Unions, Democrats, and Working-Class Interests

The labor movement has historically been the most effective representative of working-class interests.  The short list of labor’s achievements include ending child labor; establishing the eight-hour day and minimum and “living” wages, unemployment insurance and workers compensation, occupational safety and health standards; securing health care, sick leave, vacations and pensions; and helping create legislation to outlaw job discrimination against women, minorities, disabled persons, and older workers.

Union members receive 15% more wages on average than non-union workers, are 19% more likely to have health insurance, and are 24% more likely to have an employer sponsored pension. Despite the clear correlation between overall compensation and union membership, a recent report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows that union membership has dropped in most states. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 12.3% of wage and salary workers belong to labor organizations. This amounts to drop of almost 9% over the last 25 years. The greatest declines in unionization rates have occurred in private sector and non-agricultural employment, including manufacturing and construction.

The decline is significant enough that it is undermining the labor movement’s ability to advance the interests of working people. The real strength of the labor movement has now moved to the public sector; public employees now constitute more than half of all union members. Perhaps because they now dominate the labor movement, public sector unionists have come under attack recently, and some expect membership levels to drop as a result of the current economic crisis, as schools, cities, and other public employers cut the work force in response to declining tax revenues.

Union membership has declined for a number of reasons, including globalization, changes in workplace organization (ie. subcontracting, offshoring, lean production), the growing proportion of part-time and contingent jobs, employer hostility, legal and political opposition to labor unions, and the ineffectiveness of business unionism to provide improvements in wages and benefits.

Overall public support for labor unions has also declined.  The Pew Center for the People and Press found recently that favorability ratings have fallen sharply in recent years.  While 58% of those polled in January 2007 viewed unions favorably, by 2010 only 41% held that view.  Negative views increased, from 31% in 2007 to 42% by 2010.  Importantly, the Pew study found declines in union favorability occurred at similar rates across most demographic groups. Further, a recent Gallup poll found that 51% feel that unions hurt the general economy more than they help it.  Only 39% saw unions as favorable to the economy.

While the labor movement remains vocal and active on the political front, declining numbers and shrinking public support are undermining labor’s influence within the Democratic Party, which has historically relied on organized labor as the core of its support.  In the past two years, almost every political initiative by organized labor, from support for a public option in health care to labor law reform to simply naming of new members to the National Labor Relations Board has been all but ignored or put on the back burner. In turn, labor support for the Democratic Party has become lukewarm and fragmented at best.

What will the Democratic Party look like without the labor movement at its center? Two visiting international scholars at the Center for Working-Class Studies believe that it will come to resemble comparable political parties in the UK and Germany. Sociologist James Rhodes suggests that like the British Labor Party, Democrats will abandon organized labor and working-class issues. Geographer Eva Viertlböck thinks that, like the German Social Democratic Party, the Democratic Party will break apart as labor unionists and former working- and middle-class supporters move to the ends of the political spectrum.  Michael Lind, writing for Salon, sees something similar. He suggests that labor unions are unlikely to regain their position at the heart of liberal politics. Instead, he believes that liberal interest groups and social elites using new technology will replace unions as the new core of liberal politics and the Democratic Party. That is, the Democrats will become a party that practices the “politics of charity” instead of the “politics of solidarity.”

None of this bodes well for working people. Despite attempts by organized labor to organize the unorganized both politically and institutionally, working people are looking elsewhere for agency and voice.  In some cases, they are supporting groups that seem antithetical to their needs but capture their anger.  In the last year, one of the questions I was asked most frequently by reporters is “Does the working class support the Tea Party Movement?”  While it is difficult to determine how actively working-class people are involved, it is clear that some do support the movement, and that support may be growing.

Given the demographic declines and shifting political landscape, the labor movement needs to become more closely aligned with various social and economic justice movements.  These groups share with organized labor the growing sense of economic vulnerability, frustration with government, and the shredding of the nation’s social safety net. Labor unions must move beyond workplaces issues, openly support the interests of all working people, and engage in community organizing on both local and regional levels.  Put differently, it must refocus its energy and  mission and return to its traditional role of advocating for all working people.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

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11 Responses to Unions, Democrats, and Working-Class Interests

  1. dheck says:

    Love the blog, and thanks for the post, John.

    This call particularly resonated with me, because it is what we have been doing for the last five years, “Labor unions must move beyond workplaces issues, openly support the interests of all working people, and engage in community organizing on both local and regional levels. Put differently, it must refocus its energy and mission and return to its traditional role of advocating for all working people.”

    It is exactly by doing this kind of work that Working America, the Community Affiliate of the AFL-CIO, has grown to over 3 million members nationally in the last few years, with over 1 million of those members in Ohio. These are members who don’t have the benefit of a union on the job, but who recognize that we are fighting with them on a broad range of working family issues. You’re sitting in the middle of a huge wave of organizing that we have done quietly, person by person, door by door, throughout Ohio. I agree that we need to do even more of it🙂

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  2. People deserve way more than what they are currently given. With the rapidly increasing costs of living, health care, and insurance, the time is now for a reform in our labor practices and theory.

    Great information, and nice blog!

    Like

  3. Stephen says:

    The interests of the working class ought to be respected.

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    • trent steel says:

      Do you mean the working class, as in “all people who desire to work for a wage,”, or “unionized workers”? (Government favored) Unions are only a benefit to their members and hurt the interests of non-unionized workers, consumers, and employers.

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  4. WearyCitizen says:

    The authors of the new report, Ohio University economists Richard Vedder and Lowell Gallaway, calculate that unions have cost the U.S. economy $50 trillion over the past half century. By distorting the price of labor and imposing inefficient work rules, Vedder and Gallaway argue, union policies constitute a steady drain on resources. “The deadweight economic losses are not one-shot impacts on the economy,” said the economists. “What our simulations reveal is the powerful effect of the compounding over more than half a century of what appears at first to be small annual effects,” they added.
    (Source: https://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/2010/03/22/unions-democrats-and-working-class-interests/)

    Just a thought.

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  5. trent steel says:

    If unions benefitted their members above what they cost, there would not need to be any laws or regulations forcing membership or payment of dues. If unions benefitted employers more than they cost them, there would not need to be any laws forcing the acceptance of them. In both cases, membership and cooperation, force would not be necessary if mutual benefit under free exchange existed.
    If a worker is free to quit a job, an employer if free to fire. Workers are not slaves, and neither are those who own a business. In fact, often they switch roles, with today’s worker opening his own shop tomorrow, or today’s business owner closing his doors and taking wage or salary work instead.
    To the extent that union workers in today’s regime of laws and regulations earns more then his fellow it is with wages stolen from the less skilled kept out of the market by rules created by politicians bought and paid for by unions. No one in a union makes the minimum wage, yet unions are the biggest lobbyists for these laws. Why? Because they eliminate competition for union workers. Pay for union workers goes up, and the poorest and least skilled cannot find any job at all. Their ability to develop skills is destroyed. The young and minorities are disproportionately hurt.
    Unions are cartels like any other. They seek to increase their profits at the expense of others. Unions could survive and help their members by providing training, job placement, vetted workers, group insurance pools, etc. Instead they concentrate on legally excluding competition and extorting those who create jobs by risking their own money to produce goods for society.
    Unions, if they can flourish without coercion and violence, are a good thing. If they cannot, it is only because they are not a net benefit to the members and the places the members desire to work.

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  6. Alisa says:

    A very interesting post, John. Thanks for this.

    I’m curious about whether reporters are interested in working-class involvement in the Tea Party movement as a way to confirm the supposed move among the working-class (here, of course, read as white) towards the right. In other words, I’m wondering if we can understand this dynamic as scholars have about the middle-class’s “discovery” of the working-class in the late 1960s and 70s. The images I’ve seen of Tea Party members are white and male, with writers describing them as socially conservative, religious, and patriotic (sounds familiar to the description of the working-class in the late 60s and 70s).

    Like

  7. John Ryan says:

    You make some really powerful points, John. The most important element, though, is that working people will continue to feel the pinch if we do not have a stronger labor movement. This comes in the form of reduced benefits, wage pressures, and job-killing trade agreements. One fundamental element of growing a stronger movement is enacting labor law reform. As someone who brought workers together to form unions, I can attest to how the current law fails working people. Even when 100% of the workers sign up, the law allows employers to attack the rights of workers and delay results for years — and years. This must change…or workers will continue to see their standard of living shift downwards.

    Keep up the good work at the center.

    Like

  8. Amy Hanauer says:

    I definitely agree that working people and the labor movement need to join forces with community groups, environmental organizations, low-income advocates, human service organizations and others to push for a broad progressive agenda that helps workers and their communities. Some of that kind of cross-group collaboration is being fostered by the Apollo Alliance, the National Partnership for Working Families, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, Jobs with Justice and others. Unions are still an important force, but they are a much stronger force when joined with other allies. Furthermore, when working people make clear that they also have a concern for racial justice, economic justice broadly speaking, and smart environmental policy, they solidify the moral high ground – that unions are for fairness, equity, justice, the future, and the next generation.

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