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How Unions Help American Families and Keep Watch Over Corporations

'If unions were stronger, and worker power was stronger, we would not be the only industrial nation in the world without paid parental leave or paid vacations.'

Minimum wage hasn’t been raised in a decade. Overtime pay rules haven’t been updated to keep up with the times. Corporations wield wild amounts of power and many go unchecked. Why is the American worker getting kneecapped? Where have all our powerful worker unions gone? In his new book, Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor, Steven Greenhouse, a veteran labor reporter who has written about labor and workplace matters for nearly 20 years, details the rise and fall of unions, making the case that the lack of American workers in unions today is what accounts for stagnant wages, soaring income inequality, and the domination of corporate interest and money when crafting American economic policy. Fatherly spoke to Greenhouse about the importance of unions, why union membership helped the economy soar for middle class families, and why parents in particular should care about the dying state of unions in our country. 

It’s interesting that, as you say, union membership is the lowest it’s been since the Great Depression. The National Labor Relations Act, and therefore the federal right to unionize, was passed in the midst of it, right? Is the implication that union organizing is as low as it was before unions were federally protected?

During the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Dealers saw that Americans were way too poor. They wanted to figure out a way to put money in their pockets. So they figured that they should help them unionize and enact a law that gives them a federally protected right to unionize. That way they’ll be able to demand higher pay from their employers, that will put more money in their pockets to spend on cars and clothes and that will spur factories to create new jobs and a virtuous cycle for the economy. Unions grew in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. They became very powerful. In the ’80s, corporate America started fighting hard to beat back unions. That, I argue, is the main reason that the unionization rate has fallen from a peak of 35 percent in the 1950s to just 10.5 percent [of workers] today.

Of course, globalization and factories moving offshore hurt American unions, because manufacturing was the core of the labor movement. The number of manufacturing jobs has declined from 19.5 million to around 12.5 million. 

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Union membership has declined, but white-collar union organizing, in jobs like media, has been on the rise.

Overall, union membership has declined from 35 to 10.5 percent and to a very, very low 6.4 percent in the private sector. On a certain level, things look glum for unions. On the other hand, according to the annual Gallup Poll, Americans approval ratings for unions are the highest in 15 years, a 64 percent approval. There’s an MIT study showing that 50 percent of non-union, non-managerial workers say they’d vote to join a union today if they could. That’s significantly different from the 1990s. 

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But a lot of workers are scared to push for unions because they worry about getting fired. We’re seeing a real burst of unionization among white-collar workers — well-educated workers who are probably more secure — than blue-collar workers. There’s been a burst of unionizing in digital media, at some of the large traditional papers like the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune. They’ve unionized after being non-union for over a century. We’re seeing it among adjunct professors, another very well-educated and underpaid group. I’ve interviewed professors who say they juggle six or seven classes, maybe making $25,000 a year teaching. It’s almost impossible for them to support themselves, no less their families.

But there hasn’t been as much unionizing among blue-collar workers, partly because they’re so scared about getting fired, getting in trouble, getting punished if they try to unionize.

What are the benefits of union membership?

When you’re a worker, unless you have extreme skills and great confidence, it’s hard to go to your boss and say, “Give me a raise.” Yes, people do it, but it ain’t easy, and often, it’s not successful. Study after study has shown that workers are more successful at getting raises and a larger share of the companies profits and prosperity if they have a union. Studies have shown that the typical unionized worker makes 14 percent more than a comparable non-union worker if you factor in education and age. We hear a lot about the wage gap for women — the typical woman worker earns only 79 percent of the typical male worker. But unionized women make 94 percent of what unionized men make. The typical African American worker who is unionized makes 16 percent more than typical non-union black workers in comparable jobs and education. Being unionized helps workers get higher wages and get more money to support themselves and their family.

In my book, I wrote: “America suffers from what I call anti-worker exceptionalism.” That is really bad for work-family balance, it’s bad for stress. It’s bad for one’s family. The United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t have laws guaranteeing paid maternity and parental leave. And not just that: There are only a small, tiny handful of other nations in the world that don’t guarantee paid maternity leave. Suriname, Papua New Guinea, and a few tiny Pacific islands. The United States is the only industrial nation that doesn’t guarantee every worker a vacation, paid, or unpaid. In 28 nations of the EU, everyone is guaranteed at least four weeks paid vacation. Of three dozen industrial nations, the United States and South Korea are the only industrial nations that don’t guarantee paid sick days to workers.

I’ve written too many stories about workers who got sick or took a day or three off work and got fired, because a manager just says that they don’t have a right to take off when they get sick. To my mind, that’s really scandalous. I was a reporter in Europe for five years. I covered France, Germany, Australia, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, and Britain. People there get paid sick days. People get paid vacation. It makes life much more reasonable for workers and their families. French workers get six weeks of paid vacation a year. I saw all of these workers taking three week vacations with their families. That’s great for developing relationships with one’s kids. 

Where do you think the idea of anti-worker exceptionalism come from? Why is that baked into the way we talk about economic policy and raising the minimum wage or paying for child care for families? 

The answer is unclear. The United States sees ourselves as very individualistic, as a nation of entrepreneurs. We, as a nation, don’t have as strong of a Social Democratic tradition as Germany, Sweden, Denmark, France. Labor parties have a stronger voice in government.

The political parties in the United States are not as attentive to worker concerns as in Europe and Canada and the rest of the industrial world. 

The other thing I see is our campaign finance system is really warped. It’s clear why a lot of lawmakers are far, far more attuned and attentive to what corporate America wants and what workers want. In the 2016 campaign cycle, corporations donated $3.4 billion in the elections and labor gave less than 1/16th as much — $214 million, according to the Nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. 

Each year, corporate America spends just under $3 billion on lobbying in Washington, 60 times more than labor, which spent $48 million last year.

The system, I argue, is skewed against the interests of workers. That’s why Congress rushed to pass a huge tax cut for corporations and the very wealthy, and just sits on it’s derriere and won’t raise the minimum wage that hasn’t been raised in over a decade. That’s the longest time the minimum wage hasn’t gone up since the federal minimum wage was first created in 1938 under FDR. 

Yeah, that’s bananas. I feel like a lot of that lobbying has to do with why people are traditionally really dismissive of unions: there’s so much money poured into the interests of big business. 

Republican politicians and businesses often say: “If you unionize, wages get too high and we can’t compete. We’re going to move our operations to China, Vietnam, or Mexico.” I was just in Virginia giving a speech. Ninety percent of Virginia’s furniture industry has moved to China. That was not a unionized industry. Both unionized and non-unionized industries have moved to China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Mexico, because American companies want to go where labor is cheaper. It’s false to say unionization has pushed companies to go overseas. Both union and non-union companies have rushed to go overseas because they look at it as a way to maximize profit. It’s easy for anti-union folks to say it’s all because of unionization. I don’t think that’s accurate.

What would union membership do for families? Why should the average parent join unions? 

These are all numbers for private sector jobs, not government jobs, but 61 percent of union members get traditional pensions, compared to just 8 percent of non-union workers. Eighty-three percent of union members have health coverage, compared to just 53 percent of non-union workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 62 percent of members get employer-sponsored dental care, compared to 30 percent of non-union workers. Forty-five percent of union workers get employer sponsored vision care, compared to 17 percent of non-union workers. With regard to outpatient prescription drug coverage, 76 percent of union members get employer sponsored coverage compared to 46 percent of non-union workers. In terms of work-family balance, union members generally get a better deal. Ninety percent of union members get paid holidays, compared to 77 percent of non-union workers. Eighty-three percent of union members get paid sick leave, compared to 70 percent of non-union workers. Eighty-nine percent of union workers get paid vacation, compared to 70 percent of non-union workers. Fifty-seven percent of union workers get paid personal leave compared to 42 percent of non-union. 

Studies show that unionized workplaces, the profits are somewhat lower, because the corporations are forced to share more of their profits and income with workers. That helps share the wealth better. In the United States, corporate profits as a share of the overall economy are at their highest levels since World War II, and worker compensation, wages plus benefits, are at the lowest levels since WWII. One reason for that is the decline of unions. Unions have their flaws. But they do create a fairer economy. If unions were stronger, and worker power was stronger, we would not be the only industrial nation in the world without paid parental leave or paid vacations.