Suffering from Labor Pains

No I’m not describing my current medical condition. I may be interesting but I’m not a medical miracle. What I am describing is the painful assault the labor movement is taking and how it affects us all, regardless of whether or not we are union members. I’m a member of the dreaded teacher’s union, as was my dad’s mom. My mother’s dad was a Teamster for 42 years.

I don’t argue that unions are perfect. Some are grossly mismanaged while others (usually the more Republican ones) have been downright corrupt. Some folks in the labor unions hold politicians to impossible litmus tests. A case in point is labor’s lukewarm support for Jimmy Carter’s re-election bid in 1980. Carter may not have been as liberal as Ted Kennedy or Tip O’Neil, but he was still as economic progressive. That labor leaders didn’t understand the degree to which Carter was a friend (and that then-Governor Reagan was a dangerous enemy) is the eptiome of Nero playing a fiddle while Rome burned. In the 1970s and 1980s, labor was slow to recognize the changing economy, the dangers rising inflation posed to the Democrats, and did not emphasize the organization of new workers enough. The SEIU still has this view of the AFL-CIO, as evidenced by their recent split.

Still, most unions are nothing less than a godsend for workers as well as liberals. The growth of unions from 1896-1920 from less than 10% of the workforce to nearly 25% of the workforce was a big reason for the progressive reforms of that era. Similarly, the decline of unions in the 1920s was a big reason for the re-growing of the rich/poor gap that was a cause of the Great Depression.

Fortunately, by 1940 unions had reversed their slide and represented 25% of workers. During WWII that number rose to over 30%. From 1945-1970, at least 30% of the workforce was unionized. Despite the beginning of deindustrialization in the mid-1970s and a new radical right movement among business-labor unions still represented 25% of the workforce in 1979. Don’t forget that the years from Roosevelt until Reagan saw a growing middle and wealthy class, shrinking numbers of the poor, a huge increase in the living standards of all Americans, a great growth in civil rights, and declining income inequality. Labor can’t take all the credit for this, but they played their part in it. Since 1980 the gap between rich and poor has grown to levels not seen since the 1930s and unions have fallen from 25% of the workforce to roughly 12.5%. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Just so there’s no confusion about the continuing benefits of unions, consider:
Union workers’ median weekly earnings are 28 percent higher than their nonunion counterparts. While only 16 percent of nonunion workers have guaranteed pensions, fully 70 percent of union workers do.
86 percent of union workers’ jobs provide health insurance benefits, compared with only 59.5 percent of nonunion workers’ jobs. Only 2.5 percent of union workers are uninsured, compared with 15 percent of nonunion workers. Median weekly wages for women union workers are 34 percent higher than nonunion women.

Median weekly wages for African American workers in unions are 29 percent higher than for nonunion African Americans; for Latinos, the difference is 59 percent; and for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, it is 11 percent.”

While unions should shoulder some blame for their declining percent of the workforce, don’t forget that:
“Fifty-three percent of nonunion workers say they want a union in their workplace, according to a recent national poll. Ninety-two percent of private-sector employers, when faced with employees who want to form a union, force employees to attend closed-door meetings to hear anti-union propaganda; 78 percent require supervisors to deliver anti-union messages in one-on-one meetings with workers they oversee.
Seventy-five percent hire outside consultants to run anti-union campaigns, often based on mass psychology and distorting the law. More than half of private-sector employers tell employees they will shut down partially or totally if the employees succeed in forming a union; in manufacturing more than 70 percent of employers tell workers this.

In 25 percent of organizing campaigns, private-sector employers illegally fire workers because they want to form a union. Even after workers successfully form a union, nearly half of the time, employers avoid negotiating a contract. The union movement is supporting the Employee Free Choice Act, which would protect workers’ freedom to form unions by allowing them to choose a union through majority sign-up (card-check).”

Unlike many political interest groups on both the left and right that focus on single issues, the labor movement has played an integral role in realizing the goals of many a progressive cause. As Mark Shields notes in his editorial “Labor’s Problems Touch You and Me:

“To the displeasure of conservatives and many capitalists, labor used its political clout to successfully back public policies that addressed the shortcomings and cruel indifference of a free market: child labor laws, unemployment insurance, retirement security, workmen’s compensation, the 40-hour work week.”

Labor also consistently backed a richer and fuller non-work life through adequate funding of public schools, public parks and recreation, public transportation, public libraries and affordable health care. These are truly the people who brought you the weekend.

“Anyone who was fortunate enough, as I was, to work on any of the epic civil rights laws of the 1960s that made racial segregation illegal and guaranteed the right to vote and buy a home to all Americans knows that union political muscle and savvy were indispensable to the legislative success of the movement.”

“In recent years, organized labor strongly pushed for both the Family and Medical Leave Act, which grants employees up to three months of unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a child or to care for a seriously ill spouse or family member, and the Americans With Disabilities Act, which has enabled 40 million Americans with disabilities to become full participants in public life.”

So why do many Democrats over the last 2 and a half decades insist on using labor unions as a ATM machine at campaign time, but ignore the needs of workers (both union and nonunion) when in office, and do little to maintian the machine and the workforce after Election Day? I hear alleged Democrats say, “unions are declining in power and can’t be relied on” “unions are obsolete”, “unions were good for the industrial age but not the information age”, etc. My personal favorite is Democrats who think appealing to upper-middle class “soccer moms” is the way to win elections and that union rank-and-file are at best not understanding of the “new” economy, at worst the rank-and-file are reminsicent of Archie Bunker. Nevermind that a majority of unionized workers are female, while over 40% are non-white. Archie Bunker? Listen up meathead pundits, until you know your facts please stifle yourself.

Sure Some Democrats are less liberal than others, unions will sometimes err, and their are many folks who proudly call themselves part of the Democratic tent. Yes Democrats must broaden that tent but to paraphrase Harry Truman, anybody who is indifferent to unions-let alone hostile, a la the Clintons- should be about as welcome in the Dem party as a Yankee fan at Fenway Park. Since the aftermath of Carter’s 1980 defeat, and some would argue even earlier than that, Dems have tried to be socially liberal and economically moderate to (in some cases) downright conservative.

As Shields says, “there is an almost implicit libertarian agreement between liberals and conservatives, is a non-aggression pact: I won’t meddle too much with your lifestyle if you don’t meddle with my free market…. What has emerged, if we are candid, is an American society and culture where individual autonomy and self-expression are revered, where the individual’s pre-eminent obligation is to himself and where the uninterrupted, private pursuit of wealth qualifies as a contribution to the common good.” The results of this compact: GOP control of all three branches of government while the Dems have not won 50% of the popular vote since 1976 and have not won 51% or more since 1964.

Let me make clear that Democrats have come a long way in the last few years from their sellout days of the 1990s. Nor do I include Kerry/Edwards (or most Democrats) in this Democrat Hall of Shame. While Kerry may or may not have been the “most liberal member of the Senate” he was one of the most pro-labor ones: Kerry’s lifetime voting record on issues dear to the AFL-CIO, at least according to the AFL-CIO, was a whopping 91%. Kerry’s strong support for labor issues like raising the minimum wage and instant card-check endeared him to unions. They rewarded Kerry with a massive get-out-the-vote effort (24% of 2004 voters were from union households). More importantly, Kerry beat Bush among voters from union households by a margin of 65%-33%, a larger percent of the labor household vote than any Democrat since 1964!! Kerry also beat Bush 68%-31% among union househ0lds in the battleground states.

In Ohio, union households voted for Kerry by 67%-31%. Don’t forget that Kerry won Oregon by only 77,332 votes. Fortunately, voters turnout among union households in Oregon was an astounding 91%.
In Michigan, union household voters represented 37% of all voters. In Pennsylvania they represented 30% of the electorate.

Pennsylvania: Union households, Kerry 62%-37. Non-union households, Bush 55%-45%. Michigan: Union households, Kerry 61%-37%. Non-union households, Bush 55%-44%. Without unions, Bush would’ve won a huge electoral mandate, period.

Finally, for all the (mostly justified) talk about the GOP’s manipulation of race and white alienation from the Democrats, it’s clear that the greater the workforce is unionized, the better for Dems, even among white folks. In the column “Democrats should look for the union label” Robyn Blumner points out that “gun owners nationally voted for Bush over Kerry by 20 percentage points. But if those gun owners were also union members, they voted for Kerry by a 12-point margin. White men were for Bush over Kerry by 18 percentage points, but white, male union members preferred Kerry by 21 points. And Americans who go to church weekly voted for Bush over Kerry by 21 percentage points. Add in the union factor and they were for Kerry by 12 points.” Bush also won white women overall by a margin of 54%-45%. But Kerry won white women union voters 72%-37%.

“So there it is. Create a union member, and there’s a good chance you’ve grown a Democrat as well.” If anything, give one guy or girl a union card and you’ve likely made a Democrat of them as well as everyone in their household.

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About Nick

Teacher of Social Studies. Born in the 1970s. History major, music minor. Big Baseball fan. Economic progressive.
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5 Responses to Suffering from Labor Pains

  1. Nick

    I’ve never been a member of a Union, but I have always felt that they do so much good. I hope we can get the Unions back to the strength they should be at, because workers need Unions.

  2. Nick says:


    You are absolutely right 100%. Even workers who don’t belong to unions benefit from labor unions being strong. If anybody you know-who doesn’t work in a unionized workplace- ever tries to tell you unions are not necessary, just tell him or her: Ever wonder why so many jobs without unions have (or at least used to have) generous health, retirement, and vaction packages? Simple. The employers were nice to employees because they didn’t want to give their workers a motive to want to join a union.
    Yes there are enlightened, kind employers out there. But anybody who thinks that the threat of unionized employees don’t jolt some employers to be employee friendly is more than wrong. Most likely they’ve been sealed off from the real world for a long time, possibly in the same “undisclosed location” that Cheney has been for most of the Bush years.

  3. Floyd M. Orr says:

    You have written a concise description of why America needs to rebuild its labor unions. I want to add my two cents’ worth. I think the problem is that where we need unions the most, at Wally-World and the Home of the Big Mac and their competitors, we don’t have them. I am not exactly sure what to do about that. What I am sure of is that we do not need $20,000 motorcycles or $500 computers. The scooters should be smaller, slower, and cheaper, and the computers should be slower and more expensive. If this does not make sense to you, take a look at the big picture. Why have U.S. corporations made these choices? Could there be a correlation here? Could there be reasons why Harley-Davidson is the darling of U.S. industry and Intel is in deep doo-doo with their blazingly fast, but too cheap, microprocessors? This is just one obvious example of the economic mess America is in. What do I think are probably the biggest evil entities of the U.S. economy? Downsizing, outsourcing, and ever larger mergers and company buyouts. In short, the Wal-martization of America.

  4. Nick says:

    Right on Floyd

    Couldn’t have put it better myself. As to why Wal-Mart and others aren’t unionized I can only respond that
    1) Unions have been slow to move into unionizing services and
    2) Employers-especially Wal-Mart- use unethical nad in many cases illegal tactics to stop unionization. E.g. firing workers who want a union, spying on workers, kicking union workers off the grounds (I myself fgot kicked out of a Wal-Mart for wearing a pro-labor sticker-and I was a customer). When my girlfriend worked for WalMart she was shown an anti-union video on the very first day. thankfully, she now works for the YMCA where the benefits and wages are a lot better.

  5. Workers Compensation says:

    My name is Viky and I live in Waco. Is there a way to get this blog feed in my email?