What do you think of when you hear the phrase "labor unions?" Most people associate a negative connotation with labor unions. They think that labor unions are the only cause of strikes and work stoppages. Most think that people in unions are greedy and will do anything to get more money. Others swear by their unions, saying that their employers would take advantage of them if they didn’t organize their unions. However as we prepare to enter the new millennium, labor unions are decreasing in size. Let’s look at some of reasons.
First, the numbers are unmistakable. At the end of 1997, when the most recent count was made, only 14.1% of workers belonged to unions, the lowest percentage since 1936 (Gross 23). This is a dramatic decrease from when unions were at their height at the end of World War II when 35.3% of Americans were in unions (Galenson 13).
One cause of this fall of union membership is the decline of manufacturing in America and the transfer of much manufacturing work over seas (Gross 24). Because of advances in technology and labor saving innovations, fewer people are required to make steel and assembler automobiles. As a result, only 16.1% of U.S. workers now work in factories, down from 22.8% twenty years ago (Aronwitz 2). There has also been a decrease in size of the large corporations, which in the past usually signed industry-wide contracts to produce a particular item. The latest figures show that the 800 largest firms employed 17% of the total workforce, down from 25.7% twenty years ago (Aronwitz 3). Many of these companies have their work done abroad. Nike does not make a single shoe in the United States and many insurance companies are having paperwork processed over seas (Hacker 45).
At home corporate jobs are frequently assigned to temporary workers, who are often classified as "independent contractors" and are not very likely to join unions. Indeed, there are fewer long-term jobs, something union seniority could once guarantee. Last year, among men aged forty to forty-five, only 39.1% had worked ten or more years at their current job, compared with 51.1 percent in 1983 (Galenson 27).
So, one might ask, what caused this to happen? At some point in the 1980s, the balance of power shifted against labor unions. Some say the defining moment was in 1981, when then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan forced an end to the bitter air traffic controllers' strike. Others point to the 1985 victory of then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher over striking coal miners (Gross 239). Whatever the reason, unions are trying to make a comeback.
There are several strategies that unions have devised to return to their former glory. Unions have adopted a more lenient attitude towards management, reducing the number of strikes to record lows in the 1980s and early 90s, and attempting to negotiate contracts providing job security for members (Gross 278). Unions have also placed greater emphasis on organizing drives for new members. Although unions have been very successful in organizing government employees, they have been less successful with recruiting office workers in the rapidly expanding services sector.
However, during the last two decades, the wage advantage for unionized workers with private jobs has fallen by 44.1 percent, although the public sector has increased by 9.5 percent (Maguire 20). Currently, 41.9% of union members are from the public sector. Among the most strongly unionized occupations are firefighters (71.6%), flight attendants (69.4%), and high school teachers (56.1%). Only 28.6 percent of coal miners belong to unions and only 19.5% of truck drivers (Hacker 47).
Despite all of the downsides of unions they do have their benefits. Here are a few examples of salaries secured through collective bargaining by highly trained professionals: Pilots with only fifteen years of service at Northwest, American, United, and US Airways now earn on average over $175,000 a year. Professors at New York City University can now get as much as $101,655 for twenty-eight weeks of teaching. Under the current National Basketball Association contract, first year players—some of them right out of high school—will start at $300,000 (Hacker 48).
The recent NBA lockout has shaped many peoples’ opinions on labor unions. Most people, myself included, thought that it was ridiculous for these people to be having a labor dispute. The players are already making an insane amount of money and the owners are millionaires themselves looking to add to their pocketbooks also. The real losers in this battle are the fans who love the game. They cannot see their favorite players in action because of this dispute. This just goes to show you that labor markets affect us in our everyday lives.
Another way labor unions can affect our lives is when they decide to strike. This can effect hundreds, even thousands of workers in the General Motors strike in 1998. In the case with the automobile industry, many factories are involved in the production of their cars. If even one of these factories strikes then the other factories must also shut down. This chain reaction can render thousands of workers jobless in just a few weeks. The union members know that there is always a potential risk of striking as accept as part of their job.
What role will unions play in the future? Will they ever return to former glory? Nobody knows for sure. Economists have mixed feeling on this matter. Some say that the workers of the twenty-first century will demand a return to the unions and organize in record numbers. Others say that the current trend will prevail and almost wipeout unions completely until there are only a handful of them remaining. My opinion is that unions will stick around for as long as people are working. They will be there to protect the rights of the individual worker and make sure that he or she is treated fairly.
Aronwitz, Stanley. "From the ashes of the old: American
labor and America’s future." Houghton Mifflin. 246
Galenson, Walter. "The American labor movement, 1955-
1995." Westport: Greenwood 1996. 171 pages.
Gross, James A. "Broken Promise: The subversion of US
labor relations policy, 1947-1994." Philadelphia:
Temple University Press, 1995. 404 pages.
Hacker, Andrew. "Who’s sticking to the union?" New York
Books. Feb 18, 1999. Vol. 46 Issue 3. Pg 45-48.
Maguire, Kevin. "Why can’t they be grateful?" New
Statesmen. Jan 29, 1999. Vol. 12 Issue 540. Pg 20.
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