Rise of Unions: Revaluing Labor
Pam Sornson, JD
There was a time in America – some 50 years ago – when union membership was the central foundation of the ‘American Dream.’ Unions provided millions of workers with occupational and career stability, safe working conditions, and the economic freedom to live the lives they chose to live. While their predominance has faded considerably, unions still offer members more benefits and perks than most non-union positions. They can also be the foothold needed by marginalized populations to achieve both social and upward mobility.
Early Benefits of Unionization
Employees who are also union members receive different, and often more beneficial, treatment from their employers than those without union representation on their job.
As individuals, workers gain benefits demanded by their collective ‘voice’ for work-related elements that keep them safer and better paid.
Many of today’s workplace health and safety standards, and the consequences for failing to maintain them, are in place because union members refused to work in unsafe conditions.
Workers also have better access to healthcare services in regions with strong union representation due to the lobbying for the passage of paid sick and family leave laws by union representatives.
Pay rates have also been significantly influenced by union agitation over the years. For example, because of unionization, many employees working in hazardous positions were able to demand higher pay to compensate for the higher risk. (This phenomenon was revealed with particular clarity throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, when ‘essential workers’ were required to stay on the job – risking their lives – even though they were often the lowest-paid workers in the business.)
States with high union participation also enjoy economic and social benefits not seen in states without a strong union presence:
Their workforce earns more money, averaging a $6,000 increase in median annual income over the national average.
Their minimum wages are higher (19% over the national average and 40% over non-union states), resulting in higher tax revenues for the government.
Their unemployed workers are more likely to actually receive unemployment insurance (funded by employers), giving them needed financial resources to remain economically stable and off public welfare rolls while seeking new work.
These data affirm that a strong union presence significantly and positively influences both individuals and communities.
Decline of Unions
Despite that reality, however, union development and participation have declined since their high popularity in the mid-20th Century. The number and size of unions multiplied after World War II as returning soldiers and state-side-based workers sought better pay and working conditions in the burgeoning post-war economy. By the 1970s, though, a series of global evolutions was eroding the economic and social foundations that unions needed to exist, including pervasive deregulation, industrial restructuring, and the emergence of the international marketplace. As a result, by the late 1980s, only 17% of the American workforce was ‘organized,’ compared to more than double that just 30 years before.
Union Interest Emerges Again
In many cases, the legislation used to derail the union movement in the ’70s remains in place as a barrier to today’s workers who might consider unionizing to improve their work situation. However, the economic chaos caused by the pandemic is again focusing attention on the benefits of unionization for both workers and their employers, and the effort is revealing some surprising developments.
More People of Color Pursuing Union Membership
Throughout 2022, the number of unionized Americans grew by 200,000 to a total of over 16 million. During the same annual period, the percentage of the American workforce that was unionized fell from 11.6% to 11.3%. So how did the country gain more individual union members while the overall percentage of unionized workers/non-unionized workers fell? Two reasons:
- More non-union jobs were coming available than union-affiliated positions, and
- Virtually the entire 200,000 newly unionized workers were people of color. A total of 231,000 people of African, Latinx, Asian, and Pacific Islander (AAPI) descent were joining unions, while 31,000 white people were leaving them. The trend tracks research that demonstrates that union membership or representation reduces inequality by leveling the factory floor for all workers, regardless of race, gender, or ability.
Additionally, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) reported a 53% increase in the filing of ‘union election petitions’ in 2022, the first step in the unionization process. Their data also suggests that in that year, more than 60 million workers would have joined a union but, for various reasons, could not do so. Further, public support for unionization was recorded at a 50-year high as workers took advantage of high job opening numbers to leverage their personal fortunes.
Employers See Benefits, Too
While, typically, businesses have fought the ‘organization’ of their labor force, today’s economy is providing a foundation that supports and encourages union participation. Many C-Suite leaders now recognize that the benefits of an organized workforce include reduced production costs and an escalated bottom line.
The pandemic exposed the reality that some jobs are literally ‘life or death,’ so enterprises in those industries are scrambling to regain workers to ensure their survival post-COVID.
Today’s tight job market, in general, is also pressuring companies to prioritize worker needs and enhance work conditions as lures to fill job openings. Being open to union activities can be a draw to potential employees who may have their choice of future employer.
Improved productivity for the corporation is also a known benefit that flows from an organized workforce. Statistics show that unionized companies reduce costs by decreasing turnover and churn rates. They can also enhance their product quality and community ‘goodwill’ factor by maintaining an engaged and proud labor force.
Data indicates that companies with a unionized workforce enjoy better performance and higher returns than those that don’t, and that the communities in which these businesses do business are healthier and more economically stable than those that eschew worker organization.
Polls indicate that more than two-thirds of Americans are in favor of a unionized workforce, and data suggests that having one is good business for the company. Unions are also now seen as a fourth stepping stone to upward mobility for marginalized groups and provide millions of workers the opportunity to find, secure and live the life they choose.
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