Each year we write an article about Labor Day and the importance of the labor movement. This week, we want to look at the current state of labor-management relationships and why unions are still relevant.
Among the trends we have seen in the last year is the continuing increase in worker productivity. American workers have proven their ability to do more, often as a result of their participation in employee engagement efforts.
Corporate profits have continued to grow, reaching the highest level in 40 years. Unemployment is at the lowest level in years.It sounds like a great opportunity for workers, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, that is not how things have gone for workers, as wages are the lowest they have been since 1947 in terms of their share of the GDP. Companies continue to move jobs to other countries to avoid taxes and increase profits. They often blame unions for this trend.
At CALMC, we have the opportunity to work with good, forward looking leadership from both unions and employers. These people have demonstrated true leadership by working together and have realized the benefits. They know time and resources spent fighting each other is wasted and cannot be used to deal with their real competition.
Many politicians would have us believe unions are holding back the economy. Presidential candidates have declared workers and unions are their enemies. I wonder who their friends are?
Have you heard statements like this one: “Unions were good at one time, but haven’t they outlived their usefulness?” That was the headline from the Toronto Globe and Mail on May 6, 1886. That’s right, 1886. Just as now, it was wrong, probably based on the desire for corporate control over the workforce.
The need to ensure fairness in the workplace was one of the drivers of the union movement in its early days and remains its importance today. It is a usefulness that has not gone away.
As Evan Horowith of the Boston Globe recently wrote “The vast majority of American workers aren’t union members. They’re ‘at-will’ employees, with no legal right to be treated fairly at work. In fact, most Americans can be punished, even fired, for being too attractive, or too short, or having the wrong politics — or for no reason at all. But don’t employers need a good reason to fire people? If you’re in a union, then the answer is yes. Generally speaking, union workers can be fired only for ‘just cause,’ so there has to be a good reason. But nonunionized, at-will workers can be fired for bad reasons, or no reason at all.”
Tom Perez, the U.S. Secretary of Labor wrote, “Our nation’s continued recovery from the worst recession in generations has given us a lot to celebrate. We saw over 3 million jobs created in 2014, the best year since the end of the Clinton Administration. We’re experiencing the longest streak of private sector job growth on record. Our businesses created more than 200,000 jobs in fifteen of the past seventeen months — the first time that has happened since 1995. In 2009, there were seven job seekers for every open job. Today there are fewer than two.
“But our job isn’t done yet. While productivity has increased more than 90 percent since 1979, real wages are still not climbing fast enough. A lot of people are back to work, but far too many families are finding it nearly impossible to get ahead.
“That’s not just a problem for those families — it’s a problem for us all. Our nation is stronger when prosperity is broadly shared. And as we’ve seen throughout our history, one necessary ingredient of shared prosperity is working people banding together and raising their voices.
“By doing just that, the labor movement has made our country better. We have them to thank for the eight hour work day and the weekend. We have them to thank for safer, healthier workplaces. We have them to thank for model apprenticeship programs that create pathways to the middle class.”
We could not agree more. Unions played an important role in developing the American middle-class, and today work to preserve it. As Secretary Perez points out, “According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly earnings for union members last year were $200 a week more than for non-union workers. That’s not pocket change — $200 a week is the difference between paying the bills and worrying about whether the lights will go out.”
One positive sign for the last year has been the increase in union membership in some sectors. This has been caused by the same forces that drove the union movement in its early days, the need to protect workers and provide a living wage. We hope this trend continues and is built upon labor-management cooperation.
As Frank Wooten wrote this week in the Charleston, SC, Post and Courier, “Mutual interests should make management see that well-treated workers are more productive workers — and make workers see that unsustainable labor contracts make companies go out of business and jobs go away.” Unions recognize these mutual interests. Let’s hope more managers do as well.