I grew up in a working class family, with a father who worked in a factory my whole life. Most of those years, he worked second shift, which was great in the summer. We were able to go to the school lot and play some version of baseball several times a week. It was a pick-up game if enough people were available, using ghost runners if we were short. And if only a few of us were there, it would be fly-knocker or hot-box. Other days, we were out in the community, maybe mowing grass together for folks who couldn't manage their lawns or picking up groceries. During the school year, I mainly saw him on the weekends, except for those nights I managed to stay up late, and we'd catch the late news or reruns of M*A*S*H*.
In our home, there was never a question of the dignity and importance of manual labor. My dad considered other careers, but the factory had better pay and benefits than the options available to him after university, so he stayed at the factory.
I grew up understanding that his work wasn’t less important than the work he might have done if he had chosen a different career path. There was also never a question about the importance of labor rights and union organizing. Even though my dad worked at a non-union factory, he always emphasized that the benefits he enjoyed were also because of the power of unions.
At the heart of all of this were some very basic principles. I couldn’t put them into words as a child, but I could give a short list now:
- a healthy economy cannot be separated from equity and equality;
- everyone should have access to a safe, stable, and healthy economic and social life;
- discrimination and disparities are signs of social sickness;
- the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain should always be protected and prioritized;
- all work and workers should be treated with dignity and gratitude.
But life is complicated. Although these were the ideals growing in my heart, it didn’t take long to begin feeling the contrast between these values and how people were treated in the workplace.
I learned that lesson personally soon enough. As a teen, I spent a few years in the food service industry. As a young adult, my years as a student and then as a bivocational pastor meant that I often made a living by whatever means were available: as a graduate TA; a construction worker; a roofer; a seasonal laborer, from hay fields to vineyards; a private music instructor; and an educator as a Title I instructor. I also spent a decade as an unpaid caregiver and stay-at-home parent. These were mainly fields and jobs that did not enjoy the protection or benefits of a labor union. These experiences, combined with studying labor history, gradually gave me a better understanding of how the values and convictions I learned as a child did – and did not – translate into the economic world around me.
The Decline in Labor Union Membership
The biggest gap, of course, was the decline in union membership over the last 70 years. My dad grew up at the tail-end of the peak of the labor movement’s power, while I grew up as neoliberalism gained a bigger and bigger influence around the world and labor power was in decline.
When my dad turned 18 years old, more than 25% of our state's workers were unionized. When I turned 18 years old, that number had already slipped to less than 15%.
That’s consistent with the overall trend in the USA. As Reid Wilson reported in The Hill last January, union memberships bottomed out at 10.3% in 2019. This was the lowest number since 1983, when the Bureau of Labor started recording worker union rates.
Wilson puts this decline into sharp focus with a simple comparison. In 1983, 17.7 million Americans belonged to a union, and "20.5 million were represented by a union". In 2022, "there are about 50 million more workers in the American economy than there were in 1983, and 3 million fewer union members."
There was a small exception that Wilson noted, a slight bump in 2020. Union rates increased a small amount to 10.8%. But this was not because more people joined a union, but because more non-union workers lost their jobs during the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic.
This result also intersects with racial disparities. In a report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in 2020, the authors demonstrated that “the decline of unionization has played a significant role in the expansion of the Black–white wage gap over the last four decades,” which left marginalized communities more vulnerable to unemployment during the pandemic. While unemployment for White workers peaked at 12.8%, it was 15% for Asian American/Pacific Islanders, 16.7% for Black workers, and 18.5% for Hispanic workers.
Black and Hispanic workers were also much less likely to work from home, and more likely to have jobs that didn’t provide a safe workplace (with access to protective equipment) or paid sick leave. As the authors pointed out, “The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have been felt broadly, but not equally.” And although unionizing would be a major step in alleviating both economic and racial injustices, the system, including current labor laws, has increasingly made it difficult to organize.
Not Just About Wages
This is by design. Business owners, corporate leaders, and employers have historically opposed unions, especially in the United States. The most obvious reason is the most commonly noted one: union members get paid more, in wages and benefits, which is viewed as a threat to the profits for the already rich and powerful.
Significantly, union members are still more likely to earn a higher wage than non-union workers. The most recent data shows that a union worker earns $1,169 a week compared to $975 a week earned by non-union workers. (That adds up to more than $10,000 over a year’s earnings!)
Not surprisingly, decreased union membership has also been met with increased income inequality. As the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has documented, from 1979 to 2019, wages for the 1% grew about 160%, while wages for the bottom 90% grew only 26%.
But this is not the whole story. Ileen Devault, a labor historian and professor at Cornell University, has pointed out that this gap is about more than money:
“Unions aren’t just about higher wages. They are very much about workers having a say about what happens in the workplace … . And that’s what employers don’t like.”
The numbers support this point. According to the EPI:
“We know that unions promote economic equality and build worker power, helping workers to win increases in pay, better benefits, and safer working conditions. But that’s not all unions do. Unions also have powerful effects on workers’ lives outside of work. In the same way unions give workers a voice at work, with a direct impact on wages and working conditions, the data suggest that unions also give workers a voice in shaping their communities. Where workers have this power, states have more equitable economic structures, social structures, and democracies.”
This helps explain why those controlling most industries have found a way to limit or stifle the power of working class people. As a result, unionization has been uneven across industries, political values, and geographies.
- First, public sector workers are five times more likely to belong to a union. (A third of government workers are union members, compared to just 6% of private sector employees.) So you are less likely to have access to a union if you work in the private sector.
- Second, workplaces in blue states have more union members. For example, 17% to 20% of laborers belong to unions in places like Hawaii, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington. The numbers drop to less than 5% in Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia. But even these states outpace South Carolina, where only 2.9% of workers are unionized. So you are less likely to have access to a union if you live in a red state.
- Third, certain industries are more likely to be unionized. In 2018, workers in utilities, transportation, and telecommunications, for example, all had union membership rates of at least 15%. But only 1.3% of food service workers belonged to a union.
Recent Victories for Organized Labor
This backdrop helps us understand why recent union victories are so important. The medical industry, for example, has been under tremendous strain during the pandemic, and workers have suffered.
In response to dangerous working conditions during the pandemic, many hospital workers have begun to organize and join unions. And a recent study showed that unionized nursing homes significantly lower mortality and infection rates during the pandemic. As CNA Rosalind “Ros” Reggans explained:
“It’s pretty simple — the safer we are, the safer they are. … And with a union you have more [personal protective equipment], you can get a day off if you’re sick, you get more COVID pay . . . you can negotiate with your supervisor face to face to make things work. All of that helps residents, too, because we’re not infecting them as much if we have better standards for ourselves.”
Even doctors, who traditionally have not belonged to unions, have had to consider options. This has been the case for emergency room doctors at the Valley Medical Center in San Jose, CA. They have been working with members of the Registered Nurses Professional Association to organize, with a goal to highlight and address problems and abuses emerging since being acquired by US Acute Care Solutions (a “private equity–backed physician staffing monolith that had taken over the hospital’s ER contract”).
But the most notable cases in our headlines have been workers at Amazon.com and Starbucks. In the latter case, we’ve seen ten Starbucks locations vote to join Starbucks Workers United, with 170 more stores petitioning for elections.
Writing for Vox, Rani Molla reported on the Starbucks workers goals, which align with the EPI’s conclusion that strong unions are associated with “more equitable economic structures, social structures, and democracies.” Molla wrote that the Starbucks organizers are:
“hoping to use collective bargaining to get a number of improvements, including higher pay, more hours, and better safety protections, a more necessary change since the erstwhile latte makers became front-line workers during the pandemic. They want more say in what their working lives are like, and they want to hold a company that talks of progressive values accountable.”
Mercado, a graduate student who also works at Starbucks, told Molla that: “We’ve been forced into this world where we can’t afford anything, where we can’t afford to live … . It’s not a difference between generations, it’s just a difference between what you’ve been given and the tools that we can use to make the change.” And Fagan, a 22-year-old shift supervisor, said: “Starbucks is quote-unquote ‘progressive,’ ‘woke,’ whatever. They give us decent benefits … . But we’re literally selling our lives and time and bodies to this corporation. Tell me why I don’t deserve a living wage.”
Similarly, the importance of the success of organizers in Staten Island in unionizing with the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) cannot be overstated, especially since their work was done in the face of an aggressive and powerful anti-union campaign. They did this through a combination of persistence, hard work, and creativity. Luis Felix Leon, reporting for In These Times, pointed out that the ALU “upended the conventional wisdom of how to run a union campaign,” relying less on “the staid world of establishment unionism” and more on “the spectacle of fearless, working-class Black leadership from below.” Gerald Bryson, a co-founder of the ALU, had previously been fired by Amazon for protesting pandemic working conditions. He put it this way:
“You really want to know how we did it? I’ll tell you right now how we did it. We didn’t go out and get expert, expert, expert. We went out and found crazy m*f*ers just like us that ain’t scared of nothing.”
Taken together, these kinds of successes may indicate a shift to what Brooks, a News Guild field director, calls “momentum organizing.”
“Workers are in terrible conditions all over the country and when they see a public example of a group of people in a similar situation taking action to better their situation, it encourages them to do the same … . So what was once a risky long-shot action by a small group of workers snowballs into a series of successes.”
A Way Forward for Labor Unions
Part of this snowballing connects with the anger, grief, and frustration of working people who sacrificed their wellbeing to survive a pandemic, while CEOs and shareholders cashed in on their sacrifice.
We can all contribute to the process of creating and sustaining a movement for true change in the direction of economic and social justice. At the base is nurturing an attitude that centers and respects working class and poor people, rather than demonizing them. As I’ve said before, “Community, sustaining human lives, requires work, and a lot of it is manual labor. Working people, paid and unpaid, are essential and our labor is beautiful. All labor should be treated with dignity and respect.”
For those of us who want to educate ourselves more about a way forward, I’d recommend at least three paths.
- First, study labor history. You can read books, see a film, enjoy art, sing songs, or watch Youtube videos.
- Second, get a working knowledge of policies that support working class wellbeing. A good place to start might be the “Policy Agenda” at the Economic Policy Institute and the “Economic Justice” platform at The Movement for Black Lives.
- Third, find an organization where you can get involved. Join or organize a union if that’s possible in your employment. If that’s not an option, explore other groups, such as Jobs with Justice or the Poor People’s Campaign.
Connecting with others – our shared history, our shared values, and our shared work - is at the heart working class solidarity and unionization. Together, we can choose to mark this May Day as another turning point toward a better, more beautiful, and more just world.
Happy May Day!