How Unions Fight for the Economic Security of Nonmembers

Source: Jake Rosenfeld, On Labor blog, April 1, 2014

A common narrative of organized labor portrays unions as self-interested organizations focused solely on preserving their members’ prerogatives. Such a perspective ignores the various ways in which unions have fought and continue to fight for the economic security of nonmembers, as well as members. For example, unions have provided the organizational and financial resources behind the numerous minimum wage campaigns, fast food worker actions, and other high-profile battles to raise the living standards of low-wage workers in the U.S. These efforts follow decades of other political and economic fights by unions to reduce poverty in the U.S. Historically, unions have played a vital role in supporting the most vulnerable, despite the fact that very few union members were then, or are now, themselves poor.

Yet even as organizations acting in their own self-interest, unions can still benefit non-members. How so? By the late 1940s, the labor movement had organized roughly a third of all nonfarm workers in the U.S., including such major industries as auto and steel. With that high level of density, many industry leaders were organized companies. What that meant was that many non-union firms matched the pay scales and benefit packages of their unionized competitors. …

…. the channels through which unions influenced non-union workers’ pay – either by establishing general wage norms mimicked by non-union competitors, or through the threat of unionization – have been nearly shut. It used to be different. A powerful labor movement operating in its own self-interest once restrained inequality and provided for broad-based prosperity simply by fulfilling its core mission: providing for its members. ….