Category Archives: Labor Unions

Labor Unions and Democracy: A Long View

Source: Rosemary Feurer, Labor Studies Journal, OnlineFirst, Published February 28, 2022
(subscription required)

From the abstract:
This essay historicizes some of Stephen Ashby’s findings, and elaborates on a thesis that union democracy is weak in the United States because capitalist opposition was so strong in a formative stage of union development. It introduces a brief survey of the first major U.S. industrial union, the United Mine Workers of America, to show that leadership cordoned off more radical alternatives in service to capital and to middle class and political operatives influence. It introduces a brief survey of the first major industrial union, the United Mine Workers to show that leadership cordoned off more radical alternatives in service to capital and to middle class and political operatives influence. Union leadership responded to that challenge with highly centralized control that blocked more democratic and struggle-based unionism. This had long term consequences through the next insurgency the Congress of Industrial Organizations. These historic influences are operative in the present, when workers seek power to build a counter to the growing inequality of wealth.

Stephen Ashby’s survey and interviews sharpen our understanding of the relationship between democracy and leadership in labor unions. Labor historians are trained to discernagency of workers, but in this survey, we see the tensions between workers’ agency, democracy, and leadership. Can workers make their unions more fully their own? Why should they? As I read many of the interviewee comments in the essay, I was struck with how much they connected to past struggles for democracy. While our workplaces have changed, the same questions of the relationship between union leaders and workers resonate.


Union Democracy in Today’s Labor Movement
Source: Steven K. Ashby, Labor Studies Journal, OnlineFirst, Published November 17, 2021
(subscription required)

From the introduction:
Any discussion of union democracy should begin with the obvious: labor unions are the most important vehicle to defend workers’ rights in the world. The world would be a far better place if every worker who wanted to could, without fear, join a labor union. Unions negotiate better wages and benefits than comparable non-union workers receive. Unions bring some element of democracy into an otherwise undemocratic workplace where the boss has unlimited power. A union grievance procedure brings a version of the Bill of Rights’ sixth amendment into the workplace—a worker accused of doing something wrong has due process rights.

Unions advocate values in the workplace such as justice, fairness, safety, and respect. Polls show that around half of American workers would join a union if they were free to do so—four and a half times the number who are currently members.1 Over the past century, unions have fought for every U.S. law benefitting workers. As well, unions are one of the most democratic institutions in the U. S., and unions are among the most interracial organizations in the U.S.2

Yet American unions are not perfect models of democracy. While all unions have constitutions and by-laws that outline democratic procedures, there is a tremendous range of democracy within the labor movement. The bulk of labor unions are somewhere on a spectrum between completely democratic, member-driven, transparent unions, and bureaucratic, top-down, secretive unions with no member involvement. Democracy is a goal. Democracy is not something a union achieves, congratulates itself, and then forgets about. Democracy, in a country or in a labor union, is not achieved by just passing good laws or rules. No set of rules, no constitution, no by-laws, and no elections guarantee union democracy. Democracy is achieved by the continual struggle to maintain it and to expand it. Democracy is maintained by the people holding elected leaders accountable for their actions.

Union Democracy, Union Bureaucracy, and the Left

Source: Victor G. Devinatz, Labor Studies Journal, OnlineFirst, Published February 24, 2022
(subscription required)

From the abstract:
To have healthy union democracy, it is essential for the Left to be active in unions. Leftist unions are more democratic than non-leftist unions on all measures of union democracy including the absence of union corruption, the quantity of union factions, the presence of grassroots militancy, and union member participation in social movement unionism and community unionism. Additionally, although union democracy is associated with union effectiveness, restrictions on union democracy and decisions implemented by the union bureaucracy might be advantageous to the union as an organization in certain situations. If the survival of the union as an organization is at stake, it will be necessary for the union bureaucracy to make decisions, independent of rank-and-file union members. Although potentially denoting an infringement on union democracy, such decisions might aid the union as an organization, especially with the existence of a progressive union bureaucracy.

Does Union Canvassing Affect Voter Turnout Under Conditions of Political Constraint? Empirical Evidence from Illinois

Source: Weihao Li, J. Ryan Lamare, Robert Bruno, Labor Studies Journal, OnlineFirst, Published February 16, 2022
(subscription required)

From the abstract:
The positive effects of union canvassing on individual-level union member voter turnout within union-friendly environments have been well documented. Yet, whether unions increase turnout among their membership under constrained circumstances has remained unexamined. Furthermore, there is little consensus on whether union canvassing effects are generalizable to populations with heterogeneous political attributes and individual characteristics. This paper identifies the mechanisms that might explain how union canvassing can be effective under conditions characterized by anti-union legislative actions, adversarial judicial decisions, and right-wing populist rhetoric. We use canvassing and turnout data taken from the 2016 Democratic state and Cook County primary election in Illinois, and our results show that, despite constrained political circumstances relative to those found in previous studies, union canvassing achieved positive union membership turnout effects. This study also tests the moderating effects of individual political attributes (ideology and vote propensity) and voter characteristics (income and ethnicity). The most salient finding is that the effects are more potent for ideologically conservative registered Democrat voters, highlighting the imperative of recognizing the ideological heterogeneity among union members and suggesting specific resource allocation strategies under politically constrained conditions.

Unions and Inequality over the Twentieth Century: New Evidence from Survey Data

Source: Henry S Farber, Daniel Herbst, Ilyana Kuziemko, Suresh Naidu, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 136, Issue 3, August 2021
(subscription required)

From the abstract:
U.S. income inequality has varied inversely with union density over the past 100 years. But moving beyond this aggregate relationship has proven difficult, in part because of limited microdata on union membership prior to 1973. We develop a new source of microdata on union membership dating back to 1936, survey data primarily from Gallup (N ≈ 980,000), to examine the long-run relationship between unions and inequality. We document dramatic changes in the demographics of union members: when density was at its mid-century peak, union households were much less educated and more nonwhite than other households, whereas pre-World War II and today they are more similar to nonunion households on these dimensions. However, despite large changes in composition and density since 1936, the household union premium holds relatively steady between 10 and 20 log points. We use our data to examine the effect of unions on income inequality. Using distributional decompositions, time series regressions, state-year regressions, as well as a new instrumental-variable strategy based on the 1935 legalization of unions and the World War II–era War Labor Board, we find consistent evidence that unions reduce inequality, explaining a significant share of the dramatic fall in inequality between the mid-1930s and late 1940s.

COVID-Related Labor Arbitration Awards in the United States and Canada: A Survey and Comparative Analysis

Source: Richard A. Bales, Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2021

From the abstract:
The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-21 has changed working conditions for millions of Americans and Canadians quickly and dramatically. Employers responded by requiring employees to quarantine, implementing workplace COVID policies, disciplining employees who violated those policies, changing work schedules, cancelling leaves or vacations, and furloughing or laying off employees. Unions have challenged many of these actions, raising a variety of novel issues that are now being resolved through labor arbitration. This article surveys those labor arbitration awards and then comparatively analyzes the awards from Canada and the United States.

Democrats Don’t Grasp That Unions Can Transform the Electorate

Source: Hamilton Nolan, In These Times, June 8, 2021

Unions are machines for producing people who wouldn’t be satisfied with Joe Manchin’s obstinance.

Our political discussions often focus on how our side can seize an advantage in the context of a sharply divided electorate. Political parties try to motivate their voters and depress voters on the other side — elections are contested for tiny slices of ​“moderates” or ​“undecided voters,” groups that grow ever smaller as polarization increases. But what if there was a tool that could actually transform the way that people think, as voters and as citizens in a functioning democracy? There is such a tool: unions. America in general, and the Democratic Party in particular, needs to start taking the transformative power of unions more seriously.

Worker Power and Voice in the Pandemic Response

Source: Sharon Block and Benjamin Sachs, Clean Slate for Worker Power, July 2021

From the summary:
Our country is wracked by two urgent crises – the COVID-19 pandemic and the plague of systemic racism.

COVID-19 presents grave challenges to all of us, but it poses particular – and, in many cases, life-threatening – challenges to working people. Moreover, the costs of the pandemic are being borne disproportionately by low-wage workers, a population made up primarily of women and workers of color. As they work to keep the economy moving despite the pandemic, these workers are being asked to put their lives on the line in ways that are both unacceptable and unnecessary.

Indeed, as the economy reopens, more and more workers will be put in harm’s way. Unless, that is, something fundamental changes about the way we approach worker voice and power.

In this issue brief, we offer a set of recommendations designed to empower workers so that they are better positioned to cope with the ravages of COVID-19, keep themselves and their families safe, and build a more equitable economy than the one the pandemic shut down.

There is strong bipartisan support for the recommendations we are suggesting. A large majority of likely voters support giving workers a formal voice in setting health and safety standards. Only 19% of likely voters said they opposed these reforms. View the full polling results here.

As with the original Clean Slate report, the recommendations here are designed so that they apply to all workers regardless of whether the law classifies them as employees, independent contractors, or otherwise outside of traditional labor law’s protection. And a central premise of the Clean Slate for Worker Power project is that any attempt to empower workers must begin with the effort to make labor law, and the labor movement, fully inclusive of workers of color – workers who have faced exclusion from the start.

When law empowers all workers to demand equitable treatment – including safe and healthy working conditions – workers can build the kind of nation we all deserve.

The enormous impact of eroded collective bargaining on wages

Source: Lawrence Mishel, Economic Policy Institute, April 8, 2021

From the summary:
A major factor depressing wage growth for middle earners and driving the growth of wage inequality over the last four decades has been the erosion of collective bargaining. Indeed, the only factor more responsible for weak wage growth for the typical worker is the excessive unemployment perpetrated by central bank policymakers’ high interest rate policies and fiscal austerity. The share of workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement fell from 27.0% in 1979 to just 11.6% in 2019 (Hirsch and Macpherson 2020). The erosion of collective bargaining has been especially harmful to men’s wages because men were far more likely than women to be unionized in 1979 (when 31.5% of men were covered by collective bargaining versus 18.8% of women). Thus men had more to lose from the subsequent attack on unions and collective bargaining.3 Rebuilding collective bargaining is a necessary component of any policy agenda to reestablish robust wage growth for the vast majority of workers in the United States, and broader unionization would lessen racial inequities and benefit women at least as much as men.

Public Sector Unions Mean Middle-Class Jobs for Black Workers

Source: Hayley Brown, Dean Baker, CEPR, February 25, 2021

Government jobs have been an important source of economic mobility for Black workers and their families for many years. The federal government was an early adopter of anti-discrimination provisions, and today about a fifth of federal workers are Black. This includes those employed by the United States Postal Service, which provided well-paying jobs and career pathways to formerly enslaved people well before the rest of government, and in 2020 employed just under a fifth of Black federal workers. State and local governments have similarly emerged as wellsprings of relatively stable and well-paying employment for Black workers and pensions for Black retirees. The public sector’s legacy as a path to the middle class for the Black community persists today; government workers are disproportionately Black, and the pay gap between Black workers and white workers is smaller in the public sector than in the private sector.

The public sector is also an important source of union jobs for Black workers. Our analysis of 2020 data from the Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Group indicates that the unionization rate for Black workers in the public sector is quadruple the unionization rate for Black workers in the private sector, and unionized public sector workers account for a larger share of the Black workforce than they do of the white workforce. This matters because research has shown that Black workers who are members of a union or covered by a union contract enjoy considerable earnings and benefit advantages compared to their nonunion counterparts.

Bargaining for Better Labor Journalism: How The Wave of Unionizing In Media Transforms How Unions Are Covered

Source: Hannah Finnie, OnLabor blog, February 26, 2021

…While not every person in digital media who’s experienced unionizing becomes, like Kelly, a labor reporter overnight, it’s hard to imagine that the effects of being in a union have no impact on their work. After all, while unions are about benefits and wages, they’re also about worker dignity, principles that can inform more than just what your paycheck looks like. What happens to labor coverage when there are thousands of Kim Kellys out there? Thousands of people who now know what it’s like to unionize and have a large (albeit constrained) platform through their media outlet? What does that shift mean for media labor coverage?…