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Helping Labor Get Off Its Back: We Have an Obligation to Reverse the Erosion of Unions

Why do unions have such a hard time recruiting new members? The answer is fear.

A Gallup poll reveals that Americans’ support for unions has been increasing — from 48% in 2009 to 61% today. (Photo: Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Here’s a Labor Day quiz:

Most Americans support unions, but just over 10% are union members. What gives?

Business leaders claim that American workers don’t want or need unions anymore. But the Gallup poll reveals that Americans’ support for unions has been increasing — from 48% in 2009 to 62% today.

Researchers at MIT found that if nonunion workers who wanted to join a union could do so, union membership would skyrocket from its current 15 million to 70 million.


So why do unions have such a hard time recruiting new members? The answer is fear.

America’s labor laws are so stacked against workers that it is extremely difficult for even the most committed workers and talented organizers to win union elections. Big business spends big bucks hiring anti-union consultants. Employers can force workers to attend meetings that feature anti-union speeches, films and literature.

Try wearing a union button at a mandated Walmart employee meeting and see what happens.

Union organizers are banned from company property. To reach employees, they must visit their homes or hold secret meetings. One-third of all employers illegally fire at least one worker — typically union leaders — during union organizing drives, scaring other workers from joining the campaign. Federal penalties are so small that companies treat them as a minor cost of doing business.

The 30 years after World War II were the golden age of American capitalism. Prosperity was widely shared. Unions allowed many working people to achieve the American Dream. They could buy homes and cars, take vacations, send their kids to college, afford health insurance and retire with dignity.

Since the 1970s, union membership has plummeted from about one-quarter of all workers, to one-fifth in the 1980s, to one-tenth today.


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Among private sector workers, union membership is now a dismal 6.5%. Big business’ assault on workers’ rights has had real consequences. Income inequality has widened, wages for working people have stagnated, the middle class has shrunk and American families are deeper in debt.

Right-wing politicians and their corporate backers aren’t through; they want unions completely crushed. he anti-union billionaire Koch brothers, for example, have spent tens of millions of dollars to support misnamed “right-to-work” laws designed to weaken organized labor and help elect anti-union Republicans.

In June, in the Janus decision, the Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 majority that public sector employees who benefit from their unions’ collective-bargaining efforts owe no obligation to financially support those unions.

It’s like allowing people equal police and fire protection even though they refuse to pay taxes.

Fortunately, help for the labor movement could be on the way. Last month, Missouri voters rescinded a right-to-work law by a two-to-one margin.

And earlier this year in Washington, 13 Democratic senators — including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker — unveiled the Workplace Democracy Act.

It would help union organizers by banning state right-to-work laws (there are now 27 states that have them), providing “card check” provisions (similar to in Canada, where one-quarter of workers are in unions) that limit employer intimidation during union drives, and help exploited workers who are currently miscategorized as “independent contractors.”

The proposal won’t pass unless Democrats win back the White House and Congress.

To do that, they should make labor empowerment a priority. A stronger union movement would not only mean better lives for working families but also provide support for progressive goals like single-payer health care, tuition-free college and paid family leave.

The battle is joined. Americans are asking politicians: Which side are you on?

Kelly Candaele

Kelly Candaele was a union organizer for 20 years.

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department, at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012). His next book, We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism – American Style,  co-edited with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin, will be published by The New Press in January.  He is currently writing Rebels of the Diamond: The Baseball Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game On and Off the Field, which will be published by the University of Nebraska Press.

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