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September 8, 2009 - Ray Hall (Archive)
This Labor Day has come and gone with organized labor at its lowest national approval rating in modern history. The latest Gallup Poll shows that for the first time fewer than half of Americans approve of labor unions. In a poll conducted August 6-9 Gallup pollsters found 48% of Americans approve of labor unions, 45% disapprove and 7% have no opinion. That is a huge slide in approval from just two years ago when a similar poll showed labor unions with a 60% approval rating and very different from the 75% public approvals enjoyed by labor unions in the mid fifties.

There are many reasons for labor’s decline; unfair trade agreements, fewer manufacturing jobs and a national economy fueled by consumer spending. However, organized labor is not without stars; service employees, hotel-motel housekeepers, waitresses-waiters, casino workers and farm workers are the most active at organizing in the private sector and public employee unions have succeeded in developing negotiating skills and bringing them to new and more effective levels without the threat of strikes.

Despite labor’s slip in the polls union membership remains a valuable asset for workers. As reported by the Service Employees International Union research conducted by the Center for American Progress, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, UC Berkley Labor Center, Labor Project for Working Families and the Center for Economic Policy Research union membership makes an enormous difference for workers.

In 2008 nearly half a million workers joined a union; the largest increase since 1983. At the end of 2008 13.7% of U.S. workers were unionized, up from 12% the previous year. Nationwide union workers are 28% more likely to be covered by employer provided health insurance and nearly 54% are more likely to have employer provided pension plans and union pay is higher than non union employees. The research found that between 2004 and 2007 wages for unionized employees were on average $2.26 an hour higher than for non union workers. Forty-six percent of unionized workers receive full pay while on sick leave compared to 29% of non union workers.

Women and minorities do better in union shops. Union membership raises wages for women by more than 11% or $2.00 an hour and by 2020 women will be the majority of the unionized workforce. Latinos comprise about 11% of unionized workers and union membership raises Latinos wage by $2.60 an hour or more than 17% while African Americans can expect $2.00 an hour increase or an 11% pay increase for belonging to a union.

The thought occurred to me while reading the latest Gallup Poll about the decline in union popularity that organized labor has done a very poor job telling its story of success. Unions, particularly union workers on strike, are unlikely to receive accolades from a friendly press or an adoring public. Unions need to be proactive and make better use of informational pickets.

A unions first responsibility is to its members, but unions, particularly at the local level, have a responsibility to inform the public, to draw the public’s attention to companies that engage in unsafe or unfair labor practices by making use of informational pickets and flyers. Unions need to use informational pickets to protest non union companies and to hold labor rallies in public squares to encourage union membership and to hold public seminars on how to organize.

Organizing isn’t easy, although it is illegal, people have lost their jobs for even trying to organize a local union. But that too is an improvement; in the early years of the labor movement people were beaten and even killed for union organizing.

Unions must again foster that feeling, that emotion of brotherhood and sisterhood among working men and women, the young, the old, the able bodied and lend encouragement and assistance to the less than able, to those who need it most. Unions need to honor the notion of strength in numbers and support those corporations, companies and businesses that are unionized.

In France as in most of Europe labor unions are spread throughout every industry and hardly a day goes by without members picketing in the public square. Who knows? Perhaps President Reagan might not have devastated the air traffic controllers if all our union members had walked off the job across the United States for a day or two in protest.


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