A new report links the drop in union membership with the rise in income inequality. But labor activists are finding new ways to help workers.
In an election season dominated by populist appeals, globalization and trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership have come under fire for offshoring the manufacturing jobs that helped create a healthy American middle class. But there has been less attention to another factor that has contributed to the increase in income inequality: The dramatic decline in union membership since the late 1970s.
A new Economic Policy Institute white paper published Tuesday found that since 1979, the share of men who belong to unions in the private-sector workforce has fallen from 34 percent to 10 percent.
According to the Washington-based think tank, if unions had the same presence in the private sector today that they did in 1979, men—both union members and nonunion members alike—would be making $2,704 more each year. The EPI researchers also found that union membership makes a tremendous difference for people who do not have college degrees. Real wages for nonunion men without a college degree are even lower today than they were in the 1970s. (As for women, the report noted that “the effects of union decline on the wages of nonunion women are not as substantial because women were not as unionized as men were in 1979.”)
Jake Rosenfeld, an associate professor of sociology at the Washington University in St. Louis, is careful to note that the loss of traditional union manufacturing jobs has contributed to the decrease in union membership. But Rosenfeld, a co-author of the EPI report, also says that “you can’t overlook the role of employer opposition” in that decline, especially as organized labor tries to broaden its reach to other sectors like the service industry.
“It became part and parcel to the way of doing business starting in the ’70s and ’80s,” Rosenfeld says. “Employers got organized and became incredibly effective at using the regulations to rid themselves of existing unions and prevent new unions from coming in.”
Few employers have taken a stronger stance against union organizing than the retail giant Walmart. A 1991 training manual prepared by the branch manager of one Walmart store in Indiana warned other managers about the certain types of people who might join unions. One such person, the guide noted, is “the chronically dissatisfied associate” who “is truly an unhappy individual. He probably was born unhappy, is going to die unhappy, and is going to be unhappy for the duration between.” In 2014, the hacker group Anonymous leaked internal Walmart PowerPoint presentations that instructed managers to “report any union activity to the labor relations hotline immediately.”
Walmart continues to try to thwart employees’ unionization efforts. In January, the National Labor Relations Board ordered the company to rehire 16 employees who had been fired after they went on strike. Walmart suggested they would appeal the decision.
According to a 2013 Bloomberg analysis, a majority of American workers would join a union if given the opportunity. But union organizing and collective bargaining in the United States has not kept pace with other advanced democracies. In Canada, where union membership is double what it is in the United States, employers must allow a vote on unionization within five to ten days of receiving a petition requesting the establishment of a union. In the United States, an employer can voluntarily recognize a union but if they fail to do so, workers who want to unionize must appeal to the NLRB in order to hold a vote on unionization, which can take more than a year.
“As the process gets dragged out,” Rosenfeld says, “it’s easier for employers to systematically pick off union organizers and sympathizers.”
In 2007, a bipartisan group of members of Congress that included the late Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts proposed legislation to address those shortcomings. The bill required the NLRB to approve a unionization effort as long as a majority of the employees who wanted representation had signed a petition indicating that they wanted to form a union. The bill also called for stiffer penalties on employers who illegally fired employees engaged in union-organizing activities. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate. Today, the prospects for a similar bill are even more remote.
Although the EPI report underlines worrisome trends and points to an environment where wages across the board remain stagnant and workers are left unprotected, there are some encouraging signs. Traditional unions are involved in efforts to help nonmembers secure better benefits, even if those workers never end up joining the union. The report found that that nonunion workers benefit just as much as union members when organized labor has a strong presence, because employers don’t want to lose staff to unionized employers that pay higher wages.
Rosenfeld pointed to the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has helped Walmart employees organize. “Unions in the United States, for a long time now, have been doing a lot of work on behalf of nonunion workers,” he says.
Forcing a large employer like Walmart to raise wages (which they did in February) lifts the standard for workers across the retail sector. (Walmart said their pay increases had nothing to do with union activism.)
United Auto Workers has helped graduate students and adjunct instructors organize, and the NLRB recently ruled that private colleges and universities had to negotiate with graduate students who are interested in unionization. Similarly, the Service Employees International Union helps the Fight for 15 movement; those efforts have led politicians like presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and municipal leaders in cities like New York and Los Angeles to support campaigns to raise the minimum wage.
But while the fast-food workers will vote on affiliation with SEIU, it’s not clear whether they will be paying dues, an issue that has upset some union stalwarts. “Rank-and-file UFCW members began to grumble that their dues were going toward funding an effort that had nothing to do with them,” says Rosenfeld.
He added that supporters of the Fight for 15 movement should be concerned about this development because organized labor groups underwrite these efforts. “The UFCW’s work on the Walmart [unionization] campaign points to the fragility of the current situation, where the union arguably forced enormous changes at the company, but which led to no new dues-paying members,” he says.
Yet UFCW communications director Erikka Knuti is not worried about the decline in dues-paying membership. She says the union is adapting and has been organizing workers in other sectors, like the cannabis industry. “Things change so quickly, there’s no time to stop and think, ‘Woe is me,’” she says. “We have no choice but to look forward to emerging trends in the industry. We are not looking back.”