Why should anyone—especially those who are not union members—care that union membership is dropping nationally and likely to fall even further?
Critics of unions claim they are unimportant today or even harmful to the economy, but studies are showing the contrary. Unions are essential for building a strong middle class. And rebuilding the middle class after decades of decline and stagnation is essential for restoring our economy.
Dave Kemnitz, President of the ND AFL-CIO, says unions make the middle class strong by ensuring workers have a strong voice in both the market and in our democracy. When unions are strong they are able to ensure that workers are paid fair wages, receive the training they need to advance to the middle class. “There’s a growing gap between the richest and poorest. We need to build that middle class up. That’s what unions do,” said Kemnitz.
Kemnitz also says unions promote political participation among all Americans, and help workers secure government poli cies that support the middle class, such as Social Security, family leave, and the minimum wage, “Our principle role is democracy in the workplace. Not just for our union members, but everyone. Unions produce the pressure to give everyone a raise,” Kemnitz said.
Terry Curl, retired assistant business manager for the Boilermakers Local 647, agrees: “Unions have done so much for everyone in the workplace: breaks,fair treatment, retirement. If you don’t have someone looking out for your rights, what would you do? Lots of rules and regulations have come about because of unions. It’s not just wages; it’s checks and balances.”
But as unions became weaker over the past four decades, they are less and less able to perform these functions – and the middle class withered. Membership in private-sector unions stands at less than 7 percent today, from around 30 percent in the late 1960s. Public-sector unionization remained stable for decades – it was 37 percent in 1979 and is 36 percent today – but is now under significant threat from conservative political opposition and could start declining as well. All told, less than 12 percent of the total workforce is unionized, and this percentage is likely to continue falling.
Kemnitz said the numbers are little better for North Dakota than they are
nationally, ” Right now we’re at a midpoint between when numbers were the lowest and the highest. Losing the Bobcats workers was a big hit to our area. But we seem to stay relatively stable as far as numbers go.”
Without the counterbalance of workers united together in unions, the middle class withers because the economy and politics tend to be dominated by the rich and powerful, which in turn leads to an even greater flow of money in our economy to the top of the income scale.
The percentage of unionized workers tracks very closely with the share of the nation’s income going to the middle class—those in the middle three-fifths of income earners.
In recent years, the middle class accounted for the smallest share of the nation’s income ever since the end of World War II, when this data was first collected. The middle three income brackets, representing 60 percent of all Americans, received only 46 percent of the nation’s income in 2009, the most recent year data is available, down from highs of around 53 percent in 1969.
The middle class weakened over the past several decades because the rich secured the lion’s share of the economy’s gains. The share of pretax income earned by the richest 1 percent of Americans more than doubled between 1974 and 2007, climbing to 18 percent from 8 percent. And for the richest of the rich—the top 0.1 percent—the gains have been even more astronomical—quadrupling over this period, rising to 12.3 percent of all income from 2.7 percent.
In contrast, incomes for most Americans have been nearly flat over this same time period, and median income after accounting for inflation actually fell for working-age households during the supposedly good economy in the recovery between 2001 and 2007. The importance of unions to the middle class is not just a historical phenomenon, but is relevant to our lives today. To be sure, not everything unions do benefits the broad middle class, but unions are critical to defending the middle class, and their resurgence is key to rebuilding the middle class.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine a middle-class society without a strong union movement.
“I think we’ll keep losing density, but one day people will wake up and say, ‘We’re tired of getting kicked around’. They’ll want healthcare, benefits, and retirement and unions will have a place again,” said Curl.
Kemnitz said we just need to take some time and reflect, “I hope this Labor Day everyone just takes a minute to reflect on what it means to be a worker, part of a company, part of an economy. Workers are important because when we do well – our families do well. When our families do well – the community does well. Gettin’ by isn’t good enough. You should want better.”