Union Membership At Its Lowest Level Since World War One

At the New Yorker, John Cassidy has an excellent blog post breaking down the sorry state of American unions—and what that means for the average worker.

The percentage of workers who are unionized “as a proportion of the work force” is at its lowest level since 1916. Cassidy explains why this is so surprising:

Union membership has been sliding for a long time. But it is still striking to see it falling when the economy is recovering (albeit slowly); the manufacturing sector–traditionally a union stronghold–is doing pretty well; and the Democratic Party is, at least nominally, in power. Five or ten years ago, with unions like the S.E.I.U. making gains in organizing low-paid workers in the service sector–such as janitors, nurses, and cleaners–the decline in unionization seemed to be bottoming out. No longer. With big manufacturers still moving their operations to the non-union South, and with states such as Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan seeking to undermine their public sector unions (and generally succeeding), the labor movement is facing another big crisis.

This impacts employees directly. Whatever their other merits, unions excel at preserving wages: as the post points out, the average unionized worker can expect to make $49,000 in a year—over ten grand more than a “comparable” non-union worker, who will average $38,600 annually.

President Obama, who no longer has to worry about re-election, has a chance to promote the cause of organized labor—and in so doing, promote the well-being of the individual worker. Cassidy points out that Obama also owes unions for their donations and get-out-the-vote efforts. And as a candidate, Senator Obama endorsed “card check” legislation that would make it easier for unions to form. Unfortunately, card check bills have failed in Congress.

The New York Times editorial board suggests how the Obama administration should spend its pro-worker energy, instead: fighting the recent court decision that undid Obama’s pro-union appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. The Times:

The misguided decision, if upheld, would deny the board a quorum to rule on legal questions. In seeking to overturn the ruling, all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary, the administration should take aim at the court’s unjustified incursion on presidential power and its antiunion bias.

The Times‘ editorial sums up their ideal second-term labor agenda for the President:

The White House must also commit to new rules on workplace safety, wage and overtime enforcement and proper classification of workers as employees versus independent contractors, a label that employers often misuse to deny benefits. Labor reforms are also central to immigration reform.

That rundown is many blog posts’ worth of reforms. Suffice it to say, we can only hope an agenda like this takes hold in Washington.

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