If not unions, then what?

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You wouldn't know it from our nation's debate over Obamacare, but the U.S. has had government-supported health care for nearly 80 years. Not only that, but our nation bolsters a retirement level well beyond the thin safety net provided by Social Security, and it even ensures Americans a path to a family-supporting wage. And, no, I have not mistaken the U.S. for a socialist European nation.

Our government assures us these broad economic benefits by guaranteeing our right to form a labor union. Those among us who join a union — or who get a job with a company that matches the higher wages and benefits offered by its unionized competitors — effectively win a more robust social safety net through government-sanctioned collective bargaining. Thus, the U.S. has long relied on unions to do the kind of economic redistribution work which is shouldered by governments in other nations.

However, our nation is about to lose this leveling tool. We learned this month that the nation's rate of unionization is at a 93-year low. Only 11.3 percent of America's workers belong to a union, including a mere 6.6 percent of private-sector workers. In Maryland, union membership used to be above the national average, but in 2012 it fell below average to 10.6 percent. Much of the media coverage around this drop in union membership asks what this means for labor's future. The larger question, however, is what it means for America's future — how will our nation temper the inequities of today's new, global economy if we can no longer rely on unions to do that work for us?

Unions have long served as economic equalizers. From 1947 to 1972, the U.S. economy was the undisputed economic world leader, and our nation used unions to ensure that we spread that wealth around. Once union membership started falling, the income divide grew. Since 1973 the drop in union membership accounts for a full third of the growth of wage inequality among men, according to a recent study by scholars at Harvard and the University of Washington. Today, the income gap is larger than anything we've seen since before the Great Depression.

In fact, it was during the Great Depression that our nation struck a grand compromise to finally soften for its citizens the harshness of industrial capitalism. It was a bargain that had been in the works since the late 19th century, and we hammered out the details throughout the post-World War II period. America's citizens never got the kinds of universal health care programs, job insurance or wage guarantees that benefited European workers. Instead, we won very basic economic security through Social Security and, eventually, Medicare. Plus we won the government's assurance that if we voted in a union election, the government would give legal backing to our efforts to win greater economic security from our employers.

However, too few of us were ever able to grab onto this economic life boat. It turns out that it is difficult to form a union, and employers have shrewdly upped their resistance over the decades. Employers routinely fire, harass and threaten workers who want to form unions, and U.S. labor law is too weak to stop them, according to Kate Bronfenbrenner at Cornell University. In fact, in 2000 Human Rights Watch declared that U.S. workers have effectively lost the freedom to form a union. However, labor law reform does not seem to be in the Obama administration forecast for the second term.

So, if not unions, then what's the new plan? What's the new institutional framework we will use to balance people's needs with those of corporations? If we're going to effectively scrap our nation's method of broad economic redistribution, what will we replace it with? A near 100-year low in unionization rates isn't just labor's problem. It's a problem for anyone who does not want to see U.S. economic inequality shred our nation's social fabric.

Lane Windham is a PhD candidate in U.S. History at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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