Taughannock Falls

Taughannock Falls
from: althouse.blogspot.com

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Unions help everybody

Peter Dreier points out how unions raise wages and benefits, stimulating the whole economy:

Los Angeles provides a good illustration of how unions strengthen worker purchasing power and the economy. According to a December 2007 study by the Economic Roundtable, union workers in LA County earn 27 percent more than nonunion workers performing the same jobs. The higher wages for the LA union workers -- who number about 800,000 or 15 percent of the workforce -- add $7.2 billion a year in earnings. And there is a multiplier effect. As these workers purchased housing, food, clothing, child care, and other items, their consumption power created an additional 307,200 jobs, or 64,800 more than would have been produced without the higher union wages. The union wages also yield about $7 billion in taxes to various levels of government. If unionization rates were higher, these positive ripple effects would increase across the economy.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, union workers earn 14.1 percent more in wages than nonunion workers in the same occupations and with the same level of experience and education. The "union premium" is considerably higher when total compensation is included, because unionized workers are much more likely to get health insurance and pension benefits.

Unions not only raise wages; they also reduce workplace inequalities based on race. The union wage premium is especially high for black employees (18.3 percent), Hispanic employees (21.9 percent), and Asian employees (17.4 percent). (The union wage premium is 12.4 percent for white employees.) In other words, unions help to close racial wage gaps by making it tougher for employers to discriminate.

Likewise, unions reduce workplace inequalities based on gender. The union wage premium is 14.5 percent for black women, 18.7 percent for Hispanic women, 12.6 percent for Asian women, and 9.1 percent for white women. Unions also reduce overall wage inequalities, because they raise wages more at the bottom and middle than at the top.

If unions are good for workers and good for the economy, why are so few employees union members? Some business leaders argue that American employees are simply anti-union, a consequence of our culture's strong individualistic ethic and opposition to unions as uninvited "third parties" between employers and their employees. Anti-union attitudes, business groups claim, account for the decline in union membership, which peaked at 35 percent in the 1950s and is now 12.3 percent.

But this story leaves out four decades of corporate union-bashing that has increased the risk that workers take when they seek union representation. In general, polls reveal that American workers have positive attitudes toward unions, and these positive views are increasing as anxiety about job security, wages, and pensions grows.

A majority of American employees say they would join a union if they could. But they won't vote for a union, much less participate openly in a union-organizing drive, if they fear they will lose their job or be otherwise punished or harassed at work for doing so.

And there's the rub. Americans have far fewer rights at work than employees in other democratic societies. Current federal laws are an impediment to union organizing rather than a protector of workers' rights. The rules are stacked against workers, making it extremely difficult for even the most talented organizers to win union elections. Under current National Labor Relations Board regulations, any employer with a clever attorney can stall union elections, giving management time to scare the living daylights out of potential recruits.

According to Cornell University's Kate Bronfenbrenner, it is standard practice for corporations to subject workers to threats, interrogation, harassment, surveillance, and retaliation for union activity during organizing campaigns. One-third of all employers illegally fire at least one employee. Some workers get reinstated, but it often takes years and exhaustive court battles. Penalties for these violations are so minimal that most employers treat them as a minor cost of doing business. Employees who initially signed union cards are often long gone or too afraid to vote by the time the NLRB conducts an election. Large employers spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to hire anti-union consultants in order to intimidate workers from participating in or showing support for union campaigns. Employers can require workers to attend meetings on work time, during which company managers give anti-union speeches, show anti-union films, and distribute anti-union literature.

Unions have no equivalent rights of access to employees. To reach them, organizers must distribute leaflets outside offices, hospitals, and factory gates (an activity unions have not found cost-effective), visit workers' homes, or hold secret meetings.

Even with passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, employees would still need to mount campaigns to persuade other workers to join a union and then win a decent contract. But EFCA would provide greater balance between employees and employers in the workplace. This would make it more likely that union organizing campaigns would succeed, that workers would have better-paying jobs, that the ripple effects of union pay would improve the overall economy, and that the political influence of the labor movement would help the nation enact more progressive policies to make America a more humane society.

Even before EFCA is enacted, there is plenty that the executive branch of government could do to promote good jobs and the right of workers to bargain collectively. That, in turn, would increase the ranks of those battling for other policies to help working Americans. What are our friends in the White House waiting for?

The difficulties workers face in forming and maintaining effective unions are truly chilling. Here again, we see how the super-wealthy have used their political dominance to rig the game in their favor. Hard-won protections for workers have been steadily eroded ever since the election of Reagan. In a true free-market, workers could combine for greater strength, just as investors do to capture market-share. Yet today, high-priced legal firms find it all too easy to prevent union formation, and even to undermine existing unions. As unions decline, there is no one left to defend basic labor rights like the 40 hour week, or minimum wage. The huge challenge facing labor today is how to move into the new "factories" of the service economy: big-box retailers, hospitals, nursing homes, medical billing centers. As more lawyers and software engineers find their jobs outsourced, there may be an opportunity to create some new white-collar unions as well. One thing's for sure, if the Republicans make big gains this November all of America's workers will suffer.

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