Are Unions Even Relevant Now?

In the 1950s unionized labor was a force to be reckoned with. Union heroes were epitomized in song, and we were proud to be a part of labor history ourselves.

The numbers today tell a different story. In 1983, 20% of the workforce belonged to a unit. By 2016 the number had almost halved to 10.7%; in the private sector union membership is less than 7% lower than it has been since 1932, the period between the two wars.

Them and Us

The concept of our rights should surely be a no-brainer? The first successful strike in the U.S. took place in Philadelphia in 1791 when carpenters went on strike for a ten-hour workday. Who would dispute the reasonableness of the demand, who would deny workers need protection from unfair practices?

Is it simply apathy that stops us wanting unionization? Have the concepts which original unionists fought for become so normal and accepted we no longer recognize any need for unions to protect us? As a point of contrast, in Iceland nearly 90% of the workforce is unionized. Iceland is an equalitarian society where its social rights are enshrined in law, yet 90% of workers are represented. There is clearly a mismatch.

What do unions do?

Union members on average and everything else being equal earn $200 per week more than non-union workers. For those in the union health benefits are generally better and provisions for retirement are too. The union will also represent a worker in cases of unfair dismissal or unfair work practices. Most importantly, the union is there to help a worker who is injured on the job get fair treatment and the right to return to work after recovery.

In early 2018 baggage handlers, cabin cleaners and wheelchair attendants at Boston’s Logan airport received a raise after they had staged a 36-hour strike to defend their right to organize. Soon, according to Bloomberg, Workers across the country from Chicago to Los Angeles will get the same salary bump.

Airport workers are recognizing the value of the union a time when their membership is dropping. All three of New York City’s airports are staffed by members of the Service Employees International Union who are collectively active in support of higher wages and better benefits.

Are unions effective?

This is a contentious issue and depending on who is answering the question there could be a 100% yes response to a 100% no, and everywhere in between.

The process whereby a group of associated workers combine and negotiate with employers is known as ‘Collective Bargaining’ this is how workers, especially in huge industries, gain a voice at work.

What is remarkable is unions are springing up where they perhaps would not be expected. Television writers and graduate students recently unionized. The Economic Policy Institute also notes that cafeteria workers in Silicon Valley are in the process of doing the same thing.

It looks like a newly energized union world may be undergoing a renaissance.