Why should anyone—especially those who are not union members—care that union membership is at record lows and likely to fall even further? Because if you care about the middle class, you need to care about unions.
Critics of unions claim they are unimportant today or even harmful to the economy, but 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.
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, and are considered in corporate decision-making processes. Unions also promote political participation among all Americans, and help workers secure government policies that support the middle class, such as Social Security, family leave, and the minimum wage.
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. The percentage of workers in unions steadily declined largely because the legal and political environment prevents private-sector workers from freely exercising their right to join or not to join a union. 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.
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 income scale. As can be seen in Figure 1, 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 quintiles, 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.
Across the globe, the countries with the strongest middle classes all have strong union movements. And in America today, states with higher concentrations of union members have a much stronger middle class. The 10 states with the lowest percentage of workers in unions all have a relatively weak middle class, with the share of total state income going to households in the middle three-fifths of income earners in these states below the average for all states.
Our analysis, more fully described in the body and appendix of this report, indicates that each percentage point increase in union membership puts about $153 more per year into the pockets of the middle class—meaning that if unionization rates increased by 10 percentage points (about the level they were in 1980)—then the typical middle class household would earn $1,532 more this year. This figure indicates how much better off all members of the middle class would be—not just those who are union members— if unions regained some strength. And these gains would continue year after year. To put these results in context, our analysis indicates that increasing union membership is as important to rebuilding the middle class as boosting college graduation rates, results that while shocking to some, are consistent with previous research.
In our democracy, when workers are joined together in unions they are able to more forcefully and effectively speak for their interests. Unions give workers a greater voice not only by promoting political participation among all Americans—ensuring that more of the middle class vote and get involved in politics—but also by being an advocate on behalf of the middle class in the daily, inner-workings of government and politics.
This provides a check on other powerful political interests, such as corporations and the very wealthy, and ensures that our system of government has the balance of interests that James Madison, a chief framer of our constitution, thought necessary to properly function. This counterbalancing role is essential for democracy to function properly and respond to the interests of all Americans.
In the workplace, workers who join together in unions are able to negotiate on more equal footing with their employers, providing a check on the inherently unequal relationship between employer and employee. As George Shultz, secretary of labor during the Nixon administration and secretary of state during the Reagan administration argued in support of trade unions, in “a healthy workplace, it is very important that there be some system of checks and balances.”
Indeed, the ability of workers united together to provide a check on corporate power was the very reason Congress guaranteed private-sector workers the right to join a union, writing in the findings section of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935:
The inequality of bargaining power between employees who do not possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract and employers who are organized in the corporate or other forms of ownership association substantially burdens and affects the flow of commerce, and tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions, by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners in industry and by preventing the stabilization of competitive wage rates and working conditions within and between industries.
And government employers, like corporations, sometimes need to be reminded by organized workers to treat their employees fairly. That’s why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis in 1968 to help city sanitation workers gain recognition for their union as they faced low pay, terrible working conditions, and racist supervisors. Even the conservative icon Ronald Reagan recognized that publicsector workers should be able to join unions and collectively bargain. Reagan signed a bill to grant municipal and county employees the right to do so when he was governor of California.
Critically, the benefits of workers having a voice in the economy and in democracy spill over to all of society. In these ways, unions make the middle class. The challenge of rebuilding the middle class will take a long time, but would be impossible without a clear understanding of what makes the middle class strong. This paper will explore in detail why we need to do this and how we need to go about it. To rebuild America’s middle class, we need to rebuild the labor movement. It’s that simple—and that challenging.
The celebration of Labor Day is a good time to remember the role that labor unions have played in raising living standards and improving the quality of life for working people in the United States. While most people recognize that unions have been beneficial for their members — raising pay, improving work conditions and increasing job security — there is little appreciation of role of labor unions in promoting benefits and work rules that protect all workers.
Unions were crucial in the passage of just about all the benefits and rules that we take for granted today, starting with the weekend. The 40 hour workweek became the standard in the 1937 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act. This bill, which also put in place a federal minimum wage, required a premium of 50 percent of pay for any hours that an employer required in excess of 40 hours a week. Unions had pressed for similar rules for decades, but it took the power of a militant labor movement, coupled with a sympathetic president and Congress to finally make the 40 hour workweek a standard across the country.
This was also the year that the Social Security system was created. Again, the leadership of President Roosevelt was essential, but the Social Security would not have come into existence without the support of the labor movement. There was a similar story with the passage of the Medicare Act three decades later. The leadership of President Johnson was important, but there is no way the bill would have passed Congress without the pressure coming from organized labor.
These two programs provide a layer security that is absolutely essential to anyone who is not rich. More than 70 percent of retirees rely on Social Security for more than half of their income. Very few seniors would be able to afford health care in their last years if it were not for Medicare and its sister program Medicaid.
But the impact of labor movement is not just a historical legacy. In the last several years, many state and local governments have raised their minimum wage, even as the Republican Congress has stymied any efforts at the national level. In every case where a higher minimum wage has approved, either by a legislature or through a referendum, the support of the labor movement has been essential.
The same applies to efforts to require paid family leave and paid sick days. Such measures have now been approved in dozens of cities and states across the country. In every case, the labor movement has played a leading role. If Congress does eventually require paid family leave and paid sick days, bringing the United States in line with the rest of the world, it will be in large part due to pressure from the labor movement. A majority of Congress will not pass such legislation just because they think it is a good idea.
The labor movement has also been active in other areas. For example, in many states, including California and New York, unions have been among those pushing for the adoption of a state-managed retirement system that would provide low-cost portable pensions to all workers in the state. Most union members already have pensions, but they recognize that the best way to protect these pensions in the long-run is to ensure that all workers can enjoy a decent retirement.
There are also indirect benefits from the role that unions have played in U.S. politics. While many unions have not made protecting the environment a top priority (some have) the representatives they have helped to elect to the House and Senate are almost invariably far more supportive of environmental legislation than the members not supported by organized labor. The prospect for serious measures to curb global warming would go from bleak to zero in a Congress without the candidates who depend on the labor movement for support.
There are plenty of things wrong with the labor movement. It can be overly bureaucratic. There are corrupt officials in many unions. That happens with any large organization. But there should be no doubt that the country is much better off as a result of the labor movement and prospects for progressive change would be brighter if it were stronger. This is a simple point, but one worth thinking about for a few minutes around Labor Day weekend.
Thousands of teachers marched Monday on state capitals in Oklahoma and Kentucky, shuttering schools and demanding that Republican-controlled legislatures vote to increase their pay.
The demonstrations come on the heels of a nine-day strike in West Virginia, where teachers secured a 5 percent pay raise, and protests in Arizona last week, where teachers wore red and gathered at the state capital to demand a much larger 20 percent pay increase.
Teachers in Oklahoma received a pay raise when Gov. Mary Fallin (R) signed legislation last week hiking their salary as much as $6,100 a year, but they are seeking a bigger across-the-board $10,000 raise. Average teacher salaries in Oklahoma were lower than all but one other state before the recent hike.
The protests in Kentucky revolve around a pension reform bill that passed the state legislature last week just hours after it was introduced. That bill would replace the existing defined benefit pension plans with a plan that couples 401(k)-type savings accounts with traditional pension benefits.
The walkouts, sickouts and strikes are the first major actions since the end of the recession, when state budgets were squeezed across the country, making raises untenable. A 2016 study by the center-left Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found teachers make 17 percent less than workers in other industries with similar education and skill levels, a gap that has grown in the post-recession years.
“Teachers in particular have seen their wages and benefits, their compensation in total, lag behind that of other workers for more than 20 years,” said Larry Mishel, a distinguished fellow at EPI. “In this recovery, teachers have not fared very well. [Legislatures] been cutting back on school budgets and letting teacher pay lag and attacking teacher pensions, all while they manage to give out tax breaks for corporations.”
Some who supported the teachers said the massive movements dovetail with other protests over the previous year, since President Trump was inaugurated.
“Those who voted for Trump may have wanted to shake up the system, but there’s a lot of other people that want to shake up unfairness,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “You saw that in the women’s marches, you see that in the 'Me Too' movement, you see that in the kids in Parkland,” who rallied for stricter gun controls.
The protests, stoked in part by the largest teachers unions in the country — Weingarten spoke to The Hill from Oklahoma City, where she was participating in Monday’s rally — give Democrats hope that union energy will spark high voter turnout in this year’s midterm elections. Coupled with antipathy toward Trump among energized voters, especially women and millennials, those voters could deliver Democratic victories in states where the party has struggled in recent years.
And those very states are at the center of the current wave of protests. Arizona, Oklahoma and West Virginia pay their teachers far less than the national average. All three states are in the seven states where average teacher salaries are lowest, according to the National Education Association, the nation’s other major teachers union. Along with Kentucky, all four states voted for Trump in 2016.
The four striking states are also among the 29 states that are spending less on education now than they did before the great recession. Most states have bolstered their fiscal standing in recent years, and teachers are eyeing budgetary pies that are bigger than the lean post-recession years.
“When we typically think of a strike, especially a teachers’ strike, we think they would strike against management. But that’s not what’s happening. They’re striking against the legislature,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a center-right education think tank based in Washington.
Legislators have been quick to back down in the face of teacher protests. In West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice (R) promised legislation raising teacher pay just days after the strike began, though teachers stayed out of the classroom until he signed the bill. In Arizona, legislators have pledged quick action. In Oklahoma, Fallin signed the first pay increase even before teachers walked out.
Kentucky, where crippling pension debt saddles the state budget, is the lone holdout. Gov. Matt Bevin (R) called teacher opposition to an earlier version of his pension reform plan “selfish and short-sighted.”
The protests are also playing out against the backdrop of a Supreme Court decision that is likely to rob unions of some of their political power. The high court in February heard arguments in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31, in which a state employee in Illinois challenged a state law that requires him to pay union fees even though he is not a member of the union.
A similar case in 2016 ended in a split decision on an eight-member court, after Justice Antonin Scalia died. Most observers expect Justice Neil Gorsuch, who took Scalia’s seat, to break the tie in favor of conservatives, dealing a blow to public sector unions that could cost them millions in member dues they might otherwise use for political purposes.
Petrilli, whose organization is no fan of teachers’ unions, said this week’s demonstrations show that teachers still wield powerful political clout even if their unions are weakened.
“Teachers will still have a lot of political power, because there’s a lot of them, because they’re a sympathetic group, because they have the ability to make life difficult for a lot of people,” Petrilli said. “Even if they can’t use collective bargaining as a way to get their demands met, they have other tools at their disposal, and they’re reminding us of that.”
Most observers said they expected further protests in coming weeks or months, as legislatures finalize budget plans and teachers use their political leverage when the moment is right. If success begets success, after all, the West Virginia strike could be the beginning of a wave.
“These types of actions must start on the ground with rank and file, and that’s what’s happened in West Virginia, and that’s what’s happened here,” Weingarten said.
LAS VEGAS — A half-dozen Democratic presidential candidates will descend on Las Vegas on Saturday to pitch themselves to one of America's largest unions as champions of workers and kitchen-table issues.
The daylong forum is organized by the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Service Employees International Union. It's expected to focus on wages and working people's issues as union leaders and their supporters worry the 2020 field of at least 20 Democrats is spending too much time talking about esoteric issues rather than about bread-and-butter concerns.
Just this week, several Democratic contenders debated whether criminals in prison should be able to win back their right to vote, the type of issue that some union leaders worry has nothing to do with the economic issues that motivate some working-class voters. It's that anxiety that's fueling Joe Biden's newly launched presidential campaign.
The former vice president will not be in Las Vegas on Saturday but will hold his first public event on Monday at a union hall in Pittsburgh. He's expected to scoop up a major endorsement from the International Association of Fire Fighters while calling to bolster the middle class.
While labor has long made up a key pillar of the Democratic Party, many white working-class voters and swing-state union members supported Republican Donald Trump in 2016. Democrats are working to win back those voters, but party leaders and union members are cautioning candidates that they need to be talking about issues that matter to working families.
"I don't think you can ever have enough" discussion of those issues, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters during a press call Thursday.
The longtime Democratic Nevada senator said that despite record-low unemployment, "we have so many people unemployed or underemployed." He said he hopes candidates at Saturday's event can focus on ways to deal with automation and the so-called skills gap between what employers want and what job candidates know.
While much of the Democratic conversation has centered on liberal touchstones like "Medicare for All" and the Green New Deal climate change plan, some of the White House contenders speaking in Las Vegas on Saturday have made concerted union appeals.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, speaking to hundreds of airline and rail workers at a union convention in Las Vegas earlier this month, pledged to enforce prevailing wage laws. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts joined striking Stop & Shop workers on a picket line in New Hampshire this month, and Sen. Kamala Harris of California hired a top Service Employees International Union executive for her campaign.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Obama administration housing chief Julian Castro are also scheduled to speak at Saturday's event.
The Service Employees International Union is one of the country's largest unions, with about 2 million members. The union said it would consider endorsing a candidate who commits to making it easier for workers to join a union, supports a $15 minimum wage and goes beyond just walking a picket line with workers by shadowing them at work.
SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry said the union has no timeline for an endorsement but does not expect one soon. Henry said Democratic presidential candidates have discussed fragments of the issues faced by working people, such as affordable child care or health care, but have generally not yet dived into "a comprehensive set of actions that we think the next president can take that would commit to ending poverty wage work in this nation."
Henry said that includes discussions about "unrigging the rules" of the economy, holding corporations accountable and strengthening unions.
"You can't really make progress or have the power to improve kitchen-table issues like wages, affordable health care, affordable child care and a secure retirement unless we figure out a way for millions more people to get a seat at the table and be able to bargain," she said.
LAS VEGAS — Democratic presidential candidates declared unions to be a lifeline for the American middle class and pledged Saturday to strengthen workers' rights to strike and organize and to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
But while the candidates decried the erosion of wages and union power in the U.S., the opening speakers at a Las Vegas union forum offered only a few specifics on what policies they'd offer to bolster union ranks and raise pay.
California Sen. Kamala Harris and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said they would crack down on corporations that try to undercut labor organizing, and Harris pledged to a McDonald's worker in a union campaign that, as president, she would press the fast food giant to treat its workers better.
Klobuchar pitched her plan to require most companies to make a minimum retirement contribution for employees of at least 50 cents per hour and tougher enforcement of anti-trust laws to combat large corporations consolidating power. And former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke said he'd try to sell conservatives on a $15 minimum wage by making the case that employees who don't have to juggle a second job to make ends meet are much more productive.
Three other candidates — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Obama housing chief Julian Castro — were scheduled to speak Saturday afternoon at the event organized by the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Service Employees International Union.
Their pitch to show solidary with workers comes as union leaders and their backers worry that the 2020 field of at least 20 Democratic contenders is not spending enough time on bread-and-butter concerns.
Labor is a pillar of the Democratic Party, but many white working-class voters and union members in swing states backed Republican Donald Trump in 2016. Democrats are working to win back those voters in the next presidential election, but party leaders and union members are telling candidates that they need to talk about issues that matter to working families.
That concern is helping propel former Vice President Joe Biden's newly launched campaign.
Much of the Democratic conversation has centered on liberal ideas such as "Medicare for All" and the Green New Deal climate change plan. But some of the White House contenders speaking in Las Vegas have made concerted union appeals. Warren joined striking Stop & Shop workers on a picket line in New Hampshire this month, and Harris hired a top official from the service employees union for her campaign.
The union, one of the country's largest, has about 2 million members. The union said it would consider endorsing a candidate who commits to making it easier for workers to join a union, supports more than doubling the federal minimum wage to $15 and spends substantial time getting to know workers and what they do on the job — not just walking a picket line for a photo opportunity.
The union's president, Mary Kay Henry, said it has no timeline for an endorsement and does not expect one soon.
Henry said the candidates have discussed fragments of the issues faced by working people, such as affordable child care or health care, but generally have not focused on "a comprehensive set of actions that we think the next president can take that would commit to ending poverty wage work in this nation."
Henry said that includes discussions about "unrigging the rules" of the economy, holding corporations accountable and strengthening unions.
She said: "You can't really make progress or have the power to improve kitchen-table issues like wages, affordable health care, affordable child care and a secure retirement unless we figure out a way for millions more people to get a seat at the table and be able to bargain."