Moshe Marvit is a labor and employment lawyer and a fellow at the Century Foundation. He is the co-author of “Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right.”
The first Labor Day celebration took place 134 years ago in New York City, at a time when organizing a union was not yet a protected right. In that era, labor unions were often viewed as criminal conspiracies, and a few years later, with the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act, they were treated as anti-competitive trusts. It took years for labor to debunk these myths — indeed, some still think of labor unions in these terms — but many others persist.
Labor seems to suffer from a branding problem — specifically, the notion that unions are for blue-collar workers in old-school jobs. As journalist Harold Meyerson wrote in the American Prospect , labor stands in the minds of many for “autoworkers and steelworkers, for the cutting-edge industries of 1935.” Likewise, the AFL-CIO has bemoaned the “misperception that organized labor is predominantly a blue collar movement.”
Despite their old-fashioned image, labor unions also include new industries and white-collar workers. The professional class has not been immune to workplace issues of mistreatment, outsourcing and stagnant or declining wages, and as a result its members have increasingly joined unions. For decades, the percentage of professional workers in unions has grown, and now professionals are the majority of union members in the United States . Conversely, the share of union members in traditional blue-collar jobs such as manufacturing and mining has diminished along with those industries. In addition to traditional unionized professions such as teaching and nursing, graduate students, student athletes, doctors and digital journalists have pushed for labor representation.
Right-to-work advocates have for decades repeated the phrase “compulsory unionism ” to advance the myth that workers are sometimes forced to join a union. “The fact is that ending compulsory unionism is the only way to introduce real accountability into today’s labor unions,” Stefan Gleason wrote in 2003 in the National Review Online . At the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Robert P. Hunter declared that Michigan’s public schools are in crisis, and “compulsory unionism is one of the roots of the problem.”
The reality is that closed shops, which restrict hiring to union members, have been illegal in the United States since 1947 . In every jurisdiction in America, if the majority of workers choose to be represented by a union, any worker can object and choose not to join without risking his or her job. In non-right-to-work states, these objecting workers still pay a fair-share fee that covers the costs of representing them at work. These fees vary union by union and year by year based on expenditures, but typically they constitute 70 to 85 percent of regular union dues. Objecting workers do not pay for any political or other activities of the union.
In right-to-work states, a worker can choose to pay nothing, even though the union must represent all workers equally, regardless of their membership or payment of dues. Nobody, anywhere, is ever forced to become a union member.
For the past year, unions across the country have been terrified by a single word: Friedrichs, referring to Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a Supreme Court case that was all but certain to place public-sector employees in a “right to work” status. That would have meant workers who benefitted from union contracts would not have to pay any union dues. In briefings before the court and in public articles, labor advocates cast the issue in the language of economics, as one of free-ridership: At the Century Foundation, education policy analyst Richard Kahlenberg summarized Friedrichs as a referendum on whether there is a “constitutional right to free ride on public sector unions.”
But right-to-work does not necessarily translate into high levels of covered, “free-riding” workers who don’t pay. For instance, all federal employees, including postal workers, are under right-to-work. In the federal workforce (excluding postal employees), 79 percent of the workers who are covered under a union contract have chosen to join; among postal employees, more than 92 percent covered under a contract have chosen to join. In a brief submitted in the Friedrichs case, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy pointed out that union membership among union-represented workers has remained around 80 percent despite right-to-work policies passed in recent years.
Yet right-to-work laws threaten to expose real weaknesses inside unions: a lack of solidarity and participation among members. Twenty-five years ago, in their study on union membership attitudes and participation, Daniel Gallagher and George Strauss wrote that “compared with European unionists, those in North America look upon unionism more as an insurance policy than an instrument in the class struggle or even as a social movement.” Labor’s approach to its membership has changed little during the intervening years, with unions still presenting themselves as a service to their members. Though it is difficult to gauge levels of solidarity, one way of measuring it is through the use of strikes. Strikes are among labor’s strongest weapons, but they require a great deal of solidarity to ensure that workers don’t cross the picket line or that the union does not face a decertification vote following the strike. Between 1990 and 2015, the number of strikes declined by more than 90 percent, from 801 in 1990 to 72 last year.
Critics of unions often frame them as private interest organizations that help only their members. In a 2011 column about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s right-to-work crusade, commentator John Lott alleged, for example, that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was “fighting for some workers” but “hurting other workers.”
It is true that unions often limit their activities to matters concerning their membership. But it is wrong to conclude that this work does not help workers more generally or that unions don’t organize for the common good. A new paper from the Economic Policy Institute shows that higher union density has historically led to higher pay among nonunion workers. In fact, if union levels were in 2013 what they were in 1979, nonunion men would be earning an additional $109 billion per year. Groups like the Service Employees International Union have spent millions in a fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, even though they are unlikely to get an increase in membership in the short term. Call it the tide that lifts all boats.
Beyond wages and benefits, research has shown that unions are among the few groups that represent the priorities of the middle class. Teachers unions, for example, have found creative ways to better the lives of students through collective bargaining, with the Chicago Teachers Union going on strike in part for increased libraries and other resources, and the St. Paul teachers union fighting to limit foreclosures during the school year for households with school-age children .
From NAFTA to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, labor unions have positioned themselves as the primary critics of, and protectors of workers against, globalization and free trade. The AFL-CIO, for instance, states that the TPP “appears modeled after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a free trade agreement that boosts global corporate profits while leaving working families behind.” Likewise, the SEIU calls the TPP “NAFTA on steroids” and “a secret trade agreement that must be stopped.”
The reason for their opposition is clear: Increased globalization often leads to more competition with countries where workers are paid far less, exploiting those workers while making it difficult to keep American wages high.
But despite the best efforts of labor, including large protests in the 1990s, globalization has largely continued apace, and U.S. workers have paid the price. According to the Economic Policy Institute, while NAFTA promised to create 200,000 new jobs for American workers, since its 1994 inception 682,900 jobs have been lost. Another EPI report found that international trade depressed wages for non-college-educated workers by 5.5 percent, meaning an annual loss of $1,800 for the average worker. Meanwhile, workers overseas often face even worse labor conditions, with fewer protections and lower wages.