THE BLOG

Union Membership Numbers Don't Tell the Whole Story

01/23/2013 04:27 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2013

This week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual report tracking how many working Americans are represented by a labor or trade union. The report indicates overall union density declining, with union membership in the public sector falling 1 percent to 35.9 percent and lowering by .5 percent to 6.6 percent in the private sector.

In other words, now just 11.3 percent of workers in the country are covered by a union contract that enables them to have a collective voice over wages, job security, benefits and treatment on the job.

We all should be troubled by these numbers because the fall of union membership follows the rise of income inequality in this nation. As Nobel-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz argues again and again, until the middle class is strengthened, our economy will be stuck in neutral. And key to a future of shared prosperity, where everyone has the opportunity to work, to secure decent jobs and benefits, and to retire with dignity, is a nation with more union members, a vibrant labor movement, and stronger rights at work. So how did we get here and how can fight back?

Over the last several years, in state after state, corporate-backed politicians like Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Gov. Rick Snyder in Michigan have put collective bargaining rights and middle-class public employee jobs on the chopping block. They've made it harder for their workers to form unions by restricting union rights and privatizing thousands of jobs. So while it's not surprising to see a noticeable drop in public sector union membership -- it's incumbent upon all of us to stand up for the jobs and rights of police officers, firefighters and teachers, and protest extremist policies like this from gaining ground in our communities.

At first glance, you might think these numbers indicate that workers no longer want or need unions. In reality, workers are trying to organize, but outdated labor laws and anti-union employers are standing in their way. Workers are routinely terminated, harassed, silenced and retaliated against for their union support. CEOs enjoy an economic incentive to fire, threaten, and intimidate workers who support a union. Until we strengthen laws and protections for workers who stand up for a union, significant union density and shared prosperity will be out of reach.

Here's more of the complicated truth: the job market is growing increasingly non-union. Farm workers, domestic workers, and independent contractors, are just some of the numerous jobs in this country that aren't afforded union rights. Businesses are even intentionally creating more and more jobs that are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, therefore curbing workers' rights to organize in the process. Employers will classify or hire employees as supervisors, temps or graduate assistants just to get around the current or potential "threat" of organizing, and the possibility of paying their workforce respectably. The business community's shift to an increasingly part-time, temporary and freelance workforce is significantly problematic. The explosion of employers embracing a low-wage, low-benefit contingent business model only exacerbates the decline of union density and good jobs.

Without placing a priority on creating not just jobs but good, union jobs, our economy will remain at a standstill for anyone but the 1 percent.

But there is a light at the end of this tunnel. For every union job shed, there is a worker standing up and fighting for a better workplace. While the BLS numbers don't reflect this renewed commitment to worker organizing, we saw it out in full force this year, from Walmart associates, warehouse workers and guest laborers along the giant retailer's supply chain, to fast food workers, to taxi drivers in our country's biggest cities, to port truck drivers at the nation's largest seaports, to car wash workers in the Bronx and warehouse workers at IKEA.

Even without the protection of the NLRA at times, these workers are joining together to improve their rights and opportunities on the job. That's because workers, unions, workers' centers, and grassroots advocates and leaders like those at Jobs with Justice coalitions are working together to expand and envision new forms of bargaining, and create new paths to worker power for the 21st century. Together, we're not mourning over the decline of unions, we're organizing by building broad-based unity against the attacks on workers, our families and our communities.

In the last three decades, large corporations and Wall Street banks have reorganized themselves into the multinational monstrosities they are now. So our movement must also respond in a way that matches the new challenges of the global economy, decaying federal labor laws, our temp nation, and a world with more billionaire Koch Brothers.

Of course this week's report reminds us we have much to do to make the economy work for everyone again, but it's a challenge we should accept with gusto as the road to economic recovery is paved with ensuring workers' rights to organize and collectively bargain.