Growing up in heavily Republican Missouri years ago, Dawn Burnfin was sure that workers in the modern world didn't need the labor movement.
"I was taught that unions were just a bad deal all the way around," she said. "I don't know if anybody specifically took me aside and said, 'Hey, unions are bad.' It was just the implied attitude of everyone there."
Then Burnfin moved to Minnesota mining country. Here, she was horrified to find, even the bagboys at the grocery store were union. Gradually, though, she absorbed a different attitude toward organized labor. "I could see that the union jobs had higher wages," she said. "They had insurance. They had somebody to go to if there was an issue at work."
Those benefits—routine and almost unnoticed much of the time if you have them, impossible to even imagine if you don't—make a real difference, as Burnfin has discovered through personal experienced.
Five years ago, she was employed as a home-care worker for three different agencies at hourly rates that ranged from $7.50 to $8.50. "I was working 50, 60 hours a week just to make it, just to even barely make it," she said.
Her fiancé can't work because of serious injuries, so she supports the family, including the three of her five kids who still live at home, on her wages. But today she's part of the Service Employees International Union. This past year, she and her fellow Minnesota union members helped bargain a contract that guarantees them at least $12 an hour, with paid time off and paid holidays. For the first time in her decades on the job, this Labor Day she got paid extra for working on the holiday.
Few economic or political elites preach much about the virtues of a union. In a syndicated Labor Day column, Mark J. Perry and Aparna Mathur of the conservative American Enterprise Institute wrote that "unions are increasingly unable to address the challenges that workers face in the 21st century." Higher union wages reduce employers' profitability, they wrote, and "investment in the global economy will move away from companies with such high costs and low profitability." This year in Davos, Switzerland, at an annual gathering of CEOs, billionaires, and world leaders, the assembled glitterati fretted about inequality but blanched at talk of workers being able to bargain for benefits.
Even Democrats have largely remained silent about unions, which remain an important part of their base. The party's "Better Deal" plan to help ordinary workers that Democrats released earlier this year talked about raising the minimum wage, growing the economy, and fighting outsourcing, but didn't mention making sure workers had the ability to organize.
But a report released last month by the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that focuses on the needs of low- and middle-income workers, points out just how relevant the labor movement remains. The decline of unions—which now represent just over one in ten US workers, down from one in five from 1983—has been less about their value for workers than the result of a concerted effort to destroy the labor movement.
At a political moment when almost everyone agrees that income inequality is a problem, the EPI report notes what used to be regarded as an obvious truth: Unions have historically been a crucial force in raising wages and increasing benefits. That's true even for non-union workers, who tend to benefit when a highly unionized workforce raises standards for everyone. After the 1935 passage of the National Labor Relations Act, which kicked off the modern era of unionization, economic growth increasingly benefitted Americans across the income scale. And although unions haven't always been on the right side of struggles for racial justice, on the whole they've reduced racial income disparities. But unions' power has declined since the 1970s.
The fall of unions is often linked with closed factories and mines. Jake Rosenfeld, a sociologist at Washington University in Saint Louis, said that's part of the story. But, he said, it's clear that unions can still function in a globalized economy. For example, exports are a bigger economic driver for heavily unionized Scandinavian countries than for the US. American industries like construction and transportation have also seen a sharp decline in unionization, even though they haven't been faced with automation or outsourcing on the scale of the manufacturing sector. And even as service sector jobs have grown they've remained nonunion and often low-paid, despite recent attempts to unionize places like fast-food restaurants.
The bigger explanation, Rosenfeld said, is that since the 1960s, companies have gotten really good at fighting unions.
"Employers perfected the antiunion playbook in the United States in a way that they haven't in many other places," he said.
The EPI report details the tactics companies use to stop unions. In many cases, they use temp agencies, franchise arrangements, or other techniques to avoid taking legal responsibility for their workers. Labor laws that date back more than a half century aren't equipped to help workers negotiate with companies that do their employing through third parties while retaining all real, practical power over workers.
Similarly, companies ranging from Uber to local construction firms and beauty parlors try to classify workers as independent contractors, avoiding the traditional responsibilities employers have for employees under labor law.
Most blatantly, when faced with unionization efforts, three-quarters of private employers hire consultants to help them quash them. Marni von Wilpert, one of the authors of the EPI report, said a good example is Nissan's recent defeat of a Mississippi union drive by the United Auto Workers. In a campaign clearly organized by professionals, the factory's managers wore "vote no on the union" shirts, and businesses all over town hung up anti-union signs.
During another high-profile union drive, this one at a South Carolina Boeing plant, the company put together a break room display of goods like diapers to demonstrate how much union dues would cost.
But von Wilpert said the most effective anti-union tactic may be simply firing pro-union workers. That's illegal, but the EPI report finds that between one in five and one in seven union organizers gets the boot for their organizing activity. Even when companies get punished for breaking the law, penalties are minimal and the damage to the union is already done.
"It just sends a chill through the entire factory floor or office," von Wilpert said.
Meanwhile, at the state and federal level, anti-union activists have pushed laws that make organizing unions more difficult. One big tool is "right to work" laws, which ban union contracts that require all employees in a workplace to pay a fee to the union for representing them. Without that contract language, it's easy for workers to "free ride," getting representation that they don't pay for and leaving the union without the funds it needs to function.
Despite all that, organized labor is actually growing more popular in the US. A recent poll found that 61 percent of the public approves of labor unions, the highest rate since 2003; a union-commissioned survey found that 54 percent of workers say they would join a union if they could. Alternative ways of organizing workers have shown some glimmers of success. Rosenfeld notes that the Fight for $15, backed by the Service Employees Industrial Union, and the push to raise Walmart's wages supported by the United Food and Commercial workers have both borne fruit.
"You have this growing, and, I think, successful, set of policies and regulations that unions have been really instrumental in pushing," he said. "At the same time, that hasn't translated into union members."
That's bad news for these campaigns in the long run since unions depend on members' dues to fund all their organizing efforts.
To bring more Americans into unions would probably take some significant changes in labor law. For example, the Employee Free Choice Act, defeated by the threat of a Republican filibuster in 2007, would have let workers form a union simply by signing up a majority of the workplace up. That would have circumvented the long election process that makes it easy for employers to mount a diapers-in-the-breakroom-style intimidation campaign.
During the Obama years, the National Labor Relations Board also pushed for changes requiring companies to take more responsibility for hiring by franchises and contractors.
Today, of course, the momentum at the federal level is going in the opposite direction. Donald Trump's NLRB appointees are likely to reverse Obama-era changes. The Supreme Court is poised to rule on a case that could impose right to work rules on all public employers, decisively weakening unions in workplaces like public schools, one of labor's few remaining strong points.
Reversing the anti-union trend may seem like a leftist pipe dream, but the forces stacked against labor aren't unyielding economic forces. Rather, unions are being attacked by employers and the right-wing politicians who enable them. To change that, politicians would need to listen to workers like Burnfin, who can clearly explain what a union is good for. Her union, she said, is, quite simply, a source of power in dealing with her employer.
"It's no longer a David and Goliath kind of thing, you versus the agency," she said. "They can ignore my phone calls, but they can't really ignore a phone call from the union."
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