Tag Archives: unions

Unions Make The Middle Class

20 Apr

Why should anyone—especially those who are not union members—care that union membership is at record lows and likely to fall even further? Because if you care about the middle class, you need to care about unions.


Unions give workers a greater voice not only by promoting political participation among all Americans—ensuring that more of the middle class vote and get involved in politics—but also by being an advocate on behalf of the middle class in the daily, inner-workings of government and politics.



(This article was originally posted at the Center For American Progress Action Fund Website)

Critics of unions claim they are unimportant today or even harmful to the economy, but unions are essential for building a strong middle class. And rebuilding the middle class after decades of decline and stagnation is essential for restoring our economy.

Unions make the middle class strong by ensuring workers have a strong voice in both the market and in our democracy. When unions are strong they are able to ensure that workers are paid fair wages, receive the training they need to advance to the middle class, and are considered in corporate decision-making processes. Unions also promote political participation among all Americans, and help workers secure government policies that support the middle class, such as Social Security, family leave, and the minimum wage.

But as unions became weaker over the past four decades, they are less and less able to perform these functions—and the middle class withered. The percentage of workers in unions steadily declined largely because the legal and political environment prevents private-sector workers from freely exercising their right to join or not to join a union. Membership in private-sector unions stands at less than 7 percent today, from around 30 percent in the late 1960s. Public-sector unionization remained stable for decades—it was 37 percent in 1979 and is 36 percent today—but is now under significant threat from conservative political opposition and could start declining as well. All told, less than 12 percent of the total workforce is unionized, and this percentage is likely to continue falling.

Without the counterbalance of workers united together in unions, the middle class withers because the economy and politics tend to be dominated by the rich and powerful, which in turn leads to an even greater flow of money in our economy to the top of income scale. As can be seen in Figure 1, the percentage of unionized workers tracks very closely with the share of the nation’s income going to the middle class—those in the middle three-fifths of income earners.

In recent years, the middle class accounted for the smallest share of the nation’s income ever since the end of World War II, when this data was first collected. The middle three income quintiles, representing 60 percent of all Americans, received only 46 percent of the nation’s income in 2009, the most recent year data is available, down from highs of around 53 percent in 1969.

The middle class weakened over the past several decades because the rich secured the lion’s share of the economy’s gains. The share of pretax income earned by the richest 1 percent of Americans more than doubled between 1974 and 2007, climbing to 18 percent from 8 percent. And for the richest of the rich—the top 0.1 percent—the gains have been even more astronomical—quadrupling over this period, rising to 12.3 percent of all income from 2.7 percent.

In contrast, incomes for most Americans have been nearly flat over this same time period, and median income after accounting for inflation actually fell for working-age households during the supposedly good economy in the recovery between 2001 and 2007. The importance of unions to the middle class is not just a historical phenomenon, but is relevant to our lives today. To be sure, not everything unions do benefits the broad middle class, but unions are critical to defending the middle class, and their resurgence is key to rebuilding the middle class.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine a middle-class society without a strong union movement.

Across the globe, the countries with the strongest middle classes all have strong union movements. And in America today, states with higher concentrations of union members have a much stronger middle class. The 10 states with the lowest percentage of workers in unions all have a relatively weak middle class, with the share of total state income going to households in the middle three-fifths of income earners in these states below the average for all states.

Our analysis, more fully described in the body and appendix of this report, indicates that each percentage point increase in union membership puts about $153 more per year into the pockets of the middle class—meaning that if unionization rates increased by 10 percentage points (about the level they were in 1980)—then the typical middle class household would earn $1,532 more this year. This figure indicates how much better off all members of the middle class would be—not just those who are union members— if unions regained some strength. And these gains would continue year after year. To put these results in context, our analysis indicates that increasing union membership is as important to rebuilding the middle class as boosting college graduation rates, results that while shocking to some, are consistent with previous research.

In our democracy, when workers are joined together in unions they are able to more forcefully and effectively speak for their interests. Unions give workers a greater voice not only by promoting political participation among all Americans—ensuring that more of the middle class vote and get involved in politics—but also by being an advocate on behalf of the middle class in the daily, inner-workings of government and politics.

This provides a check on other powerful political interests, such as corporations and the very wealthy, and ensures that our system of government has the balance of interests that James Madison, a chief framer of our constitution, thought necessary to properly function. This counterbalancing role is essential for democracy to function properly and respond to the interests of all Americans.

In the workplace, workers who join together in unions are able to negotiate on more equal footing with their employers, providing a check on the inherently unequal relationship between employer and employee. As George Shultz, secretary of labor during the Nixon administration and secretary of state during the Reagan administration argued in support of trade unions, in “a healthy workplace, it is very important that there be some system of checks and balances.”

Indeed, the ability of workers united together to provide a check on corporate power was the very reason Congress guaranteed private-sector workers the right to join a union, writing in the findings section of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935:

The inequality of bargaining power between employees who do not possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract and employers who are organized in the corporate or other forms of ownership association substantially burdens and affects the flow of commerce, and tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions, by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners in industry and by preventing the stabilization of competitive wage rates and working conditions within and between industries.

And government employers, like corporations, sometimes need to be reminded by organized workers to treat their employees fairly. That’s why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis in 1968 to help city sanitation workers gain recognition for their union as they faced low pay, terrible working conditions, and racist supervisors. Even the conservative icon Ronald Reagan recognized that publicsector workers should be able to join unions and collectively bargain. Reagan signed a bill to grant municipal and county employees the right to do so when he was governor of California.

Critically, the benefits of workers having a voice in the economy and in democracy spill over to all of society. In these ways, unions make the middle class. The challenge of rebuilding the middle class will take a long time, but would be impossible without a clear understanding of what makes the middle class strong. This paper will explore in detail why we need to do this and how we need to go about it. To rebuild America’s middle class, we need to rebuild the labor movement. It’s that simple—and that challenging.

David Madland is the Director of the American Worker Project, Karla Walter is a Senior Policy Analyst, and Nick Bunker is a Special Assistant with the Economic Policy team at the Center for American Progress.

See also: Interactive Map: Stronger Unions Create a Stronger Middle Class by Nick Bunker and David Madland

Read the full report (pdf)

Download the introduction and summary (pdf)

Wisconsin: Lesson Learned

24 Feb

I’d like to formally thank the public employees of Wisconsin – the nurses, teachers, and other people who work long hours in often-thankless jobs for pay that doesn’t make anyone rich, and benefits that any human being should be entitled to in exchange for such work.  I’d like to thank them not just for the work that they do, ensuring that their charges are healthy or educated.  I’d like to thank them for standing up for hard-fought rights they are trying to retain.  But above all, I’d like to thank them, as well as Ian Murphy from the Buffalo Beast, “David Koch”, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker for showing me exactly why it’s important that public employee unions exist and can collectively bargain with governments that are set on paying those workers as little as possible. Governments that have been brought about thanks to the donations of extraterritorial billionaires on a mission to screw the poor, hurt the middle class, and enrich the already-rich while rolling back health, safety, and environmental rules that protect everyone.

The story about the Beast’s call, of course, isn’t just the fact that Walker explained in detail his strategy to trick Senate Democrats into a supposed quorum. The story is that Walker took the call at all, so readily, when Democratic lawmakers and the press in his own home state can’t get him on the phone.

Don’t forget that Walker cut taxes for businesses by millions of dollars, setting up a deficit that he intends to repair on the backs of public workers.  When he asked those unions for concessions, they readily agreed to many of them, and to negotiate on others. Walker and the Republicans have refused to negotiate.  This isn’t about fiscal discipline – it’s about a crusade to break the back of labor in America. When malicious Republican executives decide that they’re going to bust unions, in the glorious tradition of 80s union-busters Ronald Reagan, Wojciech Jaruzelski, and Leonid Brezhnev, then it’s important that this be exposed for what it is.

All of these lessons are applicable to our own Chris Collins, and New York’s own public sector unions.  Now, Wisconsin doesn’t have a Taylor Law, and its Triborough Amendment ensures that unions can continue to operate under the previous contract so long as a new one isn’t executed, thus eliminating any incentive for them to negotiate.  Unions in New York have a stronger hand than those in Wisconsin.  Maybe that needs to change.  What doesn’t need to change is the right of public sector unions to bargain collectively, especially when they’re treated as fungible commodities by their ostensible boss-of-all-bosses.  What these people do is important, and if you don’t think that teachers deserve to earn $50,000 per year plus benefits for educating the younger generation – even other people’s kids – then the concept of civilized society needs to be reconfirmed and redefined.


18 Feb
The state capitol of Madison, Wisconsin

Image via Wikipedia

I posted this as my Facebook status last night, but thought I’d repeat it here, verbatim.  If you haven’t seen what’s been going on in Wisconsin, click here.

Conflicted about Wisconsin. OTOH, I don’t think state workers should be scapegoated & punished for a state’s entire fiscal crisis. OTOH, I am fundamentally opposed to the notion of state employee unions. I mean, if you’re the masses’ employee, why do you need protection from the masses? The point of unions is to protect workers against unfairness caused by capitalist greed. I guess Wisconsin is proving me wrong.

I Remember

1 Nov

The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers has put together one of the strongest campaign commercials on behalf of the Democrats in 2010.  Titled “I Remember”, the commercial features a series of workers describing the broken levees during Katrina, the food recalls, the Wall Street bailouts and the millions of outsourced U.S. jobs, all of which took place the last time Republicans controlled government. Their conclusion?

“I remember which party wants to take us back. And I remember which party wants to take us forward. I’m not voting Republican this year, because I have a memory.”


Get out and vote on November 2nd and encourage your family and friends who live in critical districts in Ohio, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Colorado and California to do the same.

NY Unions: Worse Than Most

19 Oct

On the list of Bad Things About NY, unions may be on the top of the list. Politicians rank a close second, though, as we’ll see, the two are so inter-related in NY as to occasionally be indistinguishable.

Unions were not always bad. When focusing on their traditional roles in safety and tradecraft, they are at their best. Historically, they have played an extremely important role in making some industries safer. Mining is fundamentally dangerous – it will never be completely safe, but it is far better now than centuries past. The same with heavy manufacturing, making steel and cars. Workers deserve a safe job environment. Carpenters, plumbers and tool-and-die specialists have skills to pass on. Unions have a valid role in these areas.

Unfortunately, this has largely been lost. Unions (as much of the rest of America) are now all about the money. The monetary incentives to union leadership are such that they focus on areas that are inherently corrupt, or on union expansionism into fields that have few safety or tradecraft needs.

Unions drove the brewers out of Milwaukee and manufacturing out of the Rust Belt. It is no coincidence that the list of highest growth states and lowest unionized states roughly correlates.


Unions consistently prove (with “prevailing wage” laws) that they would rather have zero $30/hour jobs than some $15 or $20/hr ones.

But instead of general union bashing, let’s look at two specific areas. First, how unions are inherently de-professionalizing, to the detriment of the general society, and secondly, how NY public sector unions in particular are corrupting and wasteful of tax dollars.

Unions are, at their core, contrary to, and bad for, professions. Unfortunately, unions seem to be ever expanding into these job sectors, to the detriment of all of us. Nurses, teachers, college professors, musicians and even Hollywood writers are not toiling in unsafe factories. They are in knowledge based industries that have standards according to their specific profession. College professors have academic standards to reach their PhD, and then peer review as part of their publication process for research. Nurses and healthcare workers have licensure exams, continuing education requirements, and professional organizations. The best and brightest should succeed, on an individual level. To a union, this is a problem.

Unions are based on collective achievement – the group prospers together. Professions certify and reward the individual. Unions seek to protect the worker from the employer. Professions demand individual accountability through licensure or standards. Unions reward seniority. Professions reward accomplishment. Unions spend the intellectual capital of their best and brightest on securing greater concessions for their union members. Professions spend the intellectual capital of their best and brightest on innovation, creativity, and research and development. Unions encourage job immobility (that whole seniority thing). As Richard Florida regularly points out, mobility of knowledge based workers is key for creative economies to most efficiently use talent.

When professions unionize, the profession suffers. School teachers are not assembly line workers. Both perform an important job. But the achievement of a school teacher should be an individual act, not a group judgment. Do you want an incompetent nurse caring for you in a hospital that could not be fired because of union rules? Do you want the best paid teachers to be the oldest, but not neccesarily the best? Do you want public sector employees protected from their employer, the citizens of the state?

Which leads us to the next issue. The Weekly Standard, that occasional (but usually former, unfortunately) beacon of conservative thought, recently did a feature article on public sector unions, and how they are so bad, especially in New York.

Public sector union members used to make less than their private counterparts, but made up the difference on benefits (that are bankrupting us now). No more – now public sector union members sometimes make more than governors or chief executives, such as the 2,338 state police officers in MA who earn more than the governor.  How did they make up the difference?

But with the power of the public sector unions to drive election outcomes, they now sit on both sides of the bargaining table. Unlike private sector unions, the sheer number of workers represented is not the linchpin of their influence. Private sector unions have a natural adversary in the owners of the companies with whom they negotiate. But public sector unions have no such natural counterweight. They are a classic case of “client politics,” where an interest group’s concentrated efforts to secure rewards impose diffused costs on the mass of unorganized taxpayers. Also unlike private sector unions, those in the public sector can achieve influence on both sides of the bargaining table by making campaign contributions and organizing get-out-the-vote drives to elect politicians who then control the negotiations over their pay, benefits, and work rules. The result is a nefarious cycle: Politicians agree to generous government worker contracts; those workers then pay higher union dues a portion of which are funneled back into those same politicians’ campaign war chests. It is a cycle that has driven California and New York to the edge of bankruptcy.

In other words, pay me more, and I’ll pay you more. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

In  Washington state, unions won changes to state labor laws after their candidates won office. Those changes led to a doubling of union membership, which led to a doubling of donations to the incumbents. In New York City, 800 teachers are currently being paid not to work. Its GM’s job bank on the public side.  New York state’s hospital union lobby is so strong that we now spend as much on Medicaid as California and Texas combined. Of course, any adjustment to that would lead to accusations of balancing the budget on the backs of the poor, as Collins is now discovering.

How did NY get here?

Prior to World War II, a New York State Supreme Court justice neatly summarized the prevailing attitude toward public sector unions: “To tolerate or recognize any combination of Civil Service employees of the government as a labor organization or union is not only incompatible with the spirit of democracy but inconsistent with the spirit of democracy and inconsistent with every principle upon which our Government is founded.” Laws permitting collective bargaining for public employees were virtually nonexistent. Even labor-friendly economists thought organizing most public sector employees was illegitimate. AFL-CIO president George Meany believed it was “impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”

What produced the enormous expansion of public sector unions? In a case of unintended consequences, government unionism ironically developed from actions taken by those hostile to it. Many of the icons of the labor-left like New York’s great mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and President Franklin Roosevelt were adamantly opposed to public sector unions. LaGuardia, who pledged to make New York a “one hundred percent [private sector] union” town, had a civic vision of public employees as the people’s workers, exemplars of the common good. Famed for dropping in unexpectedly on city offices and dressing down slackers, LaGuardia explained that he did “not want any of the pinochle club atmosphere to take hold” in his city government. “The right to strike against the government,” he insisted, “is not and cannot be recognized.”

In 1935, Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act, the first peacetime effort to support the growth of private sector unions. Its aim in the words of its sponsor, New York senator Robert Wagner, was “encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining.” But like his close ally LaGuardia, Roosevelt drew a definite line when it came to government workers. “Meticulous attention,” the president insisted, “should be paid to the special relations and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government. .  .  . The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.” Both men feared that liberalism would be compromised by the unavoidably self-serving nature of public sector unionism.

But the mayor and the president opened the door to just what they opposed. In the bad old days of Tammany Hall, which had fought both LaGuardia and Roosevelt, the average tenure of a cop or teacher or garbage collector was five years. But with the rise of civil service reform backed by both men in the 1930s, public employees both in New York and the federal government began to gain lifetime security. Civil service reform, it turned out, was the precondition for unionization because it gave workers a long-term interest in their jobs and facilitated their capacity to express collective concerns. In 1958, New York mayor Robert Wagner, son of the senator behind the 1935 federal act, issued an executive order generally known as “the little Wagner Act.” It gave city employees bargaining rights and provided their unions with exclusive representation. The city was soon turning over the dues from its workers to the union. Those dues soon provided political action funds to support union-backed candidates.

The feeding frenzy was on from there. You can continue reading the article on your own for additional NY outrages: barring the NY financial sector, public sector employees now out earn private sector ones in NY. Public sector union members receive $1.17 in benefits for every $1 in salary, compared to $.58 for the private sector. The list of unaffordable benefits, corruption, waste and sleaze goes on and on, just like NY’s deficit.

This is about the point in the blog where I feel obligated to provide some constructive recommendation on how to combat this. But in this case, I don’t know what to say. Some union unfriendly politicians in New York would be a start. Know any?

Quirks of History?

23 Aug

America has many images of itself that inform the national character, that define how we see ourselves. Two of the most enduring involve industry and farming: our Great Plains are the Breadbasket of the World, and America’s Manufacturing Might is unrivaled.

These ideas have become such a part of the national character, that we are willing to spend an incredible amount of money to protect that image even as it increasingly becomes untrue. The American Farmer feeds the world. The Middle Class, under assault from all sides, was created through the hard labor of American factory workers. This is who we are.

But what if those two circumstances were a quirk of recent history, and not the enduring legacy of our nation?

Plains & Cars

The Economist has run two unrelated stories recently about farming and Blue Collar America that point to these phenomena. Let’s first examine the American farmer.

When settlers first began to push west through the Louisiana Purchase, they skipped the future Iowas, Nebraskas and Dakotas because they were the Great American Desert. Dry, dusty and unfit for farming, settlers were willing to cross the Rockies by foot and wagon to make it to far lusher Oregon and California. Only in the 1910’s-20’s, with the technology finally available to drain the Ogallala Aquifer for irrigation, was the area suitable for farming. But even so, some rainfall was still required, or you ended up with the drought-caused Dust Bowl of the 1930’s.

However, it turns out that the Dust Bowl is the historic norm, not the outlier. Recent research of the Canadian Great Plains show that the 20th century has been unusually wet, a blip on the radar of climatologically history. Even without the effects of climate change, the Great Plains should be getting drier in the future. They already are in Canada, where rainfall is off 40%. With the Ogallala scheduled to be dry in the next several decades, is the large industrial farm of the Great Plains a coincidence?

The second quirk is American manufacturing. While the US has had a manufacturing tradition since the Industrial Revolution, our global dominance in manufacturing, and the stable middle class that went with it, may be an accident of history. Our primacy peaked in the 1950’s and 60’s, in the boom that followed the Second World War. The Economist points out that in the mid-1950’s, Detroit had the highest median income and highest rate of home ownership of any American city. Now, of course, Detroit has lost half its population, and leads many other categories, all in the negative.

Richard Florida, at his Creative Class blog, shows how net private job growth in the US in the last decade is 0. However, within that number, each industry has faired differently. Manufacturing is off 3.7% for the decade, while the auto industry is down 6.7%. Other creative industries, like healthcare, consulting and education, have grown. Of course, this is just a continuation of wage stagnation in blue collar industries since Jimmy Carter, and movement of the global industrial base to Mexico, Korea, China, Japan and Europe.

In this country we bemoan the loss of manufacturing like it is our country’s birthright, or historical destiny. In truth, however, the union-created manufacturing-based middle class was an unsustainable flash in the pan, not a long term move. Here is the central point: US manufacturing was king when it was the only industrial power globally. The destruction of Germany and Japan left the US the only game in town. The Korean War decimated that country shortly thereafter. GM, Ford, Bethlehem Steel and others could afford to be as inefficient, pension-generous, and mismanaged as they wanted to be when they had no competition. But our primacy truly lasted for two decades, and we’ve been spending the last 40 years wondering where it went, and trying to get it back.

What does this all mean? America may have a short history, but we still manage to misunderstand it, or over-extrapolate it. Two of the major production sectors that define our national identity are unsustainable at best, or an accident at worst. The sooner we recognize that the sooner we can 1) create a sustainable identity for ourselves, and 2) formulate public policy to support it. The current system of bailouts and subsidies to artificially sustain an anachronistic vision isn’t working.

SS Taxpayer

14 Apr

Courtesy Marquil at EmpireWire.com

Calling the Bluff

25 Mar

Unions representing state workers (yes, unions protecting state employees from their employers, the people of the State of New York), decided they were not going to negotiate concessions with Governor Paterson in order to help reduce the state deficit.

The choice was a simple one – give up some raises, take a week’s furlough, deal with a pay freeze and a hiring freeze, or massive layoffs will ensue.

The unions chose massive layoffs. 8,900 at last count, saving the state $481 million over 2 years. Given the state’s $16.2 billion deficit, a very quiet drop in the bucket. But in the end, these public sector unions prove time and time again that they fundamentally don’t get it. Firstly, in choosing to “protect” their members in such a way, they do them a huge disservice. Modest concessions, however painful, trump getting axed. At least, that’s how it works in the normal world. Furthermore, the charge of the state employee is to serve the people. If serving the people means taking concessions to help reduce a budget deficit, then it’s pretty clear what they should do. Serving the people should not mean “job for life”, and it shouldn’t mean “f*ck you, my pension and benefits and guaranteed raise are more important than the state’s overall fiscal health”.

I support union representation of workers in the private sector because through collective bargaining they can work together with corporate management to help workers and the company thrive. The UAW has negotiated huge concessions with GM, Ford, and Delphi, because it realizes that not making concessions means huge layoffs. Something is better than nothing. Union representation of public employees is a flawed concept that harms the real boss and the real worker – the taxpayer who works to pay for all of this shit.

State Budget Woes and Public Unions

11 Nov

It’s that time of year.

Immediately following election season, we are deluged with a different series of radio, print and TV advertisements.  They come from state public employee unions describing a  New York State that intends to return criminals to the street and will kick your sick old Nana to the curb.  Based upon their description, the entire state will descend into an alternate reality version of 28 Days Later if cuts are made to the state budget.

Of course, they have solutions!  These are solutions that our state legislators haven’t considered and will allow for normalcy to continue without one iota of sacrifice from public employees!  Everyone wins!  Well, except for the rest of us who are, ummm, not public employees.

Their big ideas for closing our $10,000,000,000 budget shortfall?

– Raise taxes on the wealthy

– Reduce consultant costs by instituting a freeze on all new consultant contracts and hiring more state employees

– Enact the Bigger, Better Bottle Bill (aka the answer to everything)

– Eliminate or severely restrict overtime by hiring full-time employees to handle the overtime hours.

They have other recommendations, but they are primarily focused on either finding new tax revenue or putting in place cost controls that directly benefit the unions.  Nowhere in any of their proposals will you find suggestions for spending cuts.  You may be saying to yourself, “Geek, why does this surprise you?  Why would they advocate for something which would harm their membership?”

Well, I’m not surprised.  But, I do yearn for a day when the first thing we think about in this state isn’t how to bilk more fees from LLC’s or finding new and exciting ways to generate revenue, it’s to think about what extraneous programs and authorities we can cut.

Just thought I’d share my dream with you.

Channel 7 Gets the Rat

13 Aug

The inflatable rat was inflated and I missed it?