The Continuing Eclipse Of The Organized Labor Movement

08/31/2017 09:31 am ET Updated Sep 01, 2017

On Monday, August 21, there was a total eclipse of the sun. Americans across the nation from Oregon to South Carolina responded with awe and euphoria at the wonder of this spectacular event.

Just two weeks later on this upcoming Monday, September 4, Americans across this nation will celebrate Labor Day. There will be little to no celebration in the organized labor movement, however, as the eclipse of its power and influence continues.

That eclipse is not total. But, it is getting increasingly larger and fuller. There is evidence and indicators that, unlike the eclipse of the sun in the solar system which was temporary, this eclipse is permanent and the sun will not come out tomorrow for the organized labor movement.

This perspective is supported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics release at the beginning of this year which reported that the union membership rate for 2016 was 10.7 percent, down 0.4 percent from 2015. That decline represented a loss of 240,000 wage and salary workers from 2015.

The total number of union workers in 2016 was 14.6 million compared to 17.7 million representing 20.1 percent of the workforce in 1983, the first year for which comparable data is available.

Highlights from the 2016 data include: 

  • The union membership rate (34.4%) for pubic sector workers was more than five times higher than the private sector rate (6.4%) 
  • The highest rates for union membership by occupation were in the education, training and library occupations (34.6%) and protective service occupations (34.5%) 
  • By state, New York had the highest union membership rate (23.6%) and South Carolina had the lowest (1.6%)

That’s the picture for organized labor writ large and it is a relatively gloomy one. There are a number of factors that make it look even gloomier including:

  • The 62 percent against and 38 percent for unionization beating that the UAW took in the recent union election vote at the Nissan auto assembly plant in Canton, Mississippi (This loss resembled others that the unions have taken in southern states over the past several years.)
  • The current revolt in the trenches in the Teamsters union at Walt Disney World where members are “putting together an opposition slate” to take over leadership of the union as wage negotiations get underway this fall.
  • The changing nature of work with automation, robots, and technological applications replacing humans on the work floor in both the manufacturing and service sectors.
  • Companies replacing full time employees with part-time workers thus substantially reducing the potential number of workers who might become organized union members.
  • “Right to work” laws in 24 states which impede union membership and the prospect that the Supreme Court might decide to hear the case of Janus v. AFSCME “which seeks to overrule decades of precedent enabling public sector unions to charge a fair-share fee to nonmembers for the representation they provide.”

Then, there is the impact and effect of the Trump administration - which makes this situation for unions much murkier and most likely even darker.

Early on, because of President Trump’s push back against trade agreements such as withdrawing from the Transpacific Partnership, talking tough on NAFTA, and hosting building trade unions at the White House, it appeared that unions and workers might have some clout with Trump. There was a sense of some cautious optimism.

That optimism was and is not shared universally across the spectrum of organized labor unions though. As Steven Greenhouse pointed out in his excellent New York Times article in early April, the nation’s unions fall into three camps. According to Greenhouse, the construction trades are the “most pro-Trump”; the middle camp includes autoworkers, steelworkers and machinist unions; and, the “strongly anti-Trump camp” includes the Service Employees International Union; the National Education Association and several federal, state and municipal employees’ union.

After Trump introduced his federal budget proposal in May, it became clear that the federal employee union’s opposition to Trump is well-placed. The budget included large job cuts for domestic agencies eliminating tens of thousands of jobs which might have been held by union members.

In sum, as we come up on Labor Day 2017, there is no rosy scenario. The unions understand that and that is why on this Labor Day the Service Employees International Union (S.E.I.U) will announce that it plans to spend tens of millions of dollars in “an extensive campaign over the next 14 months to elect politicians with labor friendly stands on the minimum wage, unions and health care.” Those campaigns will be targeted primarily on the Midwest and Rust Belt states which cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 presidential election.

The results of that campaign will not be known until November 2018. What can be known, at this point in time, is that in and of itself the election of “pro-labor” public officials and the efforts of the S.E.I.U will be insufficient to reverse the shift away from organized labor.

As we have written in the past,

…we do not expect to see an overwhelming renaissance of the traditional union movement. The big unions have been labeled and are seen as part of the problem… What we do expect is for a whole new breed of “representation” to emerge to advance the concerns and causes of the work. That representation will take a variety of forms ranging from workers councils…to workers cooperatives. It will also include approaches such as nonprofit groups that are not unions organizing low wage workers and coalitions of interest groups collaborating to achieve collective bargaining through ballot measures on items such as increasing the minimum wage and health care coverage.

Add to that, workers using their employee stock ownership to gain seats on boards of directors or to change the rules and regulations on pensions, profit sharing and stock ownership to ensure that greater benefits flow through to employees.

The bottom line is that this is an issue of dollars and cents and that is the focus that is needed to make sense to workers across the board. The BLS release at the beginning of this year disclosed that “The median weekly earnings of nonunion workers ($802) were 80 percent of earnings for workers who were union workers ($1002).” As someone in the oval office might say, that is a “huge” difference.

This is an argument that can be heard by workers of all persuasions. Therefore, if the means we have cited are combined with the “spill-over effect” in terms of the impact that unions can have on the wages and benefits of millions of non-union workers as Jared Bernstein, former chief economist for Vice-President Joe Biden, wrote in an article for the Washington Post on Labor Day 2016, then the workers’ landscape becomes brighter.

The sun will not come all the way out. But, many rays of sunshine will break through.

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
CONVERSATIONS