Happy Labor Day: But What the Heck Happened to the Unions?

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Members of the Ironworkers Union in Labor Day parade
Susan Watts/NY Daily News Archive via Getty ImagesMembers of the Ironworkers Union march in the Labor Day parade in New York.
Before the deep, deep discounts and back-to-school sales, before it was the end of summer and the start of college football season, Labor Day signified just one thing: respect for America's organized labor. Originally proposed by the secretary of New York's Central Labor Union, the holiday was slowly adopted, state by state, until 1894. That year, the massive Pullman car strike ended with the massacre of 30 people, $80 million in property damage, and a national labor force that was furious. In an attempt to smooth things over, Congress and President Grover Cleveland rushed through a bill that made Labor Day a federal holiday.

Almost 120 years later, unions are in the middle of a steep decline. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012, the total number of union members fell to 14.3 million, or 11.3 percent of U.S. workers -- the lowest level since 1916. It isn't hard to see why: On one side, an increasing number of states have enacted right-to-work laws and have placed restrictions on collective bargaining. At the same time, a growing number of employers across the business spectrum have actively fought union formation. Even Northeastern University hired a union-busting law firm to deal with faculty members who were attempting to collectively bargain.

On the other end of the employment spectrum, Walmart, a company that has been repeatedly called out for its low, low wages, has made an art out of fighting unions. As Bloomberg reported late last year, America's largest private employer has closed stores that voted to unionize, packed various sections with anti-union workers, and -- in one especially stunning case -- decided to close the meat counters at 180 stores when its butchers voted to unionize. It routinely bars union organizers from Walmart property, forces employees to attend anti-union meetings, and threatens to replace employees who try to unionize.

However, unions also bear some of the blame for their decline. In the face of an anti-union PR blitz that has tagged them with a host of shortcomings, their response has been weak and, at times, tin-eared. Their biggest ad push of recent years was based around a commercial titled "Work Connects Us All," which pointed out the value of jobs, but failed to show how jobs were connected to unions.

Even as unions have declined, though, a growing body of research has demonstrated why they are important to the nation's workers. Earlier this year, for example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that full-time workers who were unionized earned, on average, $943 per week, compared to $742 for those who weren't.
Meanwhile, news outlets have noted that, as worker wages have fallen, corporate profits have soared. The Economic Policy Institute connected the dots between these trends, noting that the decline in union membership has almost perfectly mirrored the growing income inequality gap. In other words, as union membership drops, the share of income going to the top 10 percent of households has risen in almost perfect lockstep.

Recently, unions have begun a fresh push to slow their fall, targeting younger workers and offering to help non-unionized workers in their struggles for better work conditions. And, with a growing number of non-union minimum-wage workers employing union tactics to publicize their need for higher pay, it seems like unions might be on the edge of finding fresh relevance. Assuming, of course, that they can stay out of their own way.

Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings Editor. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.


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375 Comments

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rosemarienoa

The unions have overstayed their welcome with all their strikes & unreasonable demands!!!

September 02 2013 at 11:25 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
pdbliz

I bet,,,over 60% of the people that posted here,,,,,VOTED DEMOCRATE.!!!
You got what you voted for.......YOU WANTED A MAN OF COLOR ,,,DOES NOT MATTER IF HE HAS BRAINS OR NOT,,,,,,,,,JUST BE A MAN OF COLOR.
WHITE QUILT.!!!!!! WELL,,,IT CAME HOME TO BITE YOU,,,,,,
OBAMA COULD CARE LESS ABOUT YOU,,,OR THE BLACK VOTES...
OBAMA IS HERE TO BRING AMERICA TO ITS KNEES........

September 02 2013 at 11:15 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
coochiescooter

No good muslim scum jihadists, and soetoro is muslim scum.

September 02 2013 at 10:36 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
coochiescooter

Now the muslim scum in America wants to insult the families of the 9-11 massacre,by letting millions of muslim scum marching on Washington dc on 9-11-13 .screw you soetoro !!!

September 02 2013 at 10:32 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
dainiz

Unions have their place in the private sector but not in the public sector. In the public sector, union dues are used to elect people who then are beholden to the unions. This leaves the tax payer with out protection. The public does need means for a public employee to have help from unfair treatment by their bosses.

September 02 2013 at 10:18 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to dainiz's comment
tom

Some of you need to wake up and see that the big companies and ceo are putting it to you and need to get unions to even the playing fields. GM and every other company never had a gun to them to give them what they did. The problem was t wenty cent an hour pay oversea and the wanting it all for the rich

September 02 2013 at 10:12 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to tom's comment
betty_brock

Obama: "We must go to war to protect the poor Syrians. No, someone might call me a war monger. We should NOT go to war. Eenie, meenie, miney, mo. YIKES, I can't say that."

September 02 2013 at 10:06 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to betty_brock's comment
coochiescooter

Yes, watch the dumbasss radical loving Kerry bring the Syrian rebels here to do more Jihad on America. Screw you Kerry you tax evader !!!!!

September 02 2013 at 10:11 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
Frank Arouet

The greatest advancements for the majority of the population was not wage increases but making things and services cheaper. Rockefeller made energy cheap and plentiful to the masses, Ford made automobiles affordable for the masses, McCormick made equipment that replaced the necessity of massive amounts of manual labor made food cheaper more plentiful, and the Waldons made a greater variety of product cheaper and more accessible to the common man. It has been the production of cheaper more plentiful product that has done far more for the lot of common human's than the artificial increase in the hourly wage.

September 02 2013 at 10:03 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Frank Arouet's comment
betty_brock

Obama made this country more accessible to Illegals. Is that what you mean?

September 02 2013 at 10:10 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to betty_brock's comment
bchrist751

Since Obama took office Illegals have taken the majority of jobs that have been created... Which isn't many!

September 02 2013 at 11:19 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down
Frank Arouet

Don't worry Betty, I believe in the rule of law especially in a welfare country.

September 05 2013 at 1:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down
coochiescooter

Hey Barry Soetooro or Barack Hussein Obama, take your maggot muslim radical loving asss back to what ever maggot muslim radical asss cooontry you came from, we are sick of you and your community organizing. GET THE F OUT OF OUR COUNTRY YOU TRAITOR !

September 02 2013 at 9:58 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
jhrooney

Union leadership no longer cared about the workers. They were out for all they could steal. When the workers become more educated they see through the scam. It is too bad what happened to unions but union management brought it on themselves.

September 02 2013 at 9:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jhrooney's comment
ljnace

You sound like a cheerleader for The Peoples Republic of Fraud News. In other words you are clueless.

September 02 2013 at 9:56 PM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to ljnace's comment
coochiescooter

You will make a nice sound on the roadside in Syria . BOOM !

September 02 2013 at 10:06 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down
betty_brock

Is that where you live lj?

September 02 2013 at 10:07 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down