Americans Are Warming Again to Unions. Will the Relationship Last?

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With the struggles in recent weeks over Obamacare implementation, immigration reform, and the debt ceiling, you would be forgiven for not noticing the fierce battle being fought in the United States Senate over an obscure federal agency called the National Labor Relations Board, which is tasked with enforcing federal labor law and protecting worker’s rights to collectively bargain. The Senate and the President have been locked in a multi-year battle to fully staff the agency with 5 commissioners, and if some sort of deal isn’t reached by late August, the NLRB will be incapable of reaching a quorum, rendering the agency unable to function.

This drama is occurring against a backdrop of a decades-long decline in union participation, with just 11.3% of workers overall belonging to unions. The past few years have been particularly rough for the labor movement, as they have suffered set-backs on the state level, and failed to secure hoped-for labor law reforms during the first two years of the Obama Administration, when Congress was ruled by large Democratic majorities.

That being said, recent polling from both Gallup and Pew reveal that Americans’ support for unions has risen of late, with the Pew poll showing 55% of the population holding a favorable view of unions, the highest level since before the financial crisis. This recent uptick in support for unions can be partially attributed to the slowly improving economy, as it is accompanied by similar increases in favorability for corporations. On the other hand, there are a few trends — namely income-growth stagnation and the fact that corporate owners are taking a larger share of the national income than they have in generations — that would lead one to expect increasing support for unions.

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Whether you believe that this recent shift in the balance of power from labor towards capital will encourage support for unions, however, depends on what you believe caused their decline in the first place.

For many conservatives, the fall of labor represents a return to the natural economic order. University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Wachter, for example, argues that it was only through extraordinary intervention by the federal government into private business — including price controls and takeovers of entire industries — that unions were able to thrive during the Depression and into the second half of the 20th century. These interventions were justified at the time by the era’s fights against the Depression, fascism (World War II), Communism (the Korean War). But as those threats receded and economic prosperity grew, the case for federal involvement in private enterprise diminished — and the deregulation that followed spurred competition and led to the “natural” death of uncompetitive unionized firms.

The narrative on the left, by contrast, is that the decline in union participation is simply the result of the erosion of federal protection of collective bargaining, driven by Corporate America’s success at evading the labor protections that remain in place. The Center for Economic and Policy Research conducted a comparison of labor policy between Canada and the United States that supports this argument. While Canada and the U.S. are both developed, diverse economies with similar cultural attitudes, Canada had an overall union membership rate of 29.7% as of 2011, nearly three times that of the United States. Canada doesn’t have wartime price controls or the sort of regulation of industry common in America in the 1950s, yet it maintains union membership levels far higher than in the U.S.

According to the CEPR analysis, the key differences between Canadian labor movement and that of the U.S. are relatively slight but profound. In many Canadian provinces, unions are recognized by the government after 50% of a firm’s workers have indicated support for unionization, a process known as “card check.” And in most Canadian jurisdictions, if a union and management can’t come to terms on a contract, they enter an arbitration process in which a settlement is imposed upon the parties by the government. In the U.S., on the other hand, after 50% of a company’s employees decide to unionize, there must be a formal, secret-ballot election before which management has the opportunity to argue against unionization. And U.S. law does not impose an arbitration process on the parties if contract negotiations break down, a dynamic that labor advocates say enables companies to negotiate in bad faith without repercussion.

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Though these analyses differ on the cause of the labor movement decline in America, they both agree that it has to do with political factors rather than broad economic trends like globalization or post-industrialization. But are the political conditions likely to ever align in favor of labor?

CEPR’s analysis suggests that today’s labor movement requires much smaller changes to the law than were necessary at the beginning of the Great Depression. On the other hand, despite their stagnant wages and shrinking share of the nation’s total income, workers today aren’t nearly as desperate as they were during the Depression. Federal programs like unemployment insurance, Social Security, food stamps, and Medicaid, help sustain workers’ standards of living in difficult times. That may explain why the movement was unable to force those changes through Congress during the first two years of the Obama Administration, when economic uncertainty and the Democratic power in Washington were at their height — and provides plenty of reason to doubt that those changes will be enacted anytime soon.

In other words, Americans may not dislike unions as much as they did two years ago, but that doesn’t mean the country is ready jump back in bed with them anytime soon.

18 comments
drewsky51
drewsky51

Americans had better wake up and warm up fast, before we lose the entire Middle Class !

mt22201
mt22201

That's funny, I never thought of the NLRB as "obscure."

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

I absolutely love how Christopher Matthews and TIME Magazine blatantly contradict themselves in this article:

TITLE:  "AMERICANS ARE WARMING AGAIN TO UNIONS [capslock added]. Will the Relationship Last?"

CONCLUDING SENTENCE:  In other words, Americans may not dislike unions as much as they did two years ago, but THAT DOESN'T MEAN THE COUNTRY IS READY [TO] JUMP BACK IN BED WITH THEM ANYTIME SOON [capslock added]."

Amazingly, after asserting that America is warming again to unions, Matthews then states that America may not be ready to 'cozy up' next to them again.  Clearly, he contradicts his own assertion! 

The simplest question for Matthews and TIME is:  Which is it??

mike2
mike2

You can not lump unions into a single category.

Unions make sense in private industry.  They are a counter-balance to the power of the private enterprise.  (I say this as a business owner.)   Both unions and the business owner are forced to negotiate in a manner that enables the private enterprise to survive. Should the private enterprise fail, everyone loses.  So both the union and the business owner are forced to craft agreements that make economic sense. 

But unions in the public sector are a huge tragedy.   In a public setting there is no effective limit on the union's demands.   The true owner of the business is not represented at the bargaining table.   Instead we have one set of workers (union members) negotiating with another set of workers (public officials).   Both sides are feeding from the same trough  (tax revenue) and over the past few decades they have been happy to make each other fat and happy.     States, counties and cities are going bankrupt due to the effect of public employee unions -- primarily as a result of the ridiculous pension and benefit plans that have been granted to workers.   We will need to let some of our public entities fail (i.e. go bankrupt) in order to right the ship.

BorisIII
BorisIII

US gov. and rich people have been pushing the country more extreme Capitalism for 30 years, Reagan's 2nd term and of course it only helped rich people get very rich.  And obviously middle and lower class just got more poor.  Since the rich people got their extra money from taking advantage of middle class and poor people.  Like with most things in the middle works better.  Not too socialist and not too capitolist.

elpatricio
elpatricio

An economist interviewed on NPR commented that the best thing American corporations could do with the $2 trillion in cash they're sitting on is to give pay raises to its line employees. More money in the pockets of consumers translates to more demand for products and services. But, the economist added, most corporations no longer have a collective bargaining agreement or union representatives to sit down with and negotiate pay.

The result has been a steady shift of corporate revenues to executives and the bottom line. Over the past 30 years, almost all of the productivity gains of the American economy has gone to those at the top. Everyone else have lost ground.

NewYorkHillbilly
NewYorkHillbilly

This story is non news. This is all political. The young liberals who are unemployed or under employed are not only going to support unions, they are going to support socialism and every other leftist idea. The author knows this, so he thinks he can create news out of it. He is merely trying to drum up support for Obama's nominations for the NLRB. The Greedy Corporations vs. hapless employees has been there since capitalism was invented. The unions were justified in the days of the robber barons. What has changed is that the Government imposed labor rights and created the NLRB, and created the safety nets that the author mentioned. So there is less need for employees to unionize. The outrageous executive bonuses and pay are a result of the creation of multi-national mega corporations that are ten times larger than corporations used to be. What the author does not mention is Federal and State unions. And that is the real problem. Ever since JFK allowed federal employees to unionize, the anti union movement has grown. The pensions of teachers and state employees are bankrupting local governments. They are unsustainable. In many cases, unions have imposed middle-income wages and benefits for jobs that are essentially lower-income in nature (like highway maintenance and bus drivers). Many of these jobs do not even require a high school diploma. It is the other extreme of the outrageous salaries of corporate executives. Ironically, the pension funds of unions are heavily invested in oil companies, drug companies, and all other profitable corporations. I doubt if any invest in the “green” or “sustainable” companies that do not show a profit.

lurch
lurch

"Federal programs like unemployment insurance, Social Security, food stamps, and Medicaid, help sustain workers’ standards of living in difficult times."

The GOP are busting a gut trying to eliminate these programs. Someone who is desperate to feed and house their families will work hard for less money without benefits..............that's the whole goal of the GOP.

NamecNassianer
NamecNassianer

CEO are paid 354 times the AVERAGE wage of a rank and file worker (note that average is not the lowest-paid worker).

Ron Johnson, the disgraced CEO of JC Penney was paid 1795 times the average JCP worker.

In the age of executive greed, a union is the only voice a worker has in the company she or he spends the best years of their lives working for, often to be cast aside in their fifties.  See i b m alliance job cut reports.

Uncle_Frank
Uncle_Frank

"if some sort of deal isn’t reached by late August, the NLRB will be incapable of reaching a quorum, rendering the agency unable to function."

That's the goal of the GOP. What else is new?



arvay
arvay

You know the Constitution? Well, it's largely meaningless.

rBecause most Americans live under the jurisdiction of their employer, who has a vey wide latitude for setting rules.

Freedom of speech? Not really.

Freedom of assembly? no.

Privacy. Forget that one.

Any objections? Your're fired. 

"Fee" people can be fired for the way they dress, their "attitude" for bogus "performance" evaluations, for actions outside the workplace, for being too fat -- or just "because."

Hey, you're "free" to leave, right? What a joke!  Yeah, just give the boss the finger and maybe your kids won't go to college. No pressure, now. 

In other words, employed Americans spend much if not most of their time in a dictatorship. Their only recourse would be the ability to organize and exercise some countervailing power. Any government that wont allow that is part of the dictatorship. 

AnthonyBergeson
AnthonyBergeson

what a lot of people out there do not realize is the reason there is an 8 hour work day with proper breaks is because for many years long ago our forefathers in the labor movement fought and died for workers rights.

mary.waterton
mary.waterton

Clearly this is a reaction to the fact that BIG CORPORATIONS are sitting on piles of money and they refuse to hire. Not only that, they're trying to get the Federal Government to jack up work visas sky high so they can bring them in from outside the country to take that few remaining jobs ... that being the not-so-obvious reason why BIG CORPORATIONS want democrats to pass "Immigration Reform".

moiraeve1
moiraeve1

@mike2  oh bull. I'm sick and tired of hearing about the greedy six-grade teacher and the money-grubbing fireman when I know it's not true.

EricFolmsbee
EricFolmsbee

@NewYorkHillbilly if they ran the pensions correctly  they are self funded poor  pensions choices  by those in charge are responsible for  any  pension causing financial difficulties. If they made the  required hourly  contributions and  did not raid the funds  for non pension uses, the funds  pay the pensions and determine  what they payments are based on the hours worked. Any unfunded  pension is not a pension it was a poor idea conceived to put off  responsible contributions  by the employer until the future. And that irresponsibility by the employer should not be held over the heads of those who  worked for and made the company money for decades of their lives. The same with government pensions blame the officials who decided to  not put the money in the funds today but rather expect the money to miraculously appear  in the future when needed. A properly run pension would self balance or become insolvent.  Pension increases or decreases are based on the funds health.

It is sickening to hear people blame the unions and the workers for  mismanagement of pension funds its not the pensions that  are at fault its the people who made  decisions for more profit today and screw tomorrow that should be held up to scrutiny.