Archives for category: Unions

The union movement built the middle class. For most of the past century, big business and plutocrats have waged war on unions and have largely succeeded. As the following analysis by the Economic Policy Institute shows, the high point of the labor movement was in the in the late 1940s and early 1950s. As the strength of unions waned, inequality grew.

The EPI study begins:

Unions improve wages and benefits for all workers, not just union members. They help reduce income inequality by making sure all Americans, and not just the wealthy elite, share in the benefits of their labor.

Unions also reduce racial disparities in wages and raise women’s wages, helping to counteract disparate labor market outcomes by race and gender that result from occupational segregation, discrimination, and other labor market inequities related to structural racism and sexism.

Finally, unions help win progressive policies at the federal, state, and local levels that benefit all workers. And conversely, where unions are weak, wealthy corporations and their allies are more successful at pushing through policies and legislation that hurt working people. A strong labor movement protects workers, reduces disparities, and strengthens our democracy.

The best strategy to end the pandemic is mandatory vaccinations for everyone, unless they have a medical condition that makes it in advisable. Until now, both major teachers’ unions refused to take a stand. Last Sunday on Meet the Press, Randi Weingarten endorsed mandatory vaccinations for teachers, but she must get the support of her members. She will. Now NEA has changed course.

The nation’s largest teachers’ union on Thursday offered its support to policies that would require all teachers to get vaccinated against Covid or submit to regular testing.

It is the latest in a rapid series of shifts that could make widespread vaccine requirements for teachers more likely as the highly contagious Delta variant spreads in the United States.

“It is clear that the vaccination of those eligible is one of the most effective ways to keep schools safe,” Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, said in a statement.

The announcement comes after Randi Weingarten, the powerful leader of the American Federation of Teachers, another major education union, signaled her strongest support yet for vaccine mandates on Sunday.

Ms. Pringle left open the possibility that teachers who are not vaccinated could receive regular testing instead, and added that local “employee input, including collective bargaining where applicable, is critical.”

Her union’s support for certain requirements is notable because it represents about three million members across the country, including in many rural and suburban districts where adults are less likely to be vaccinated. Overall, the union said, nearly 90 percent of its members report being fully vaccinated.

Still, any decision to require vaccination for teachers is likely to come at the local or state level. And even with their growing support, teachers’ unions have maintained that their local chapters should negotiate details.

“We believe that such vaccine requirements and accommodations are an appropriate, responsible, and necessary step,” Ms. Pringle said on Thursday. She added that “educators must have a voice in how vaccine requirements are implemented.”

California has ordered all teachers and staff members to provide proof of vaccination or face weekly testing, an order that applies to both public and private schools. Hawaii is requiring all state and county employees to be vaccinated or be tested, including public-school teachers. And Denver has said that city employees, including public school teachers, must be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30.

Sarah Mervosh

Randi Weingarten appeared on “Meet the Press” and endorsed mandatory vaccinations for teachers.

She said on Sunday that she wants the union to support mandatory coronavirus vaccinations for teachers. Currently, the AFT (and the NEA) favor vaccination being a voluntary choice.

Randi said:

“Since 1850 we’ve dealt with vaccines in schools, it’s not a new thing to have vaccines in schools. And I think that, on a personal matter, as a matter of personal conscience, I think that we need to be working with our employers – not opposing them – on vaccine mandates.” — NBC’s Meet the Press

This should not even be a story. Of course, teachers, hospital workers, and all essential personnel should be vaccinated. The virus will not be conquered until almost everyone is vaccinated against it.

How can parents send their children to school without the secure knowledge that the child’s teacher is vaccinated.

Mandatory vaccination is nothing unusual, as Randi said. I recall as a child having to present evidence that I was vaccinated for a variety of contagious diseases, most less serious than COVID.

When will the NEA step up and join with Randi in doing the right thing for themselves and their students?

School bus drivers in Greenville, Mississippi, did not report to work for two days to protest their low wages. Apparently they were unaware that the legislature had passed a law in 1985-36 years ago-absolutely prohibiting any strikes by any school employees, including bus drivers.

The local school board debated whether the drivers’ failure to work was or was not a strike. They did not realize that their own board could be fined thousands of dollars each for failing to report the names of those who struck.

One thing is clear: Mississippi loathes the very idea of unions. And another: they “appreciate” their teachers and other school staff but they don’t want to pay them a living wage.

Valerie Jablow is a parent advocate in the District of Columbia. Here she remembers Elizabeth Davis, the president of the Washington Teachers Union, who died tragically in an automobile accident on Easter evening. She was part of the new wave of teacher unionism, which is social justice unionism, a commitment not just to the benefits of teachers but to the well-being of students and to their opportunity to have a well-resourced and equitable education.

Teaching for Change posted this beautiful tribute to Liz Davis and her amazing life in DC. It is both a very welcome personal history–and the story of our DC schools.

Indeed, Liz Davis’s work as the head of the Washington Teachers’ Union has lived larger in my life as a DCPS parent than that of all other DC education leaders I have known put together—and touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of other DC residents. Just since the start of 2021, my email inbox has broadly distributed messages from Liz about needed action on nearly every current pressing matter in DC education, including the research practice partnership, DCPS re-opening, PARCC testing, a survey about teacher computers, re-examining school governance, and school librarians being excessed.

Our mayor may be in control of our schools—but no mayor, and no other elected or appointed leader in DC, has ever been in command of DC education advocacy and justice like Liz Davis. Her tenacity in the face of injustice has been both balm and shield for everyone who has battled for better schools in DC.

Yet always, always, behind everything I ever knew she did or said was that quiet, unflagging belief in a better, more equitable future, which seems to be the legacy of every great teacher. When I chose to sue DC over the chancellor selection panel excluding teachers, parents, and students and had only a few plaintiffs, Liz Davis simply put me in touch with a teacher who agreed to be a plaintiff. Then, without a word otherwise, Liz had the WTU submit an amicus brief. That document was indeed a friend (per the Latin word amicus) in what was for me, a DCPS parent, a notably unfriendly proceeding.

It is hard for me to believe that someone who was so alive is gone–and so suddenly. 

The last email I got from Liz was a letter to the chancellor about IMPACT, DCPS’s teacher review process. Fittingly, it came on April Fool’s Day.

Her last phone call to me was Easter morning, when she left a voicemail about a special education committee meeting this week she thought I might want to know about–and then noted what she thought were two important posts from this blog regarding IMPACT (here and here).

How lucky have we been to have known Liz Davis–and what a great teacher we have lost.

Rhode Island is a mess. Two years ago, the state took control of the Providence public schools. The Governor, Gina Raymond, is a former hedge funder and not a friend of public schools. She loves charter schools and welcomed them to her state. She is now Biden’s Commerce Secretary and has been succeeded by her Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee, who is also a privatizer. The relatively new State Commissioner is Angelica Infante Green, who comes from Teach for America and had a desk job in the New York State Education Department. She is a member of Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change. The Providence Teachers Union originally supported the state takeover, hoping that it would bring new resources to the schools. Instead, the takeover has meant disruption, turmoil, threats to teachers, and bitterness between the hard-charging, inexperienced State Commissioner and the teachers.

Mary Beth Calabro, the president of the Providence Teachers Union, has been a teacher for 24 years and president of the union for five years.

Less than two years later, and with the COVID-19 pandemic overshadowing nearly all of the takeover, Calabro now says that the relationship between the union and Infante-Green has deteriorated beyond repair, and she is asking state lawmakers to give control of the school district back to the city of Providence. She is also calling for Infante-Green and Superintendent Harrison Peters to be removed from their positions.

The union voted “no confidence” in both the state commissioner and the city superintendent. Calabro warned that the district was forcing teachers out with its hard-nosed tactics.

“We had hope that our state takeover here would provide the much-needed support, resources, and changes to help our students move forward,” Calabro said during a Monday press conference. “And we had hope that our educators’ collective skills, experience, and expertise would be seen as a welcome part of transforming out schools. Sadly, our hopes have died.”

The state commissioner made clear from the beginning that she wanted to control the union and its contract:

The most recent sticking point between the union and management has revolved around a provision in the current union contract that gives veteran teachers preference over newer teachers when it comes to hiring. Seniority tends to be a sacred cow for public employee unions, and the teachers have resisted changes that would give Infante-Green and Peters more control over the hiring process.

Both Infante-Green and Peters say they believe the Crowley Act, the state law that gave them the power to take control of the school district, allows them to make unilateral changes to the contract. But they fear that such a tactic would send the two sides to court, prolonging a series of negotiations that has already resulted in the city paying more than $1 million to lawyers advising management.

The Boston Globe turned to Brown University professor Kenneth Wong, who was previously known for praising mayoral control as the answer to urban school problems.

Kenneth Wong, an education policy expert and professor at Brown University who has advised city and state leaders on a wide range of school funding and reform initiatives over the past decade, said he sees the next few weeks as crucial to finding common ground.

Wong said the state deserves some credit for some initial progress during the takeover. The state has issued a clear set of goals for Providence schools, like raising the graduation rate from 73.6 percent in the 2018-19 school year to 89 percent by the 2024-25 school year, and slashing chronic absenteeism from 37 percent to 10 percent during the same period.

Frankly, it is hard to see why the state deserves any credit for setting ambitious goals when it has not supplied the means to reach them and is driving away experienced teachers. The one thing that we supposedly learned from the ambitious “national goals” of 1989 was that setting goals is easy, reaching them is hard.

Here is a piece of advice for Commissioner Infante-Green: No teachers, no education. A good leader provides encouragement to the troops; a bad leader puts them in the line of fire.

Meanwhile, the new Governor Dan McKee, aligned himself solidly with the Walton-funded parent group that wants more charter schools. Democrats in the legislature have lined up behind a three-year moratorium on charters, but McKee made clear that if the bill passes, he will veto it.

The article in the Providence Journal accepted at face value that the pro-charter lobby was led by ordinary parents, but Maurice Cunningham of the University of Massachusetts has demonstrated that the group called “Stop the Wait, Rhode Island” is funded by the Waltons and other Dark Money billionaires. And see here as well.

Governor McKee is doing the bidding of the Waltons of Arkansas.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells writes in the New Yorker about the importance of the vote on whether to unionize at an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama. The workers are paid $15 an hour. They are organizing against a behemoth corporation owned by the richest man in the world over working conditions, pay too. The vote concludes Monday. Six thousand workers will define the future for millions of others. Bernie Sanders tweeted recently that the 50 richest Americans own more than the bottom 50%. Is this our future?

He writes:

Most contemporary union drives are ultimately about the past—about the contrast that they draw between the more even prosperity of previous decades and the jarring inequalities of the present. But one that will culminate on Monday, the deadline for nearly six thousand employees of an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, to cast ballots on whether to affiliate with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, is the rare union campaign that is obviously about the future. In this case, hyperbole is possible. The Democratic congressman Andy Levin, of Michigan, a union stalwart, has described it as “the most important election for the working class in this country in the twenty-first century.” On Monday, the Reverend Dr. William Barber, as prominent a figure as exists in the modern civil-rights movement, travelled to Alabama and said, “Bessemer is now our Selma.”

That this election is about the future has something to do with the workers themselves, who embody the political transformation of the South to which progressives pin their dreams. According to union officials, a majority of the people employed at the facility, which is outside of Birmingham, are Black, and a majority are women. On the drive up to the facility, supporters of the R.W.D.S.U. planted a sign featuring the Democratic politician and voting-rights advocate Stacey Abrams striking a Rosie the Riveter pose. A high-ranking labor official in Washington pointed me to a detail from an interview, published in The American Prospect, with the campaign’s on-the-ground leader, a thirty-three-year-old organizer named Josh Brewer. Brewer said that many of the workers who supported the union had been involved in demonstrations to bring down Confederate statues in Birmingham, and they often organized themselves.

But the significance of the drive has more to do with the company itself. Amazon is now among the largest private employers in the United States; its founder, Jeff Bezos, is arguably the wealthiest man in modern history. The company has paid every one of its workers fifteen dollars per hour since November, 2018, while also pioneering second-by-second monitoring of its employees. “This isn’t just about wages,” Stuart Appelbaum, the R.W.D.S.U.’s president, told me, on Monday. It is also about the strenuous pace of work, and the real-time surveillance methods that Amazon has used to monitor employees. Appelbaum said some of the workers that his union has represented have had employers that monitored their locations with G.P.S. chips in their delivery trucks, “but there’s nothing like this, where you’re expected to touch a package every eight seconds.” It had been hard to organize within the Bessemer facility, he said, in part because many of the workers did not know one another. “It’s hyper-Taylorism,” Damon Silvers, the director of policy and the special counsel of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said. “Amazon has determined an optimal set of motions that they want their employees to do, and they have the ability to monitor the employee at all times and measure the difference between what the employee does and what they want them to do, and there is nowhere to hide.” Appelbaum said, “People tell us they feel like robots who are being managed by robots.”

The Amazon union drive has drawn a rare intensity out of the usual suspects. Abrams, Levin, and Bernie Sanders have announced their support for it, and so has President Joe Biden, who recorded a strong message encouraging the organizers and discouraging any effort to interfere with them. It has also drawn some unusual allies, above all the conservative Republican senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, who published an op-ed in USA Today declaring his support for the organizing workers and his opposition to Amazon’s ways: “The days of conservatives being taken for granted by the business community are over.”

Amazon’s influence is so vast—touching on issues from wealth and income inequality to antitrust policy, the American relationship with China, the omnipotence of workplace surveillance, and the atomizing effect of big business, in its most concentrated and powerful form, on families and communities—that it can scramble ordinary politics. For a moment, at least, it can put Marco Rubio and Stacey Abrams on the same side. Most organizing campaigns have a symbolic quality, in which the employer and its workers stand for different models of economic organization. The fight in Bessemer is different because it is so direct. Amazon isn’t a proxy for the future of the economy but its heart.

A year into a pandemic that has kept many Americans cooped up at home, ordering supplies and streaming their entertainment, seems an unpromising time to take on Amazon, which supplies many of those services. Amazon’s revenue grew by nearly forty per cent in 2020, and its workforce grew by about fifty per cent; Jeff Bezos’s wealth reportedly increased by nearly seventy billion dollars last year. The company has become so ubiquitous that even to inquire about it entangles you in its machinery: type “is Amazon popular?” into a search engine and you might find, as I did, that most of the top results are books about popularity which are sold on Amazon. You can find evidence that Amazon both is and isn’t popular in survey data. In one poll, ninety-one per cent of respondents said that they had a favorable view of Amazon; in another, fifty-nine per cent thought the company was bad for small business. To count on broad opposition to Amazon right now is to assume such cognitive dissonance: that Americans may increasingly rely on Amazon and view it favorably while also believing that the company needs to change...


The labor leaders in Washington seemed to see Republican support as welcome but mostly ornamental—like if a distant relative had sent, for Christmas, a very large painting of a duck. They found the Democrats’ reaction more significant. In Biden’s message of support earlier this month, he warned employers not to interfere with union elections: “You should all remember that the National Labor Relations Act didn’t just say that unions are allowed to exist. It said that we should encourage unions.” Silvers, of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said he thought that Biden was speaking directly to the workers who were organizing. “The way he’s talking is not unprecedented, but the precedents are in the Roosevelt Administration,” he said. Appelbaum, of the R.W.D.S.U., said that there had been more talk about the importance of unions in the last Presidential campaign than he’d ever heard before. “We used to talk about how even those Democratic Presidents who we like would barely talk about unions. Biden is different.”


The Economic Policy Institute is one of the very few think tanks in Washington, D.C., that is not funded by Bill Gates or the Waltons. It is openly on the side of working people. It does valuable research. During the pandemic, unionized workers fared slightly better than non-union workers.

This study shows dramatically that as unions decline, income inequality grows.

Figure B in this article shows that as the percent of people in unions declined, the share of income going to the top 10% increased.

Union membership reached a peak (about 33% of all workers) in the late 1940s-early 1950s.

Since then, the spread of anti-union laws (so-called “right to work” laws) has caused a sharp decline in union jobs.

The anti-union movement has been funded over the years by big business and billionaires, of course. They are now fighting the movement for a $15 an hour minimum wage. They live in luxury but don’t understand why working people need a living wage just to pay the rent and put food on the table.

Over the past decade, I have repeatedly defended unions, and extremely stupid people have accused me of being paid by the teachers’ unions. Jeanne Allen of the pro-choice Center for Education Reform once tweeted that my “beautiful home” in Brooklyn Heights must have been paid for by the unions. Yes, I did live in a beautiful brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, but I paid for it myself, without a penny from any union.

I defend unions because they provide a pathway into the middle class for people who are poor and working class. By joining a union, they are part of an organization that will make sure they have a good salary, health benefits, and a pension. Why is so problematic for rightwing conservatives and the 1%? Billionaire John Arnold is offended by public pensions, and he has spent a few millions trying to persuade the public that pensions are bankrupting the public sector. I think it is more likely that the public sector has been starved by tax breaks for billionaires.

So, yes, I would like to witness the rebirth of unions in my lifetime. They are the very best protection for working people. They build a middle class. Our society needs more unions, a higher minimum wage, and representation for all workers.

Education Trust, which is amply funded by billionaires, says it advocates for equity when it promotes standardized testing. Twenty years of standardized testing shows that this is a useless and fraudulent effort. Education Trust should be advocating for unions if it really wants equity.

Let us hope that billionaires like Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, and Eli Broad, to mention just a few, will invest in union organizing drives. If they truly want to promote equity in American society, that is the best way to advance the cause. Not charter schools. Not vouchers. Not standardized testing. Unions. Unions that assure a decent standard of living and a decent retirement for every member.

The following essay was written by Michael Podhorzer, Senior Advisor to the president of the AFL-CIO. I totally agree that the key to building a strong middle class is the expansion of unions. The plutocrats have done a great job of demonizing them and destroying the ladder into the middle class that unions offer. Right now, Amazon workers are deciding whether to form a union in Bessemer, Alabama. I hope they win. Jeff Bezos should share the wealth with those who work for him. He should not have nearly $200 billion. Why should Elon Musk and Bill Gates have nearly $200 billion? Couldn’t they be satisfied and live in luxury with only a few hundred millions? In a just world, societies would dedicate their best efforts to reducing inequality and eliminating poverty. Let’s give credit to Joe Biden on this important issue. He has said he is a union guy, and he is pushing legislation to enable workers to join unions.

Podhorzer wrote:

The House of Representatives is expected to pass the PRO Act this week, Amazon workers in Alabama continue to vote to form a union and President Biden’s released a video encouraging working people to join unions.  

While the prospect of a national conversation about supporting working people organizing themselves against their exploitation is long overdue, maddeningly, even those who support unions regret the “decline in union membership.” Stating the fact that union members make up a smaller share of the workforce than they once did in the passive voice (decline) erases causality, implicitly confirming the idea working people are now less likely to want to be in a union, or that unions are outdated, or that unions themselves have done a poor job selling themselves. In fact, research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows more than 60 million people would vote to join a union today if given the opportunity and Gallup recently found that union approval stands at 65%, one of the highest marks in a half-century. 

A more accurate characterization of the same fact would be, “intense and sustained corporate campaigns to bust unions, make it more difficult to form unions, exclude more sectors of the workforce from access to union membership and depict unions in the worst possible ways, along with an often bi-partisan retreat in federal support for working people, relentless roll backs by Republican Presidents and Republican trifecta states have dramatically reduced the number of working people who even have the option of joining one.” 

This is yet another example of progressives repeating their opponents’ framing with the effect of making the intentional and contingent seem natural and inevitable.   Similarly, we routinely talk about profits rising, but never about the fact that an increasing share of those rising profits come from preventing working people from sharing in the gains from their increasing productivity. Thus, since the pandemic, all of Amazon’s gains have been captured by Jeff Bezos and the company’s largest shareholders, not the working people risking (and losing) their lives to enable many of us to get through this year without much to disturb our lifestyles. 

Meanwhile, progressive opinion leaders and policy wonks wring their hands and heroically search for fresh solutions to the most pressing crises of the day as if there isn’t a substantial body of evidence that increased union membership ameliorates many of them, including income inequality, democratic participation, racism and authoritarianism among other things (below).  

Studies show that union workers make about $150 billion more a year than non-union workers in wages alone controlling for industry, occupation education and experience. And union workers are much more likely to have health, pension and leave benefits than non-union workers, and those benefits are much more substantial than those non-union workers who have them at all. To put that in perspective: $150 billion is more than twice the SNAP program, yet costs the taxpayer almost nothing. 

All of this will seem improbable at best as long as you imagine that the benefits accrue from unions as the institutions you experience in your professional life.  The benefits accrue from allowing working people to organize themselves collectively and democratically to act on their own behalf.   It is the practice of acting democratically and collectively to negotiate contracts and set working conditions that produces more tolerant, effective citizens. Union members vote for things that matter in their daily lives from their shop steward to the health benefits in their contracts. They can see how much more powerful they are together, embracing their linked fate than they are on their own. They practice a democracy that has all but disappeared elsewhere in America. 

Even if most progressives don’t fully understand how much more powerful working people acting together on their own behalf are than government programs designed to help them, corporations do. That’s why, since the Wagner Act they have relentlessly attacked working people’s ability to combine. 

The Taft-Hartley Act is most known for opening the door to “right to work.” By the 1950’s most southern states were “right to work,” crippling the CIO’s multiracial organizing efforts in the region. The creation of an effectively non-union, low wage region of the country quickly had two profound effects. First, by offering a low wage domestic region to relocate to, unionized corporations had greater leverage against their employees demands. Arguably as important, but much less recognized, it put an end to the development of a national working class consciousness. 

Even less well recognized are the impacts of the restrictions Taft-Hartley put on joint action. The Taft-Hartley Act also banned  jurisdictional strikessolidarity or political strikessecondary boycotts, secondary and mass picketing. In doing so, the Act made illegal the ways in which working people could join together beyond their own employer on behalf of other working people. In this way again, corporations were able to criminalize the development of class solidarity. That has also radically shaped the incentives of unions as institutions. 

MORE THAN THE WEEKEND

While there’s growing acknowledgment of how much the neoliberal market absolutism that triumphed in the late 1970’s is responsible for the present state of affairs, there’s relatively little genuine awareness of what it replaced, or how breaking working people’s ability to act collectively was central to its success. 

Although very far from perfect, from the New Deal until the 1970’s was a period in which pluralism was seen as an essential element of healthy democracy. And there was no more important element of pluralistic America than the labor movement.  At an elite level, a tripartite pluralism consisting of business, labor and government was seen as crucial for the nation’s prosperity and robust democracy. (For example, John Kenneth Galbraith, American Capitalism; The Concept of Countervailing Power and The New Industrial State.)

Unions demonstrated to ordinary people that community problems could only be solved by coming together; strength in numbers was more than a slogan, it was a democratic habit and the way America often functioned. This was a period of movements that led the way to the progress since eroded and continuously under siege.  The advances made on civil rights, women’s rights, environmental protection and limiting foreign military intervention and nuclear proliferation (for a time) reflected sustained collective action that required immense social capital built up from the myriad associations that were common at the time to cohere and a shared experience that government would be responsive.

That social capital and sense of agency is shot, demonstrated by our learned helplessness in the face of Trump’s shredding so much of what those movements delivered.  This Brookings’ Tracking Deregulation in the Trump Era provides a staggering inventory of decimation. For example, not only has Trump been dismantling the environmental regulatory system, the EPA has been routinely granting thousands of waivers and just not enforcing the law. And, almost without notice, the longstanding treaties and instruments to control nuclear proliferation have been discarded.

The rest of this Weekend Reading provides a guide to resources that demonstrate the ways in which an empowered workforce changes everything and concludes with key points about the PRO Act. 

Inequality

The labor movement plays many positive roles in democratic societies—but the most foundational is making sure that the people who do the work of society share in the wealth they create.  This is one of many charts the show the connection between corporate success weakening unions and the increasing share of income going to the top ten percent. 

Income inequality is the result of unequal power. It’s that simple. 

  • Unions, inequality, and faltering middle-class wages provides an excellent overview of much of the literature. 
  • This paper from Hank Farber, Daniel Herbst, IIlyana Kuziemko, and Suresh Naidu is just-revised and packed with terrific (and comprehensive) analysis of the relationship between unions and inequality.  It shows how the strength of unions and collective bargaining in the United States after World War II disproportionately benefited low wage workers and workers of color.  It remains the gold standard analysis so far of unions and economic outcomes over the long-run in the 20th century.  
  • Internationally, this report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) documents the positive effects of unions across the developed world.
  • This paper found that, “the decline of organized labor explains a fifth to a third of the growth in inequality” from 1973 to 2007. 

Democracy

As I said earlier, it is only recently that the accepted idea of that holding free and fair elections was the only requirement to qualify as a democracy. The degree to which people have collective agency in their daily lives determines the health of the society and the democracy. We don’t even notice the ways in which the law facilitates the affluent acting collectively, most notably through corporations. Or the ways in which the law inhibits everyone else from acting collectively. The following research develops that idea. 

  • Authoritarianism. This study in Nature showed that “Participatory practices at work change attitudes and behavior toward societal authority and justice.” Specifically, they found that “participatory meetings led workers to be less authoritarian and more critical about societal authority and justice, and to be more willing to participate in political, social, and familial decision-making.” It confirms earlier research here and here that unions fundamentally change members understanding of and expectations for the relations of power between themselves and their employers. 
  • Resistance to system justification. John Jost’s Theory of System Justification provides a powerful explanation of why oppressed people rarely rebel. Much more to come on this in future Weekend Reading and Open Mic. Relevant here is the theory’s logic, borne out in research that willingness to protest is much less a function of the extent of oppression than beliefs about group efficacy.  “Collective action is more likely when people have shared interests, feel relatively deprived, are angry, believe they can make a difference and strongly identify with relevant social groups.”
  • Responsive Congressional Representation.  This recent paper from Michael Becher and Daniel Stegmueller uses an impressive array of survey data and union membership data to show how the presence of stronger unions within U.S. House districts leads to more policy responsiveness for lower-income Americans (and less responsiveness for higher-income Americans), especially on economic issues.
  • Protest. This paper by Greg Lyon and Brian Shaffner documents how unions increase protest activity among non-members through social ties, especially relevant for thinking about how unions have seeded and supported recent protests.

Racism

Although very far from perfect, and especially in its origins often an accomplice to segregation and racism, the union movement has also been an essential partner in dismantling elements of systemic racism.  In Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932-1965, Eric Schickler recovers the importance of the partnership between the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the Civil Rights movement.   The solid segregationist South initially supported most of the early New Deal’s pro-worker legislation, including the Wagner Act. However, once the CIO began multi-racial organizing efforts in the South, Southern Democrats turned on the labor. Over the next several decades, the Civil Rights movement and the CIO the power of the Southern wing inside the Democratic Party, succeeding in adopting a Civil Rights plank at the 1948 Democratic Convention that triggered Thurmond’s third party candidacy that year which carried Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. Speakers at the March on Washington included A. Philip Randolph and Walter Reuther. 

Furthermore, union membership increases racial tolerance. For example, this paper from Paul Frymer and Jake Grumbach uses survey data to show how union membership leads to more tolerant views of racial minorities among white workers, and is an important reminder of the spillover effects of unions on many other attitudes and preferences beyond economic policy.

Politics

Many have written about the role of unions in politics. Tom Edsall makes the point, obvious to Grover Norquist, business and the right wing, but somehow obscure to many Democrats and progressives, that gutting the labor movement would mean that, “the modern Democratic Party will cease to be a competitive power in American politics.” Republicans wasted little time after their state electoral sweep in 2010 to attack unions, beginning in Wisconsin.  The recent book, State Capture, tells this story.  

Numerous studies document the connection between union strength Democratic and progressive political impacts. Union members vote more Democratic than their neighbors. Nate Silver (2008) and Harry Enten (2012) write about how consequential that gap was, accounting for about 1.7 points of Obama’s margin in both elections. After controlling for other demographics they found that union membership was one of the most important variables. Thus, it is not surprising that fewer union members = fewer Democrats:

  • Right to Work. In this 2018 study, Alexander Hertel Fernandez carefully examined the impact of the passage of Right to Work laws and concluded that Democrats pay an average of a 3.5 point penalty after passage. They attribute that to lower union density, less political activism and collateral impacts on family and neighbors.  Data for Progress takes a different approach, and finds the same result. Instead of looking at RTW, they create a time series relating union density to congressional vote for each of the 50 states. As union density in a state declines, so does the Democratic vote share. It’s a very steep curve after 1990.   (Includes density-Democratic vote graphs for every state.)
  • Fewer Resources for Politics. Both the OpenSecrets and FollowTheMoney websites track union giving. For example, the 2018 election cost $2.1 billion more than 2010, but union spending increased by only $81 million. That was the pattern at the state level as well. That said, unions are still a very significant share of independent spending.

So, while Democratic strategists obsess in their search for the message or counsel a “cultural” conservatism that will get a few more working class votes, they ignore the evidence that increased union membership would provide a much greater and durable increase in Democratic support.  

THE PRO ACT

The PRO Act is the most significant worker empowerment legislation since the Great Depression because it will:

  • Empower workers to exercise our freedom to organize and bargain. 
  • Ensure that workers can reach a first contract quickly after a union is recognized.
  • End employers’ practice of punishing striking workers by hiring permanent replacements. Speaking up for labor rights is within every worker’s rights—and workers shouldn’t lose our jobs for it.
  • Hold corporations accountable by strengthening the National Labor Relations Board and allowing it to penalize employers who retaliate against working people in support of the union or collective bargaining.
  • Repeal “right to work” laws—divisive and racist laws created during the Jim Crow era—that lead to lower wages, fewer benefits and more dangerous workplaces.
  • Create pathways for workers to form unions, without fear, in newer industries like Big Tech.

Click here for the AFL-CIO’s PRO Act toolkit.   Click here for the Economic Policy Institute’s Why unions are good for workers—especially in a crisis like COVID-1912 policies that would boost worker rights, safety, and wages.

The struggle now occurring in Bessemer, Alabama, to form a union at an Amazon warehouse could have a dramatic effect on the future of organized labor.

The pandemic made Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world with a fortune approaching $200 billion.

But his workers are fighting for higher wages and decent working conditions.

A group of scholars at the Brookings Institution, led by Andre Perry, have summarized the historic struggle:

Amazon’s disproportionately Black workforce has risked their lives during the pandemic, but the company has shared little of its astonishing profits with them. Last year, Amazon earned an additional $9.7 billion in profit—a staggering 84% increase compared to 2019. The company’s stock price has risen 82%, while founder Jeff Bezos has added $67.9 billion to his wealth—38 times the total hazard pay Amazon has paid its 1 million workers since March.

Equally informative and interesting is this account of the union organizing drive that appeared in a recent issue of The New Yorker by Charles Bethea.

The union started collecting authorization cards—they amassed more than three thousand—and the National Labor Relations Board decided that the union had enough support to hold a vote. Amazon insisted that the election should be held in person, but the board, which has been allowing mail-in balloting since the pandemic began, ruled against the company. A seven-week balloting period began last month and will end on March 29th. The effort has garnered international headlines, and a handful of the employees who have been among the most involved, like Richardson, have spoken to reporters from across the country. One of the employees I talked to, Jennifer Bates, is slated to speak at a congressional hearing on Wednesday. Late last month, Joe Biden unexpectedly offered a statement of clear, albeit nonspecific, support for the union push. “Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, and especially Black and brown workers,” Biden said. Though he did not mention Amazon by name, he referred to “workers in Alabama and all across America.”