countries.
A stronger union movement in the United States would mean better lives for working families, including support for progressive goals like affordable health care, tuition-free college and paid family leave.
The battle is joined. Americans are asking politicians: Which side are you on?
Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College.
Kelly Candaele, a documentary filmmaker, was a union organizer for 20 years.