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Are Unions a Declining Institution in American Labor?

Are Unions a Declining Institution in American Labor?

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By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University

In 1921, West Virginia was the focus of the worst union clash with management. An armed uprising was called the biggest such fighting since the Civil War. The armed uprising saw over 10,000 men assaulting the coal company personnel and ended with hundreds of miners were indicted for murder.

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The Nazis, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, banned all trade unions in 1933 since they represented a powerful group of people who could challenge the Nazi party policies and rules and laws.

The Nazis saw that unions exercised significant power by representing workers’ interests, so they made it a priority to eliminate all trade unions in Germany.

Today’s unions are not eradicable as they were in Germany in 1933. Unions today recognize the need for employers to be supportive of their employees. That helps companies to be more competitive in the marketplace and more responsive to the end customer who purchases their products.

What Is a Union?

According to United Steel Workers, “A union is a group of people working together to improve their work lives through collective bargaining.” Unions help protect jobs, promote increased wages for union workers, and look to improve working conditions. Unions are established to protect workers from unsafe working conditions or practices and to defend them against problems that arise between management and labor.

Collective Bargaining Is Central to the Success of a Union

Collective bargaining is central to the success of a union in negotiations on wages, hours, and working conditions. Collective bargaining is the ultimate goal when the union works with management of an organization to get agreement on wages, hours worked and health benefits.

What if a factory worker sees a safety concern or knows of a device or process that should be put into place to keep the workers safe? As a union member, a factory worker can alert fellow workers to the problem and as a group inform management of the need to address the issue or procedure.

Unions in the US

U.S. unions were created to protect the rights of America’s working class. According to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2019 there were 14.6 million active union members. Of those, 7.1 million came from the public sector; that figure included jobs such as state, federal municipal employees, including the National Education Association. The other 7.5 million were employed in the private sector and include the United Steel Workers, The United Mine Workers of America, United Auto Workers, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

The U.S. union membership has declined significantly over the last 50 years and continues to shrink, indicating that organized labor is facing membership issues. The following data chart published in 2019 shows membership percentage in unions has continued to decrease since the 1980s.

table 1 unions Hedgepeth

Among American workers, participation in a union fell to 10.5 percent last year, from 10.7 percent in 2017 and 2016, with all demographic groups seeing a decline in membership. The drop continues a trend that except for a pause during the 2008 financial crisis, has been ongoing since the 1980s, when the share of organized labor was roughly double what it is today.

table 2 unions Hedgepeth

Benefits of Belonging to a Union

Union membership benefits include:

  • Union members make an average of 30% more than non-union members.
  • 92% of union members have job-related health coverage versus 68% of non-union members.
  • Union members are more likely to have guaranteed pensions than non-union members.
  • Most union members cannot be fired without “just cause.”
  • Union members have the collective power to go on strike.
  • College scholarships are available for union members’ children.

Since 1991, more than $4.5 million in college scholarships have been awarded to union members. In 2019 alone, the Union Plus Scholarship Program awarded $170,000 to 108 students. Union Plus also awards disaster relief funds to victims of natural disasters such as tornados, floods and wildfires.

Reasons Why Some Are Against Unions

There are also several reasons to consider not belonging to a union. Vittana, a personal finance blog, offers seven of them:

  1. Labor unions can discount worker education and experience.
  2. Labor unions require ongoing dues and may require initiation fees.
  3. Labor unions may participate in activities that workers disagree upon.
  4. Labor unions discourage individuality.
  5. Labor unions offer job bumping arrangements.
  6. Labor unions can have a poor public reputation.
  7. Labor unions are a hierarchal environment.

As a union member you have to pay dues from your salary. This pay cut usually ranges from 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent. So, if you are making $1,000 a week, you are paying about $20 for union dues. Plus, there may be an initiation fee to join.

Union members are free to vote for any candidate they choose. But some of their union dues may go to support opposing candidates.

There are Americans who support unions and there are those who do not. When workers consider whether or not to have a union in their company, the best strategy is to meet these challenges head on with a spirit of cooperation. If there are collective bargaining sessions or public discussions open to everyone, workers should attend and read all materials on both sides of the issues. Learn to listen. Discuss the different views and possible solutions calmly.

Unions’ Future

The U.S. unions from 2020 onward will be changing from what they have over the last 50 years due to the impacts of how the nature of work has changed in the information rich technology age and growth of telecommuting and working online. Global networks of workers is one aspect of this new work social and cultural change. Employee work is becoming part of a global platform combining tasks and people from all over the world.

Trade unions may seem ineffective with no real power to negotiate on behalf of these dispersed workers who may have multiple employers. For union leaders to be successful in the future, they will need to become a builder of research for digital workers. The unions of the future will not look like or sound like or read like those of the past as the meaning of employment is changing.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.

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