Workers need to have a strong voice in the workplace and in our democracy to maintain an equitable balance of power with large, corporate employers. As the voice of labor has weakened over the last 35 years, workers’ pay has barely kept up with the cost of living and has fallen far behind workers’ growing productivity. In addition, the minimum wage has fallen substantially relative to the cost of living and workers’ benefits have been cut – many fewer workers have pensions and workers are paying more and more for their health insurance, if they have it.
Without a strong voice and bargaining power, workers do not get their fair share of economic growth and prosperity. (See my previous post, The Undermining of the Middle Class, for more detail.) For example, as workers’ pay and benefits have fallen in recent years, corporate profits and executives’ pay and benefits have risen dramatically.
The primary vehicle for providing a voice and bargaining power to workers is a labor union. Over the last 35 years, large corporations and their allies in government have engaged in a concerted campaign to weaken unions and workers’ bargaining power. Corporate employers have voided union contracts by declaring bankruptcy (e.g., many airlines), employers have been allowed to hire replacement workers when unionized workers engage in a strike (e.g., the air traffic controllers), employers have closed factories and moved jobs overseas, it has been made harder to organize workers and form a union, labor laws have been only weakly enforced, and penalties on employers who break labor laws are minimal.
This campaign to weaken unions has succeeded in reducing union membership among corporate employees from over 1 in 3 workers in the 1950s to 1 in 14 workers today. It has also undermined all workers’ bargaining power and throughout our economy has caused wages to stagnate and benefits to decline. The result has been a decline in the middle class’s share of national income.
Three key policy changes are needed to strengthen unions and the voices of workers:
- Make it easier to form a union. Eliminate the ability of employers to delay and put up procedural hurdles to workers organizing a union.
- Implement meaningful penalties for labor law violations. For example, the current penalty for firing a worker who is working to form a union (which is illegal), is simply to give him or her a job back, possibly with back pay. There is no fine or other penalty for having broken the law. Often these cases take so long to resolve (often it’s over a year) that the worker has had to find employment elsewhere.
- Overturn, through federal law, states’ “right to work” laws. These laws allow employees in a unionized workplace to benefit from union-negotiated pay and benefits without having to pay union dues. This is a backdoor way to weaken and destroy unions by reducing their membership and revenue.
Wages and benefits are better in states (and countries) with higher levels of union membership. For example, in states with “right to work” laws, wages are $6,000 per year lower than in states without such laws and workers have weaker health and pension benefits as well. This applies not just to unionized workers but to all workers; all workers’ wages and benefits are better when unions are stronger.
Workers deserve fair pay and benefits for a hard day’s work. Unions provide the voice and bargaining power for workers; they establish a countervailing power to that of large, corporate employers. They improve pay and benefits, as well as working conditions, such as limiting the standard work week to 40 hours. Strong unions lead to a strong and fair economy, as well as a strong middle class. We need to strengthen labor unions to bring back a thriving middle class, as well as the fairness and shared prosperity that our economy produced in the 1950s through 1970s.
Strengthening labor unions is the seventh of Ten Ideas to Save the Economy: The Big Picture presented by Robert Reich and MoveOn.org. (You can watch the 3 minute video at: https://www.facebook.com/moveon/videos/vb.7292655492/10152780314000493/?type=1&theater.)