THE ROLE OF LABOR UNIONS

Here’s issue #37 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 6/28/12. Labor unions have been in the news quite a bit lately. This issue focuses on the role of unions in our society and economy.

Labor unions allow workers to approach employers as a group to discuss working conditions, pay, benefits, and other workplace issues. This affects the balance of power between workers and employers.

If you as an individual employee approach your employer about any of these issues, for example, receiving paid sick days if you currently had none, where does the balance of power lie? With the employer, of course. But if workers as a group approach the employer about such issues the balance of power is quite different.

Pay is probably the first item that comes to mind when thinking about employer – employee issues. There is lots of evidence that when employees are members of unions and bargain collectively on pay, they average 10 – 30% higher pay after controlling for other important variables. [1]

Employee pay is ultimately about how the profits of a business are divvied up among front-line or on-the-floor workers, senior executives and managers, and owners (which may be senior executives or stockholders). The balance of power among these groups affects how the rewards of the business are split. If workers participate in the discussion as a group, i.e., as members of a union, the result will be different, as indicated by hard evidence, common sense, and economic theory. Highly visible examples of this have been the negotiations between professional athletes and team owners in basketball most recently, but also in football, baseball, and hockey.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that as union membership in the private sector has dropped dramatically (from 34%in 1954 to 7% today [2]), income inequality has widened. Senior executives and stockholders have gotten much richer, while the rest of us have barely maintained our standard of living. The share of profits going to workers’ pay is the smallest it’s been since tracking began in 1947. [3]

This has not just increased in income inequality, but has undermined the middle class broadly. Union members’ pay and benefits used to set a standard in many sectors of the economy and to some extent for the economy as a whole. Non-union workers would receive similar compensation because there was competition in the job market, so companies with non-union workforces had to pay competitively to attract good workers. As union membership has declined, this is less of a factor in the job market and therefore there is downward pressure on wages and benefits.

The erosion in benefits has been very visible. Fewer and fewer workers have company managed pension plans, which were standard for union workers. And workers are paying more and more for their health care. Reductions in job security and increasing use of part-time workers are also partially the result of decreased union membership. Other issues that unions over the years have had an impact on are the length of the work week, overtime rules, availability of paid vacation and sick time, safety in the workplace (there are an estimated 58,000 workplace related deaths each year [4]), the minimum wage, unemployment and workplace injury compensation, how layoffs are handled, unfair or arbitrary actions by supervisors, and discrimination in hiring, pay, and promotions in the workplace.

Without or with weakened unions, union and non-union employees have less power and employers have more power. As a result, workers are likely to receive less pay, fewer benefits, and experience less desirable working conditions.

The next issue of the newsletter will address the reasons for the decline in private sector union membership.


[1]       Wikipedia, retrieved 4/23/12, “Labor unions in theUS,” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_unions_in_the_Unitede_States

[2]       Bureau of LaborStatistics,US Dept. of Labor, 1/27/12, “Union members – 2011”

[3]       Reich, R., 3/2/12, “Bye bye American pie: The challenge of the productivity revolution,” retrieved on 3/3/12 from www.commondreams.org/view/2012/03/02-6

[4]       Nader, R., 3/30/12, “If big labor would fight millions would join them on the ramparts,” retrieved at http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/03/30-5

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